The Getaway May 17, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , trackback
It’s not very popular to assert the opinion that The Getaway is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film. As just a casual Peckinpah admirer, I might be able to get away with it, but I know I’m skating on thin ice among the faithful. I can only imagine the dismissive reaction I’d have if someone called Sabrina their favorite Billy Wilder movie. It could be generational. Peckinpah’s films now feel very much like the product of a bygone era. They’ve influenced countless filmmakers, but show almost zero modernity in comparison to what’s come along this decade. His patience is not particularly in style nowadays. Yet, that laconic quality is part of why I appreciate The Getaway so much. The film takes its time from start to finish. It’s an action movie with very little action.
As far as movie stars who understood subtlety in the ’60s and ’70s, the discussion begins and ends with Steve McQueen. The idea of him overacting is inconceivable. Detractors might view this as an emptiness, but I’d beg to differ. While the method style of acting gained notoriety for overdoing emotions to the point of fake realism, McQueen didn’t choose this particular path. His style was far more contemplative. A look from McQueen could eliminate half a page of dialogue. I’d love to have seen what Jean-Pierre Melville would have done with him. Instead, we know what Peckinpah was able to achieve while working with the actor both here and on Junior Bonner, two of McQueen’s four or five best films. In The Getaway, he’s Doc McCoy, who suffers the remedial prison life until his wife (Ali MacGraw) pays a porn-like visit to a man with bureaucratic pull named Benyon (Ben Johnson).
Even MacGraw’s terrible acting works here in this particular scene. She’s so stilted, so uncomfortable, that the character inherits a blank slate of determination at any cost. With Doc out of prison, the next step is to further appease Benyon by robbing a bank with two of his thugs. The title of the film obviously alludes to the aftermath and not the actual heist, instructive because Peckinpah handles the robbery with an uninterested coolness. It’s quick, messy, and little more than a slight curve in the road. A half million is siphoned out, but McCoy’s unwanted partners become thorns. One is killed and one kills. Rudy (Al Lettieri) somehow survives after ambushing Doc, whose lack of trust saves him, but still fails to eliminate his greedy cohort. And we’re off on a chase where Mr. and Mrs. McCoy transport the bag of money around Texas, losing it in the process, before realizing Rudy and his new traveling companions (Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers) are just a few steps behind.
McQueen and MacGraw fell for each other while making the movie, and even if you can’t really tell much of anything from looking at her face, McQueen hardly hides his attraction. The naive outrage he has upon learning that she had negotiated his release from prison with her body plays like natural hurt. His initial confusion after re-entering the outside world and sitting beside MacGraw in bed is similarly realistic. In McQueen’s best movies, including the two he did with Peckinpah, the viewer can just see an uncommon intelligence at work behind his eyes. Never one to relish much dialogue, the actor’s subdued performances have rarely been given their due. I miss that style of underacting. It rewards audiences willing to actually pay attention to what’s on the screen instead of bathroom and obesity break pausing. Much is made of McQueen’s enormous style and charisma (and deservedly so), but, in the right role, he really was a terrific actor.
His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.
In a very logical sense, The Getaway is framed around a classic film noir plot. Several things negate it being a true noir (most obviously - when it was made, being filmed in color, and the ending), but the film’s structure of the protagonist being released from prison and subsequently taking part in an imperfect bank robbery is prototypical of the style. Indeed, McQueen would have been absolutely perfect as a film noir hero. This film is probably the closest he ever came to making what might be considered a neonoir, but the actor’s ingrown ability to play characters who seem to place an emphasis on survival over all else could have fit ever so neatly a couple of decades earlier. Doc’s relationship with the MacGraw character is both reminiscent of a femme fatale and a trustworthy moll. The actress’s vacuous inability to register on any level could only possibly be endearing in a film like this, where understated minimalism is applauded next to a vast landscape of unwritten Texas possibility. The less she says the more believable she seems.
It’s a bit absurd to try and figure out where the McCoys fit in among these criminals. Their almost total refusal to disrupt some fictional code of crime ethics prevents the viewer from harboring any ill will and McQueen’s charm tips the scales in his favor with spades. This overwhelming glamorization is a little disturbing for those who enjoy sleeping well at night. Doc is an ex-con bank robber who’s completely let off the hook by Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill (working from Jim Thompson’s book). McQueen probably knew the audience would cheer him on and want his character to experience crisis without consequences. He’s right, of course. The thought of Doc receiving any kind of comeuppance would seem to be entirely foreign in lieu of how he’s portrayed throughout the film. These are glaring imperfections in a film that never makes claim of being anything but a fine entry in the McQueen legend. In that regard, it’s nearly flawless. In other facets, maybe less so. I tend to be forgiving to a fault with The Getaway because of its casual likability. Peckinpah was a director-for-hire and McQueen was out to further his legacy of cool, but I turn my head and forgive the blemishes.
This most recent watch of the film was on HD-DVD and it should be mentioned that an additional featurette about Jerry Fielding’s rejected score is here despite not being on the standard DVD release. Also absent but present on the high-definition release, I believe, are the bank robbery sequence with Fielding’s score and the entire film with his isolated score as an audio track. Quincy Jones scored the film as released and it’s mostly excellent, but Fielding was a close collaborator with Peckinpah up to this point and his contribution is an interesting addition. Certainly this hi-def version is superior to the regular DVD release because it contains additional supplemental material. However, I will add that skin tones are quite red, almost distractingly so early on, but detail and clarity are predictably excellent and better than the DVD.