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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1972) Part Two

8. The Getaway

After the non-performance of “Junior Bonner,” both Steve McQueen and Sam Peckinpah needed a hit. McQueen's next film was to be “The Getaway,” based on the classic crime novel by Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally attached to direct but left the project before filming began. Eager to work with Peckinpah again, McQueen would offer the director the script, which had been re-written by Walter Hill. Filming would begin only a few weeks after “Junior Bonner” wrapped, the two projects being released within the same year. While critics weren't impressed, audiences loved it. “The Getaway” would be a big hit, eventually becoming one of the highest grossing movies of 1972.

Professional thief Doc McCoy is serving a ten year prison sentence. His wife, Carol, sleeps with a politically influential crime boss, Jack Benyon, to ensure Doc's early release. In return, Doc is expected to rob a bank for Benyon. After an attempted double-crossing, Doc and Carol kill Benyon. They go on the road with the million dollars they stole from the bank, headed for the Mexican border. Soon, the couple are pursued by the cops and Benyon's enforcers. There also being chased by Ruby, the only other survivor of the robbery, who is determined to settle his personal score with Doc.

Though based on a novel from the fifties, “The Getaway” feels like a neo-noir befitting the seventies. It begins as a heist movie and observes the rules of that genre.  The robbers laid down a plan but it quickly goes wrong. There's plenty of double-crosses and back-stabbings after that. From that point on, “The Getaway” morphs into a road trip movie with an urgent and downbeat energy. The characters are on the road but it's an ugly journey. This, combined with the typically nihilistic Peckinpah violence, creates an atmosphere of existential grief. “The Getaway” is a movie where the character's action frequently feel morally bankrupt. The good guys are bad and the bad guys are really bad.

Based on what we know about its production history, it's easy to assume “The Getaway” was basically a work-for-hire job for Peckinpah. Yet Sam was supposedly a fan of Thompson's novel and the two's themes feed into each. “The Getaway” begins as something like a men-on-a-mission flick, though that quickly goes wrong. Like “The Wild Bunch” and “The Deadly Companions,” it's a story that begins with a bank robbery. With its story of revenge and outlaws on the run, it's not impossible to think of “The Getaway” as a western in disguise. It's even set in Texas, features a few cowboy hats, and concludes in Mexico. (Slim Pickins appears at the last minute too, as if to confirm the film's western roots.) I know it's a cliché to say every film is secretly a western but the shoe seems to fit especially well on this one.

For me, “The Getaway” is most successful as a thriller. From its earliest scenes, there's an uneasy atmosphere in the film. As they prepare the heist, you can already tell that the men around Doc are going to betray him. When this inevitably happens, the tension does not let up. Instead, the couple only encounters more inconveniences on their journey.  The occasional bursts of violence, explosive as they are, are only temporary releases. More screws are put to the two antiheroes, their trip growing nastier and uglier, and the tension does not abate. “The Getaway” is just as tense as “Straw Dogs” and maybe more downbeat at times.

Despite an at-times oppressively dark atmosphere, “The Getaway” is still most remembered as an action movie. It definitely features some surprisingly big action beats for the time. There's two surprisingly massive explosions early in the film, one occurring on the road. This proceeds a series of car stunts, Doc's vehicle weaving in and out of traffic and finally crashing into the patio of a home. It's not as impressive as the car chase in “Bullett” but it's still pretty cool. Doc's shotgun roars throughout the second half. A shoot-out begins at a drive-in restaurant, glass shattering and vehicles colliding. The film's climax is an increasingly bloody shoot-out in a crowded apartment, doors splintering and bodies flailing. The action is certainly viscerally directed and it's easy to see why it made an impression on audiences in 1972.

Sam's direction is a big contributor to the action scenes being so powerful. Naturally, he employs quite a bit of his trademark slow motion. Once again, this causes the moments of violence to make more of an impression on the viewer. Slow-mo car crashes or someone falling backwards from gun fire will never not look cool. Even when Doc turns his shotgun on a stationary police car, completely tearing it apart with the blast, Peckinpah slows down the point of impact. Of course, the director doesn't just do this because it's neat. The slow motion emphasizes the ultimate empty feeling behind the violence, the senselessness of the crimes, adding to “The Getaway's” grim tone.

The film's commercial success can likely be attributed to Steve McQueen's star power. As a performance, “The Getaway's” Doc is both similar and different to McQueen's previous roles. Similar in that, once again, he's playing a blue-eyed and stoic tough guy. His ability for violence and divisive action is hidden behind calm expressions and an effortless sense of cool. At the same time, Doc is far rougher than McQueen's usually heroic characters. He's an unabashed criminal. He's impulsive and, with the way he lashes out, even seemingly unhinged at times. There's even a scene where he slaps Carol around, revealing how rough he's truly capable of getting. It's interesting to see McQueen both subvert and play his star image straight so many times within the same movie.

No matter how rough he can get with her, the romance between McQueen's Doc and Ali MacGraw's Carol is another plus in the film's favor. McQueen and MacGraw, who was married to super-producer Robert Evans at the time, fell in love during filming. So their on-screen chemistry is genuine. It is not an easy love. When Doc discovers Carol slept with Benyon, his faith in her is shattered. The two spend quite a few scenes on-edge, uncertain of their future. However, they eventually reconcile. As ugly as “The Getaway's” world is, the couple's love is always depicted as something pure and good. This unashamed romantic side makes you willing to root for the couple, no matter how violent their actions make become.

“The Getaway” has a hell of a beginning. Everything leading up to the heist, and the immediate aftermath, is excellent. After that, once the titular getaway actually begins, the film's pacing becomes hugely uneven. There's exciting moments, like the destruction of the police car or the climatic shoot-out in the hotel. This contrast against scenes that drag badly. Like a long sequence where Doc and Carol hide inside a garbage truck for an entire night. Or another drawn-out scene where the money is stolen and Doc has to ride another train to retrieve it. In fact, there are way too many scenes of the protagonists sitting on trains or in cars, getting from one location to the next.

This odd pacing is most apparent in the film's bizarre subplot. Rudy survives being shot by Doc. He breaks into the home of a veterinarian and forces the man to tend to his wounds. At the same time, he seduces the doctor's younger wife. At this point, the three go on a road trip, following Doc and his money. Rudy and the girl, Fran, mess around and sleep together, while the doctor is tortured and forced to watch. Many of these scenes feel very long, such as a sequence of Rudy eating ribs in the car that quickly shifts from playful to violent. These scenes, with their casual brutality, just break up the flow of the story. I don't know why the film spends so much time on them.

Originally, Peckinpah commissioned his usual composer, Jerry Fielding, to provide the music for “The Getaway.” McQueen was unimpressed with Fielding's work and hired Quincy Jones to deliver a funkier score. Jones' soundtrack is eclectic. Harmonica is featured all throughout the movie, providing an odd and nostalgic energy to much of the music. The action scenes are often proceeded by a janglier and more funky bassline, giving a certain energy to these scenes. The most famous piece of music from the film seems to the reoccurring love theme, which is slower than most of the score and suggests just as much melancholy and romantic longing between the leads.

Production on “The Getaway” was – you might notice a trend by now – difficult. His alcoholism renewed, Peckinpah was frequently intoxicated during filming. This would lead to several conflicts with McQueen. During post-production, the star would re-edit the film to make himself look better. This is probably why the two never worked together again. Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil and critical rejection, the film's success would raise both McQueen and Peckinpah's boats. In time, “The Getaway” would be reevaluated as a classic crime flick and one of the best action films of the seventies. (That classic status would be confirmed when the film received a mediocre remake in 1994.) Though it's got some noticeable pacing problems, it's definitely an effective and entertaining film. [Grade: B]

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