Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Getaway

“That’s the problem with this goddamn world, ain’t no morals.”

With 'Junior Bonner' dying a death at the box office, Peckinpah was in need of a hit. He wasn't the only one. Steve McQueen hadn't starred in a substantial box office hit since 'Bullitt' in 1968. His production company, Solar, was in trouble. Peckinpah knuckled down, kept his drinking under control, and committed himself to delivering a professionally crafted, taut and exciting commercial product. It wouldn't be the last time he'd make a deliberate sop to the box office, but never again would he do so in such good faith. He would respond to 'The Killer Elite' with contempt, 'Convoy' with oblivion, and refer to 'The Osterman Weekend' as his first exploitation movie. 'The Getaway' was the most successful Peckinpah film thus far, even though reviews were generally lukewarm.

Professional thief Doc McCoy (McQueen) is doing hard time and not handling it well. He instructs his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to plead his case to Benyon (Ben Johnson), a corrupt official with the right connections to influence Doc's parole hearing. On his release, he undertakes a bank heist, roping in Carol along with hot-headed youngster Frank Jackson (Bo Hopkins) and unpredictable tough guy Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri). The robbery is executed efficiently, but Rudy proves a little too trigger happy. Rendezvousing to divide the takings, Rudy shoots Frank en route and intends to do the same for Doc. But Doc pre-empts him and leaves him for dead. Doc and Carol deliver Benyon's cut to his ranch. Benyon taunts Doc with the revelation that Carol secured his release through sexual favours, then instructs Carol to shoot Doc. Carol blows Benyon away instead. Doc and Carol, their relationship strained by the thankless slapping around that Doc doles out to her (never mind that he'd still be in clink otherwise), go on the lam. Meanwhile, an injured but vengeful Rudy forces henpecked vet Harold (Jack Dodson) and his free-spirited wife Fran (Sally Struthers) first to treat him and then to drive him to Mexico and a return engagement with Doc and Carol. Benyon's bereaved and brooding brother has the same idea and despatches a bunch of guys to go after Doc. All parties converge on the Loughlin Hotel on the outskirts of Mexico and gunplay ensues.

There's a prevalent critical attitude that because Peckinpah approached 'The Getaway' as a solidly crafted slice of commercial entertainment, it is a lesser movie and can therefore be dismissed. And while there's no doubt it's a lesser piece of work than, say, 'Ride the High Country', 'The Wild Bunch', 'Straw Dogs' or 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', it's facile to dismiss it on such tenuous grounds. True, Peckinpah made it because both he and McQueen needed a hit. True, he made it knowing full well it wasn't as thematically and aesthetically dense as much of his other work. True, he approached it as a craftsman rather than an artist. But it's still one hell of a damned good film. And it's not the only movie made with an agenda that has still managed to triumph over its less than artistic genesis: the Wachowski brothers made 'Bound' purely as a "proving" exercise to secure studio backing for 'The Matrix' - and for my money, 'Bound' remains the best thing they've done.

Although 'The Getaway' isn't amongst the best of Sam Peckinpah's work, it's still the best of the triumvirate of thrillers - the other two being 'The Killer Elite' and 'The Osterman Weekend' - which he made largely on the basis of commercial considerations (ie. make money for the studio = being allowed to make another film). It's worth noting that 'The Getaway' and 'The Killer Elite' followed productions which flopped (respectively, 'Junior Bonner' and 'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia') while 'The Osterman Weekend' came after five years out of work post-'Convoy' (but that's another story).

'The Getaway' stands head and shoulders above Peckinpah's handful of other done-for-the-money projects. There are two reasons for this. One: Peckinpah's productive working relationship with McQueen meant he approached the material with some degree of enthusiasm. Two: 'The Getaway' is a western at heart. Beyond the obvious imagery - Benyon and his gang, the thief on the train and the old timer who helps Doc and Carol cross into Mexico all wear cowboy hats; Benyon's office walls are bedecked with bull horns - there are narrative parallels to 'The Wild Bunch'. Doc is released from prison by a corrupt official with his own agenda (cf. Deke Thornton and Harrigan). He masterminds a professionally executed robbery (cf. Pike Bishop). He makes a crossing into Mexico (cf. the Bunch). The only difference is that Doc's "bunch" fragment immediately after the robbery, distrust and betrayal prevalent instead of loyalty and honour. But it's only to be expected really; Pike and co. reach their Calvary in the America of 1913, having already outlived their times. Doc is imprisoned (even after Benyon's sprung him from his literal incarceration) in the America of 1972 - and that's one hell of a lot more soulless and mechanized a place than evening the gotterdammerung of the Old West described in 'The Wild Bunch'. In this respect, it's apposite that Doc is played by the same actor who portrayed Junior Bonner - although the hardened professional criminal and the saddle-sore rodeo rider are nothing alike in many respects, one thing can be said of them that denotes an essentially Peckinpahesque kinship: both had outlived their times while their grandfathers were still in the womb!

The America that Doc moves through - indeed, flees from - is ridden with things that threaten to incarcerate, betray or destroy him. And they're all mechanical or technological. The idea of technology as a malign influence permeates every frame of the movie. It starts with the incredibly well-crafted and viscerally realised eight-minute opening sequence depicting Doc's crack-up in prison. Huge steel bolts slam into place at the touch of a button, securing an entire row of cell doors. Machinery in the prison workshop clatters away interminably. Doc works a textile machine, yanking back the lever regulating the speed of the machine, then slamming it home; yanking it back and slamming it home. The machinery clatters and clanks away. Doc sits in his cell, painstakingly building a matchstick model of a bridge. He works the machine, yanking the lever back, slamming it home. He showers, eyes averted from the naked flesh of his fellow prisoners. He remembers making love with Carol. He tries to shake the memories from his mind. The machinery clatters away. He participates in a work gang, mounted guards cradling shotguns. He works the machine. The walls of the prison, the routines, the grey walls, the guards, the tight perameters of his cell, all press in on him. He works the machine that clatters and clanks away. Memories crowd him. His hands tighten around the model bridge, crushing it, pulping it back into the matchwood it was constructed from. Peckinpah's use of montage and editing are peerless. The psychological portrait he effects of Doc as a man almost destroyed by institutionalisation is immediate, shattering and unforgettable.

Even when Doc is released from prison, a bank of security monitors are framed mounted high on a wall behind him. They seem to peer over his shoulder, as if to remind him that he'll never be free. Later still, after Carol has shot Benyon and the couple go on the run, Doc fiddles with the car radio as they hightail across country. He wants to know if Benyon's made the news yet; do they have a head start or is the law already after them? The radio malfunctions. Technology, when it isn't busy imprisoning Doc, fails him when he needs it. Even later still, in an electrical goods store where he tries to buy a new radio, technology betrays him: a display model television suddenly flashes up his picture on a news bulletin. Doc snaps it off, but the shop assistant has already recognised him.

More so arguably than any of the westerns, 'The Getaway' emerges as an exegesis on technophobia. Steve Judd, Pike Bishop and Cable Hogue kick against the first appearances of technology; Doc is up against it at every twist and turn. Indeed, 'The Getaway' would perhaps emerge as a quintessential Peckinpah film but for two considerations: firstly, virtually everything that preceded it was a more definitive statement of Peckinpah the artist; and secondly, Walter Hill's screenplay (although a gritty enough bit of film writing considered on its own merits) constitutes a considerable watering down of the source material. Jim Thompson's novel is dark, cynical, embittered and basically fucking nasty bit of fiction. The Doc and Carol of the novel suffer the claustrophobic interment of a coffin-sized cave in which they have to wait out a manhunt for two days (claustrophobia is one of my bugbears and it took me three evenings to read this relatively short chapter), which leaves Carol close to losing her mind; later they are hidden by a farmer in crawlspace disguised as a dungheap; and finally they make it into Mexico and spend most of their take from the robbery buying sanctuary at El Rey where, as their funds run low and their relationship fragments, they start wondering how best to bump each other off.

Hill's script imposes a happy ending, which is entirely understandable. Filming Thompson's ending as written would have resulted in a film so bleak it would have made Bergman's 'The Silence' look like a Mel Brooks production. Unfortunately, Hill's Doc-and-Carol-cross-into-Mexico-and-they're-still-in-love-awww-bless ending comes across as even more of a sop to audience expectations in the light of the relationship that developed between McQueen and MacGraw. Film critic Kim Newman expresses it perceptively: "the romantic teaming is so potent that Hill has to omit the novel's cynical last chapter, in which the characters are trapped in a Mexican hell-hole that swallows their personalities, although 'Alfredo Garcia' might be seen as a feature length elaboration of the Thompson sketch".

Newman's observation is freighted with implication. 'The Getaway' is an energetic and exciting slice of intelligently put-together mainstream entertainment; it's the last of an already small coterie of Peckinpah films to have a truly upbeat ending; and yet it points to the darker, blackly comic territory Peckinpah would explore, just two years later, with Warren Oates, Isela Vega and a fly-blown sack containing a severed head.


J.D. said...

What a great post! This is one of my fave Peckinpah films despite the watering down of Thompson's original novel. Obviously, the film and the book are two separate things but I did feel like Hill and Peckinpah did manage to convey the general spirit and vibe of the book. And good call on how ALFREDO GARCIA preserves the downbeat vibe of the ending of Thompson's book. I never thought of that before, but that's true.

For a paycheck movie this certainly feels and looks like a Peckinpah film. As you point out, he certainly was enthusiastic about it and he worked very well with McQueen, which always helps.

Samuel Wilson said...

However compromised it is as an adaptation of Jim Thompson, Peckinpah's Getaway is an expert piece of craftsmanship that leaves you with a real sense of the time and place. It gets extra credit from me for turning the already formidable Al Lettieri into a Seventies icon. I again regret that this was the last time Peckinpah and McQueen worked together, especially when the director said afterward that McQueen was the one producer who treated him fairly.