A Movie A Week: THE GETAWAY (1972) Punch it, baby!
Published at: June 23, 2009, 1:57 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
I need to get this out of the way up front or else it stands a large chance of derailing this review.
1972 Ali MacGraw – hubba-hubba-hubba – ahhhhhh-ooooooggaaaaa! Honk honk honk! Pant-pant-pant, drool, eye-balls-popping, heart-a-pitter-patting… le sigh.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at Sam Peckinpah’s crime flick THE GETAWAY starring Steve McQueen, Ali Mac… Mac… Hottie-tehsex-grrrrooowwwlll-bark-bark-bark… MacGraw…, Ben Johnson (who we follow over from last week’s RIO GRANDE), Sally Struthers and a great, great special appearance by the wonderful and sorely missed screen personality Slim Pickens.
I’m a big Peckinpah fan. The way the dude handles violence is unparalleled. It’s raw and somehow both realistically brutal and operatic. Peckinpah and Verhoeven are the two reigning kings of squibs.
This has been a film I’ve been looking forward to getting to for a long, long time. Not only is it Peckinpah, but Peckinpah paired once again with Steve McQueen. Their previous collaboration, JUNIOR BONNER, is one of Peckinpah’s most underseen pieces. It’s not as entertaining as this film or his more popular works, but it’s a fascinating character study with a low-key, multi-faceted performance from McQueen.
In this film McQueen plays Doc McCoy… who is oddly enough not a doctor and just seems to have been named Doc by his mother as no one treats it as a nickname throughout the film.
McCoy is in prison when we first meet him, up for parole. In fact, this film would make a killer double feature with THE BLUES BROTHERS… which is in no way similar except for the framework. Anyway, the hearing doesn’t go well, an aged Ben Johnson on the parole board spends the entire time smirking at McQueen.
For the first 12 minutes of the movie McQueen doesn’t talk, just reacts. In fact I found it a pleasant surprise to watch Peckinpah play a bit with the first reel of the film, which jumps around in time. It’s a very experimental segment of the film with a lot of voiceovers as we see glimpses of McQueen’s daily life in the pen, sometimes cutting back to the person talking, sometimes cutting to the events prior to or after the parole hearing.
MacGraw is Doc’s long suffering wife, Carol, who comes to visit him after our time-skipping opening. He speaks here for the first time, a curt one sentence that he’ll do whatever Jack Benyon wants.
Benyon being Ben Johnson. It’s pretty clear that what Johnson wants is MacGraw (who could blame him?). Whatever transpires, McQueen is out. He’s told by a jackass guard as the gate opens that he’ll be back.
Sure enough, Jack Benyon’s other term for pulling strings ensuring Doc’s release is that he run a heist for him, the target being a mom and pop bank in a small Texas town. McQueen has no option, but doesn’t seem too concerned about reentering the criminal world. The only thing he’s wary about is that Benyon is forcing his own people into the crew.
Those people include the sleazy-looking Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri of THE GODFATHER and MCQ fame) and Bo Hopkins, a Peckinpah regular and staple of Southern movies of the era, like WHITE LIGHTNING.
As you can probably tell from the title, the movie isn’t so much about the robbery, but what happens after. The robbery goes well, actually, but as is common-place in these kinds of stories there are double-crosses, back-stabbing and all other such rudeness that takes place when a bag filled with $500,000 in tax-free cash is up for grabs.
McQueen is a cool cat, man. He takes everything in stride, keeps calm and tries to make the right choice at every turn, even if that puts him at risk. There’s only one scene where he loses control and that’s because he is hurt by the one person that he let past his outer defenses.
I mentioned that the post-robbery scene is filled with double-crosses… You have Al Lettieri taking out everybody in his group and he tries for McQueen and MacGraw, but is too slow. McQueen delivers the money to the big boss man and finds a gun in his back, held by MacGraw. It’s actually a really shocking moment, I didn’t see it coming. But there’s too much history between them and MacGraw makes the right choice, forcing them to run for Mexico from not only Benyon’s kin, but also from Lettieri who really wants his damn money.
After McQueen and MacGraw get to a relatively safe area, she starts trying to explain what happened only to be interrupted by a slap to the face. A real slap to the face. I have read that this was unscripted and I believe it. The look of hurt and shock on MacGraw’s face is about as real as it can get. Then she’s pummeled with more slaps as McQueen, face set, makes it quite clear how pissed he is.
I’m in the “you never hit a woman for any reason” camp in reality, but this isn’t reality. For these characters, this scene represents punishment and penance. It’s raw emotion expressed violently and Peckinpah forces us to watch, not cutting or moving the camera in any way.
There is a scene later where the annoying Southern Belle twit played by Sally Struthers gets a knuckle sandwich courtesy of McQueen, but that’s an audience satisfaction moment, not as important to the complex character relationship between MacGraw and McQueen.
This is a good time to step away and look off-camera for a bit. If you’ve read Robert Evan’s THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE or seen the documentary based on it you’ll know that the Paramount exec. was married to MacGraw and that he lost her to Steve McQueen on this picture… which he produced.
If nothing else in this picture worked it’s just fascinating watching the chemistry between McQueen and MacGraw develop. You can see the budding love ingrained in every frame. I don’t remember the specifics on how Evans found out about the affair, but I can’t imagine he saw these dailies and couldn’t see there was trouble in Whoville.
The film splits into two narratives once MacGraw and McQueen go on the run. There’s their story and then Lettieri’s story as he recovers from his altercation with McQueen and forces his doctor (Jack Dodson) and the doctor’s dumb bimbo wife (Struthers) as his personal entourage as he tries to beat the McCoys to El Paso.
The B story is just wrong. Dodson just watches as his dumb, flirty wife makes eyes, then makes much more with Lettieri. There’s also a scene in a car involving lots of BBQ that is that story-line’s equivalent of the McQueen/MacGraw slap-happy scene. It goes very violent very fast.
When everything converges in El Paso that’s when Peckinpah really steps up to the plate and says “This is one of my movies and you’re gonna damn well fucking know it!” McQueen gets a pump action shotgun and boy does the dude know how to use it.
The last 25 minutes is everything you ever want in a Peckinpah flick. The action choreography and character beats are never better than in a grade A Peckinpah film, which is where this film falls.
The only thing I didn’t really dig about the movie was the completely out of place score by Quincy Jones. Not surprisingly that was a last minute change, at the demand of McQueen and the light jazz just doesn’t fit at all. In fact, it’s distracting at times. There’s an option on the DVD to watch the film with the original Jerry Fielding (WILD BUNCH, STRAW DOGS, OUTLAW JOSEY WALES) score. I’m gonna have to give the movie another viewing with that track on. It can only make the movie better.
I mentioned Slim Pickens at the start of the review and he’s great in the movie. I was becoming more and more saddened as the movie went on and he didn’t pop up, thinking that it must be a small cameo instead of a real part. I was right and wrong. It is a small part, but definitely not a cameo. It’s a great, great role, the right bit of fun injected at the right time. I won’t give away his part for those that haven’t seen the flick yet because it’s at the very tail end of the movie, but it made me smile.
Also keep an eye out for Richard Bright as a small time con who stumbles into the story and is way out of his depth. He lifts MacGraw’s suitcase not realizing it had half a million bucks in it… or that he would have to deal with a pissed off Steve McQueen. Bright was very familiar to me and looking him up after the movie I smacked my hand to my head… Of course, he was Al Neri in THE GODFATHER films… as well as a real role in Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and Dennis Leary’s nervous little pal in THE REF.
Final Thoughts: Peckinpah’s film is sexy, funny, violent, exciting, fun and strangely experimental. It’s the kind of movie that could only be made by a master at this particular point in Hollywood history, when studio films could be strange, hardcore and not solely appealing to the lowest common denominator. THE GETAWAY might not be as much of a gut-punch as STRAW DOGS or as iconic as THE WILD BUNCH, but it’s every bit as good as those two films in its own individual way.
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, June 29th: THE MACKINTOSH MAN (1973)
Monday, July 6th: THE LONG HOT SUMMER (1958)
Monday, July 13th: JOURNEY INTO FEAR (1943)
Monday, July 20th: HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962)
Next week we look at another ‘70s flick, the Paul Newman vehicle THE MACKINTOSH MAN via THE GETAWAY’s screenwriter (and future geektastic director) Walter Hill. See you folks next week for that!
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