Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Getaway

(This Post Is Part Of The Steve McQueen Blogothon Over At The Cooler. It doesn’t start until tomorrow. But then again I have my own plans for tomorrow. So I’m posting my entry a day early)

(While searching for images for this review I couldn’t help but notice that The Getaway has some of the greatest posters I’ve ever seen. Most of them online thanks to http://www.stevemcqueen.org.uk I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them.)

(This review will work best if you start the below song)

Today in honor of the man who shares my birthday, and defines cool for a generation we’re looking at Steve McQueen.

As you might recall from last December, I Like Peckinpah Quite A lot. So perhaps its no surprise I chose, in honor of McQueen to write up The Getaway.

The Getaway’s
a strange movie to write about, a star at the height of his iconoclasm, a director in full possession of his incendiary talent, scripted by another badass filmmaker I’m quite fond of, coming from what is arguably the greatest novel from the greatest hardboiled novelist of all time. It’s a movie I wouldn’t hesitate to call a classic. And yet on some level I can’t help but find it unfulfilling.

But first some words about the man himself.

I don’t know what it is but I didn’t have as a young film goer that instant attraction to Mc Queen that I had to the other glorious badasses, such as Clint, Connery, Mitchum, Bogart, and Newman that I met as a kid. Of course, this same feeling of conflict is exactly what draws me towards him now.

There’s something disquieting about McQueen’s presence. Its not sophistication exactly, more of a kind of urbaneness. An aloofness, a disdain. There’s something disquieting about McQueen. One could never imagine Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman being anything less then a good guy (Even on the rare occasion say White Hunter Black Heart or Road To Periditon where they’re not good guys they still are). McQueen it was all too easy to see going to the dark side. It’s a cruelness he possesses. He’s not just cool, he’s cold. Perhaps no action star has ever looked quite so at home in a black suit. He’s the existentialist’s action hero.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that McQueen came to stardom in the fifties, just as the iconoclasm of the studio age was dying out, and the tougher man’s men stars of the seventies such as Eastwood or Bronson, had yet to take his place. McQueen’s only real contempary was Sean Connery. And while Connery coasted through on a mixture of sophistication, misogyny and excess, always acting from Darby O’ Gill on as if the whole world was here only for his personal amusement, Mc Queen never seemed to get much pleasure out of his badassness, or much of anything at all. Hell he never seemed to want much aside from a baseball to toss against the wall. McQueen always seemed driven by darker things, or perhaps more accurately never seemed to be driven by anything at all.

Contrast those two great San Fransico cop films Bullitt and Dirty Harry. While Harry Calahan smolders with Clint’s righteous rage, Bullitt cuts through with cool professionalism. Look at Nevada Smith (Maybe my favorite McQueen film and one I’m sure to revisit to write up later) which builds towards its climax only to step away from it with a disaffected shrug. The gentleman thief who prefers other to do his thievery for him in The Thomas Crowne Affair. The poetic doomed cowpoke in Tom Horn. All serve the same purpose, all look surgically from perpendicular angles at what a hero is supposed to be.

Look finally at Doc McCoy in The Getaway. A gentle man whose no stranger to violence. A man who as soon as he’s released from prison goes to a park so he can be out in nature and beauty for just a few moments (oh hi High Sierra, I didn’t see you come in) and soon after is executing people with a shotgun.

I don’t know if anyone has ever shot McQueen as well as Peckinpah. Using wide angle lens to distort the space around him Peckinpah makes him look like a lethal God. The scene where he calmly holds up a pawn shop for weaponry, every TV in the place broadcasting his face, holding a gun that makes Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like an air rifle, all so he can get the shot gun he needs to take down the mother fucking PO-lice. Its badassery of the highest order.

McQueen repays Peckinpah in kind. He becomes the quintessential Peckinpah man, out of time and out of touch, with himself as well as others. He’s a man so isolated he doesn’t even have a crew to run with. While other Peckinpah heroes face the betrayal of those they’ve counted closest to themselves, Doc has never had anyone close enough to betray him. Except for his wife, and much of the tension in the movie comes from the question of whether or not he’ll even give her a chance to.

There are other Peckinpah signifiers as well, children witnessing violence, the fragmentation of time, and the loss of honor inherent in modern society. Despite the films reputation as an anonymous studio product, which suffered the indignity of McQueen editing close-ups into the final product, Peckinpah if anything goes to far. Even editing a child saying “Bang Bang” into the sound mix of the final shootout.

The film opens bravely with a pure montage, chronicling Doc’s prison life, in a fragmented, numbing blur of chess, hard labor, corrupt officials, all cut to the deadening tempo of the omnipresent textile mill (Later the jazzy repetive Lalo Schrifin like score will serve a similar effect). By the time Doc pimps his wife out to the corrupt lawman to secure his release its more then understandable, its almost a relief.

Doc is forced into participating into a heist in exchange for his early release. When things go tits up, he decides to escape with his loot and the wife he can’t trust, and head for the border, with some truly pissed off people in pursue. The first half hour of the film is meticulous, following Doc as he sets up things, and realizes just how unqualified his partners are. Its hard to imagine a studio allowing an action movie to start off so slowly nowadays (there’s nothing approaching an action scene for over half an hour), even tougher to imagine it being a hit.

When the mayhem does come though its on a scale only Peckinpah can bring. Like the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah delights in putting chaos where it doesn’t belong. He turns small town America into a war zone for the opening heist, exploding bombs in nice safe suburbia. And later in the film’s justly famous hotel climax delivers one of his career best action scenes. A display of geography and carnage that is nearly surgical in its sickening precision.

McQueen cuts through the movie with some his trademark iconic cool. The telling competent swagger that is his trademark, watching him disassemble the engine block of a cop car with a shot gun never gets any less appealing.

Yet it’s the little moments and shot, him looking oddly mole like and vulnerable behind his dark glasses, his non verbal uncomfortable attempts to suss out his wife’s true motives that make an impression.

Ali McGraw as McQueen’s lesser half has never been what you would call a good actress. Still, she has her moments playing up her vulnerability and her childlike nature. You can see why Doc would want to protect her, if not why he’d be so entranced by her.

Peckinpah has a lot of fun with Al Lettieri, as perhaps the most personality filled heavy to ever appear in a Peckinpah film. Watching Lettieri climb his way out of the pit that McQueen left him in, like something clawing its way out of hell, is quite intimidating to say the least. He then kidnaps a doctor and his wife Sally Struthers (!), (the scene in which he informs them of this. On his back, bandaged up, playing with a kitten, but totally in command is kind of a joy) and they act as a counter narrative/comic relief, until the doctor is obliged to commit suicide thanks to Lettieri rampant boning of Sally Struthers. Let us pause for a moment to reflect that even the comic relief in Peckinpah ends with some poor dumb bastard hanging themselves, while some asshole takes a shit next to their still warm corpse. Ho-Ho!

Struthers herself is one of the film’s most probamatic aspects. While I’m not one who labels Peckinpah a misogynist, the films that usual get him pegged as such, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia and Straw Dogs are both too complex to be dismissed as such. But Struther's, simperingly carrying around a kitten she's named after the husband she drove to suicide. Whimpering like a puppy during the climatic shootout, after a film’s worth of dumb behavior comes mighty close.

Peckinpah’s keen visual wit is on display, such as the shot in which McQueen and McGraw find themselves leading a parade of cars seen in the rear view, after passing through a police blockade. Even in the quite moments the chase is always on.

And yet there is that niggling bit of dissatisfaction. Look, The Getaway as written by Jim Thompson in the grip of DT’s and misanthropy is basically unfilmable. It ends in a village built of human shit for Christ sakes. But if anyone COULD film it, it would be Peckinpah, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Gracia, is as far as I’m concerned the best Thompson adaptation ever made, even if its not actually based on his work. To make it even more infuriating The Getaway does occasionally grasp the book’s supreme ugliness, see the scene where Doc pulls to the side of the road after the confrontation with the corrupt lawman, and promptly slaps the living shit out of McGraw in a way that’s unflinching and brutal. He even show himself able to capture Thompson’s tequila drenched surreality, like in the scene where McQueen an McGraw somehow survive a trash compacting, and have a nice long chat about their relationship while covered in refuse, in the middle of a rusted out junkyard. I’m not saying Peckinpah had to shoot Thompson’s Jodorowskyesque ending, but did he have to make it a fucking happy one?

Still despite its shortcomings, I have to admit that my problems with The Getaway are more about what it could have been (IE a flatout masterpiece) rather then what it is (the best of the second tier). It’s a snarling lively bit of drop dead cool cinema. A piece of filmmaking with real balls, I can’t be too disappointed in it.


Unknown said...

I find it interesting that two of McQueen's strongest performances come from Peckinpah films. I thought the director got a really fascinating introspective performance out of McQueen in JUNIOR BONNER and then a real, bare-bones no-nonsense one in THE GETAWAY. There are moments in this film where we really see McQueen at his finest, like the bit where he tells MacGraw about how prison changed him and he's not even sure he can make love to her. There's a real, tangible vulnerability that McQueen displays in this scene that is quite impressive.

Bryce Wilson said...

I think other directors where intimidated by McQueen, Peckinpah wasn't intimidated by shit.

Really loved your write up of the film. Had no idea Peckinpah was supposed to direct Emperor Of The North Pole, would have been a completely different movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

This is an excellent review. Glad you love Peckinpah - so do I. (One of my favorites is Major Dundee.) Also, I'm glad that Nevada Smith is your favorite McQueen film. It's definitely on my top 5. As you say, The Getaway - just about any Peckinpah film, in fact - is definitely kickass cinema.

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad you liked it Hokahey. Really enjoyed your piece on The Sand Pebbles as well.

Jason Bellamy said...

Bryce: Great stuff. Thanks for participating!

I don’t know if anyone has ever shot McQueen as well as Peckinpah. Using wide angle lens to distort the space around him Peckinpah makes him look like a lethal God. The scene where he calmly holds up a pawn shop for weaponry, every TV in the place broadcasting his face, holding a gun that makes Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like an air rifle, all so he can get the shot gun he needs to take down the mother fucking PO-lice. Its badassery of the highest order.

The reason McQueen and Peckinpah are so perfect for each other, particularly in a film like this, is that they both thrive on capturing action. Not action like Michael Bay. But movement, which Peckinpah slo-mos to give it gritty poetry. (Sometimes it works. Other times it's just tedious.)

McQueen moves so well in that scene. And in the scene at the hotel, when he wanders down the hallway checking doors. And in the car at the drive-up. Etc.

I agree with you on MacGraw: she's a limited actress, but, gosh, my heart just breaks for her every time. There's something about her that makes you want to protect her. She and McQueen are great together, in their own way.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the kind words.

But I agree McQueen really does bring something out in MacGraw compare her chemistry here with what she had with Kristopherson in Convoy. Not even funny.