We are now in the 64th year of this Hollywood Century project, stretching all the way back to movies which were made in a time before narrative cinema had stumbled into such essential innovations as close-ups, shot-reverse shot, or camera movement. The earliest years of the Hollywood feature film found an aesthetic that frequently does not resemble modern filmmaking much at all. And still, 64 entries on, there hasn't been a film in this series that feels so much like it was made by a totally alien culture as 1977's Smokey and the Bandit, a movie that's barely older than I am, but feels as divorced from any lived experience that I have personally witnessed as a novel from feudal Japan. Hell, more than that - at least the feudal Japanese movie would announce itself as being stylistically and sociologically removed from the present in a fairly clear, immediate way, while Smokey and the Bandit insistently resembles a completely routine late-'70s action comedy, made as the aesthetic lessons from the New Hollywood Cinema broke free of the limitations (if that's the word) of realistic human experience, and started to show up in junky genre fare. But it acts like nothing routine at all.

The film was made during the golden age of CB radio usage on the U.S. highway system, a golden age that it helped in no small way to define: for the truly exceptional fact of Smokey and the Bandit is not that it's a weird time capsule of a niche culture whose moment in the sun has passed. Films like that are a dime a dozen: surfer and biker movies in the '60s, proto-rock and juvenile delinquent movies in the '50s, movies about horrible coked-up yuppies that are somehow implied to be remotely admirable in the '80s. Fad movies come and go. But Smokey and the Bandit wasn't just a fad movie, it was an enormous hit, one of the literal handful of movies to have surpassed the $100 million mark at the U.S. domestic box office by the end of '77; it was, in fact, the third-highest grossing movie in U.S. history at that point, if my math does not fail me. Little subcultural niche movies don't do that kind of business without, in the process, turning that subculture into the macroculture.

And yet, the culture that Smokey and the Bandit depicts with such joyful comic enthusiasm and ethnographic precision doesn't seem to have done much of anything to influence later generations. For a brief time, thousands upon thousands of normal workaday drivers installed cumbersome radio rigs into their cars, and used artificial names to speak made-up, punning argot as they swapped tales with other drivers in the region about where to eat and where to watch out for cops. There is nothing in modern America that resembles this in any fashion, though at least things like cell phones and Foursquare make the basic idea of it seem moderately like behavior that contemporary people indulge in. For the great span of time between the early '80s and the middle '00s, CB culture had no obvious descendants whatsoever, a rare life-changing, nation-defining fad that winked out of existence like a ghost.

This is, in truth, most of what gives Smokey and the Bandit its contemporary fascination, far beyond its extremely modest charms as an action comedy. It's a window into a fully fleshed-out world with rules and social mores that we pick up as we go along, without explanation (one character is presented as the untutored innocent and audience surrogate, but there aren't actually any moments where she serves as the vessel for an exposition dump), as suffused with meaningful inner logic as the most satisfyingly complex science fiction story; except that the world here existed in mostly the form its presented within the movie at the time the film was made. Nothing short of a documentary could do as good a job of bringing to life a society like Smokey and the Bandit does, and it's virtually impossible to imagine a documentary from the late '70s that was still this watchable. For while it is corny and old-fashioned and suffers from a lead performance mired in attitudes that haven't survived the passage of decades even a little bit, the film moves with unstinting speed and brio, the result of scenarist, legendary stuntman, and first-time director Hal Needham cutting away every molecule of the film that couldn't answer the question, "does this contribute in a material way to the free-for-all anarchic spirit that this movie so badly wants to represent?" The one thing you cannot possibly say about the 95 breathless minutes of Smokey and the Bandit is that any of them lag even a little bit.

The film is your basic cross-country chase: famed trucker-outlaw "The Bandit" (Burt Reynolds) has been hired for an extravagant sum of money by 2014 standards, to say nothing of 1977 standards, by Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick), to furnish the liquid refreshments for a huge to-do he's throwing in Atlanta. Big Enos and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams), we find, have made a game out of trying to trip up the Bandit, but he's just too goddamn good at long-haul trucking to get caught by man, policeman, or the laws of physics. Which makes him the perfect choice to cart back Big Enos's treasure: 400 cases of contraband beer. Not just contraband beer. Motherfucking Coors. Which is as big a reason why Smokey and the Bandit feels so wildly alien as all the wall-to-wall CB slang: $80,000 for 400 cases of one of the worst goddamn beers available in North America? In 1977, of course, it was a different story: Coors couldn't be sold east of Texas and Colorado, making it a special treat for Easterners. But I do not suppose it was any less shitty. Hinging such an enormous romp on the quest to acquire beer that most of us wouldn't spend $5 to have someone pick it up from across the street is hardly the film's fault, but it does absolutely contribute to its ineffable weirdness.

Anyway, the run from Atlanta to Texarkana and back in 24 hours is a daunting prospect, but the Bandit is a brave soul, and he strikes up a deal with his good buddy Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed, the original choice to play the Bandit, and the offscreen singer of the film's numerous trucking-themed country songs) to help him in this great odyssey. The trip west is quick and easy; the Bandit and Snowman have barely any problem loading up the truck Snowman is driving and remaining a full hour ahead of schedule. But just after they turn around, the Bandit - running interference in a black Pontiac Trans Am a few minutes ahead of Snowman - picks up a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field), without stopping to ask what she's running from. And this is a deadly mistake, since she's running away from her fiancé Junior (Mike Henry), the dimwitted cop son of the burly, loudmouthed Texas sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), who takes insults to his family very gravely, and dedicates himself with Ahab-like intensity to finding the sumbitch CB jockey who spirited Carrie away. Cue a multi-state race between the Bandit, the many legitimate highway cops he pisses off on the way - "Smokeys", owing to their Smokey the Bear-like hats (slang not explained in the film, though it's one of the best-known elements of CB argot) - and the raging, well out of his jurisdiction Justice, with Bandit besting his opponents with the ease of a Warner Bros. cartoon character for whom performing comic anarchy is a source of relaxation as much as anything else.

As an evocation of a particular moment in time, and a depiction of the sprawling "everybody is family, and everybody HATES the police" attitude of the CB-using community, Smokey and the Bandit never ceases to be captivating and fascinating. As a movie, it's kind of not great at all, actually. Needham keeps things moving briskly, as he and his many co-writers fill up the screenplay with bright, fizzy dialogue and nonsensical happenings, but the whole film quickly adopts a one-size-fits-all zaniness that ceases to be at all fun to watch long before the halfway point, let alone the ending. There are individual shots that are impressive either because they are lovely in and of themselves (the opening image of a truck's exhaust vents and CB antennae, suitably mythic in silhouette against the dawn sky), or because they portray impressive car tricks - there's a jump across a bridge that's one of the more impressive car stunts I have seen, especially given that Needham and crew were rather desperately making this all on what amounted to a shoestring budget, once Reynold's salary had been taken out. But mostly, the filmmaking is of an entirely functional sort, the kind where the filmmakers are plainly relieved to have usable footage at all, and asking for sophisticated, creative visuals is plainly beyond the pale.

The bigger thing, anyway, is the film's comedy, which is unquestionably one of those "you get it or you don't" things. I don't. But lots of people in the '70s did, back when Burt Reynolds was one of the world's biggest movie stars. I am certain that readers of a certain age can explain what that moment in time felt like, but contrasted with most of the big stars of the past, even the ones like Norma Shearer or Charles Boyer who didn't remain famous once their moment in the sun was over, but are still basically charismatic and appealing when you watch their movies today, Reynolds's particular brand of rugged American masculinity simply has not aged well. Not even a tiny bit like Clint Eastwood, who was the other most popular male movie stars at the same time as Reynolds, and whose vintage and newer films alike both exude magnetism. Reynolds, I find, is simply smug and off-putting: wearing a perpetually cocked attitude, delivering every single one of his damn lines with the same self-amused lilt like he's interested solely in tossing off quips and posing for the camera, and creating even the vaguest semblance of a dramatic character not as much. Some of the lines, admittedly, are strong enough to survive his delivery: but wit isn't the order of the day as much as broad regional jokes, the kind that haven't aged that well themselves, unless you find that painting all Southerners as bellicose, redneck fuckwits is t'riffic comedy.

In defense of the redneck humor, I have to say that Gleason's commitment to it is a really incredible thing of beauty: his puffy, sweating performance of Justice, a character he took a very active role in re-shaping and fleshing out, is miraculously physical and fearless, even if its in service to some very dumb jokes that feel like a cascade of parodies of the "failure to communicate" moment from Cool Hand Luke. But he's a character that, once seen, isn't easily forgotten, and that has to count for something.

The other huge positive is Sally Field; or, at least, Field's chemistry with Reynolds, which was real enough that they started dating in real life. There's nothing inherently special about her fevered performance of a talkative, neurotic ex-dancer with a surprisingly impenetrable lack of awareness of what's going around her (she name-drops Stephen Sondheim at one point, at a time when he was, I think, still an impressively obscure cultural touchstone); but her bubble madness in contrast to Reynolds's effortlessly laid-back simplicity turns into something rather special and fun to watch, almost in despite itself. They're a genuinely captivating odd couple, two massively different energies colliding and moving past each other in some surprising and off-kilter ways, and when the film's comedy sags (which is often) and its action slows (which is less often, but it happens), there's always the two actors pinging off of each other to keep the film going.

Is that enough for $126 million? It certainly must have seemed that way to 1977 audiences, when that was still a fake-sounding amount of money (according to Box Office Mojo, it adjusts to $463 million in 2014 dollars, a fucking psychotic haul for a frivolous action comedy made on about one-twentieth of its ultimate gross). I can't imagine something that laid-back and low-key making even that much today, unadjusted; perhaps we are just a less laid-back people, and less inclined to helping out strangers just because we like the sound of their voice. At any rate, saying that the film struck a chord isn't the half of it: it defined a moment in pop culture history with a thoroughness that only a couple of dozen films ever have. Some movies do that, and become legendary, deathless classics. Some movies do that, and become bizarre half-forgotten little curios for later generations to study with puzzled delight. Well, I do find Smokey in the Bandit puzzling; and in truth, I find it delightful too, even though that has almost nothing to do with the reasons its makers intended that a viewer should be delighted.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1977
-George Lucas convinces 20th Century Fox to take a bath on an overpriced space movie called Star Wars, for which he gamely retains the toy rights in lieu of begging for a paycheck for his weird little pet project. The results cause him to retire from directing for 22 years
-Disney's The Rescuers brings a glimmer of light back to American children's animation after a decade of some of the worst cartoons ever made
-George Burns plays God and folk-western singer-songwriter John Denver plays anything at all in Carl Reiner's Oh, God!

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1977
-Larisa Shepitko, whose premature death has gotten no less tragic since last we mentioned it, makes her glorious final film, the WWII fable The Ascent, in the Soviet Union
-In Great Britain, Eon Productions finally gives up pretending, and just makes James Bond a fantasy hero in The Spy Who Loved Me
-Hans-Jürgen Syberberg makes Hitler: A Film From Germany (West Germany, to be precise), an experimental biopic and coming-to-terms that runs all of 442 minutes