Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Getaway (1972)

We Can Work It Out

directed by Sam Peckinpah
starring Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw,
Ben Johnson, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers

To witness Steve McQueen in his prime, kicking ass like it's personal — and God help you if it ever was — is to experience nothing less than the action-movie equivalent of Monica Bellucci's tits: it's a quickener of pulses, a builder of throbbing film-nerd chubbies, enough racing blood to ready your eighty year-old grandpa for a ten-girl gangbang after downing shots of Wild Turkey all night. Just the chik-chik of McQueen's shotgun in The Getaway, and Pavlov's dogs are off to toss their boxers in the wash before he even gets to the boom.

Granted, The Getaway is, at heart, nothing more than a B-movie whore stuffed inside a sequined big-studio evening gown and doused in French perfume. It’s not quite Sam Peckinpah directing "in imitation of Sam Peckinpah," as Pauline Kael opined, but no one who's seen Straw Dogs or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (or, hell, even The Osterman Weekend) would call The Getaway top-tier Bloody Sam. For one thing, Ali MacGraw ("suggested" to Sam due to her post-Love Story bankability) imbues her line readings with about as much warmth as a shell-shocked hostage forced at gunpoint to look into a video camera and convey a message from his captors. Then, there's the supporting characters — low-life marionettes jerking on strings tugged by pure action-plot necessity, despite all the shading and nuance that Peckinpah and his actors attempt to slip in around the edges.

To hear Hollywood tell it, the words "bank heist" have never not been followed by "gone awry," so you'll find the mechanics of said plot as committed to the cultural memory bank as the Beatles songs you learned in grade school. Superstar thief Doc McCoy (McQueen) is sprung from prison to mastermind bank heist for corrupt political boss. Double-crosses and "unexpected" violence ensue. Doc and his wife Carol (MacGraw) head for the border with their ill-gotten loot, fighting off disgruntled co-heisters, the political boss's henchmen, and good old inconvenient cops along the way. Big shootout before happy ending. ("After all," one could imagine McQueen reasoning, "the thing is called The Getaway, is it not?")

And yet, call me a Peckinpah apologist (a Peckinpologist?) if you must, but I don't rate this one as a sleepwalk just because the Rembrandt behind The Wild Bunch had one eye on his bank account when he signed on. All you high-minded aesthetes out there mean to tell me the man couldn't take a breather after vivisecting male identity and John Wayne's beloved frontier and then putting them back together in ways we'd never seen before? He couldn't pause to think about his market value after making the greatest contributions to the Western genre since John Ford, after pulling out a bigger dick than Arthur Penn's and, with a single jerk, wiping the slo-mo carnage of Bonnie & Clyde right off the fucking table? What, he shouldn't have considered a nice, fat piece of summer-action-blockbuster booty, with one of the biggest stars of the era, so that he might raise his cachet and buy a little bargaining power for future projects? (Not that it worked: see the following year's mangled theatrical release of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)

The shriveled black heart of The Getaway beats inside that tattered genre frame. It's in the way that Peckinpah — like the Coppola of the Godfather films, like Huston and Ford and Hitchcock and Hawks before him — uses his wizardry in service of genre, rather than painting it day-glo orange and stapling it to his film's forehead like some Sundance-lauded whiz-kid of the double-oughts. Under and around and behind his sadistic Terminator-like villain and the obligatory car chases and the kind of ridiculously elaborate bank heist that only happens in the movies, Peckinpah still manages to stuff the chapped orifices of the standard action-flick playbook with quiet innovation worthy of the auteur theory.

Check that opening prison montage as it slow-boils to its matter-of-fact climax: Doc on the day-to-day grind of manual labor, solitude and barked orders; his interminable present intruded upon by jagged flashes of the life — and wife — he had on the outside, a life that now mocks him with its God-like remove from the shambles of his present state. Check that sequence of Doc and Carol at the lake — the way that Peckinpah and his editors use their documentary-of-the-mind technique to put us inside Doc McCoy, to lay bare his longing for the simple pleasures he thought he'd never again enjoy; to lift the hard-bitten career thief of Jim Thompson's source novel a foot or two out of the pulp-fiction muck and show us the humanity he's all but killed for the sake of his career, the humanity he'd rather kill than directly express. Take a look at the humorous, tense sequence wherein Doc retrieves their money from the train-station thief who's absconded with it. And certainly, there's the boner-inducing hotel shootout that splatters us with the film's climactic juices. Just as certainly, said climax is Peckinpah having it two ways at once: it's both another of his increasingly cynical post-Wild Bunch tossings of slo-mo red meat to violence-hungry lions drawn in by his early '70s media hype and a refinement — perhaps, even a perfection — of his technique. Make no mistake about it: fat payday or not, Nixon was still in office, Vietnam was still raging, and The Getaway is still Peckinpah at the top of his game, eliciting the second of Steve McQueen's two greatest performances (the first being Peckinpah's own Junior Bonner, from earlier in the year).

Thing is, for such a blockbuster-action-film-of-its-time — and all the eschewing of complexity that would seem to imply — there's a remarkable amount of tension in The Getaway between what a mainstream audience expects of its hero and the hero that McQueen and Peckinpah actually give them. Step right up, folks, get'cher popcorn, grab yer seats! See Doc McCoy drop a shrieking Sally Struthers with a single punch! See Doc smack his dutiful wife around over the deal her vagina made with a corrupt official to spring him from the hoosegow! See Doc unable to get it up when finally alone again with the woman who's been haunting his daily thoughts for the last several years! And yet, there again is that struggling with humanity: Doc's all bottled up from prison life, he can't open up, he can't let go, he doesn't know how to show warmth and tenderness anymore. And to compare the likes of McQueen to what passes for an emblem of manhood in the Age of Oprah, one only need ask: what modern star is there who would allow themselves to be portrayed in such a light, in the context of an ostensible crowd-pleaser like this?

That's pure 100-proof Peckinpah1 and, no matter how much the box office-minded McQueen tried to sand off the film's rough edges — firing novelist Thompson for hewing too closely to the book's cynical nobody-gets-away-clean ending, tossing out the score by Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding and substituting a more "accessible" one by Quincy Jones, making Doc McCoy unable to kill in cold blood when the Doc of Thompson's genesis would rearrange your innards for looking at him sideways — The Getaway is essentially the same slimy, unforgiving, Doberman-chewed cunt of a world that Peckinpah's other films brought into crystal-clear 35mm focus. The difference, of course, is the degree to which Peckinpah pushes his camera in to study the pus-filled boils adorning the labia. Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia take you close enough to see the camera's reflection; in The Getaway, said boils are merely wallpaper — yet, present and accounted for in every scene, nonetheless.

Doubters are referred to Al Lettieri's portrayal of Rudy, the remorseless, double-crossing psychopath who drew first on Doc but couldn't pull the trigger quick enough. (Great line: "He didn't make it... and neither did you.") Rudy's a guy who'd leave Lettieri's Sollozzo from The Godfather (released the same year) lying in the gutter with a piss-streaked face. A guy who kidnaps a veterinarian and his buxom-slut wife, then seduces the wife repeatedly in front of the helpless mook, for no other reason than to torture him and show who's got the bigger dick. Once Hubby's finally hanged himself in the shower of their motel room, Rudy emits barely a sigh before sitting down to take a morning dump and thumb through a magazine next to the body. In a nutshell: pure '70s gangsta. The kind of prick you want on your heroes' asses. And exactly the kind of urgency you need to spice up your criminal-lovers-on-the-run-in-the-heartland yarn.

Who needs a housewife to cook your meals, though, when you've got a loyal partner-in-crime and ace getaway driver all rolled into one? Carol McCoy is woman par excellence as only Sam Peckinpah could give us: right up in the shit where it stinks most, elbow-to-elbow with her man, as tough as her man and tougher in many ways. Plug a few shots in a bad guy? Carol got that, boo. Sleep with a corrupt politico to help spring your ass from jail? Carol's got'cha back. Help with your decoy explosions and your money-stashing and waiting for you all night in a decrepit train station while you take off after some half-ass con artist? Carol's your girl. Not plugging a bullet in your back when she was supposed to, all because she actually loves your hardened criminal ass? Carol's got you. Carol McCoy, the Last Good Woman on a cruel, scorched-black Earth once known as God's own, is the real treasure for Doc McCoy, the real loot that — if he can just avoid the flying buckshot and get over that border — will enable him to live happily ever after. Forget Jim Thompson's original ending; forget, for that matter, the lighthearted lyricism of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It's The Getaway that represents Peckinpah at his sunniest and most optimistic; it's where a black hole of mistrust and gaping emotional wounds prevails for a change in the eternal WrestleMania against his personal demons regarding women, for once viewing the possibility of fidelity and long-term happiness as something more than the punchline to a cruel joke.

It's commonly asserted that Peckinpah only knew how to depict love's failures, not its endurance. And yet, The Getaway stands as likely the only truly happy ending in the Peckinpah canon — the story of a successful marriage and how a couple's love for each other perseveres, despite the bullets whizzing about, despite the double-crosses and the doubts and the fights and insecurities and side-of-the-road bitchslaps. It's only on the wings of a renewed faith in Doc's commitment to Carol — and his decision to grow the hell up and realize what it meant for her to have stayed by his side — that they're even able to get to the end of that rainbow in Old Mex. And in the parlance of the testosterone-coated take-no-prisoners-ism in which Peckinpah's films were so fluent, that ain't the slut you butt-fuck on sweat-caked motel sheets before trudging home to the little lady, it's the kind of woman you grab a hold of and hang onto for all your rotten life is worth.

If Carol McCoy is the pure white vessel for Peckinpah's dewy-eyed fantasies of that Matrimonial Castle in the Sky — What Could Be — then, Sally Struthers' Fran is, of course, our funky black representative of What Actually Is. She's probably the cleanest carry-over from Jim Thompson's noir nihilism plus Peckinpah's own worst fears regarding women, all rolled into one bouncy little ball of hot air; a walking, jiggling, giggling justification not just for woman-hate but for the Hillside Strangler and O.J., as well. Not only is Fran's craven violence-loving whoriness the flip side to Carol's selfless devotion, but it's perfect kindling for the bonfire of secret suspicion that rages inside any man's head: here's a woman — excuse me, broad — with no sense of loyalty, who's never even heard of devotion, who abandons her own husband without the slightest thought given to anything besides her own validation and selfish desires. And for what? For the very unreconstructed, hairy-knuckled, alpha-male, Neanderthal bad-boyism we've always known they wanted — despite decades of lip service paid to noble concepts like The Sensitive Male. It's a hideously, defiantly ugly portrait of women — hip-hop-crude, in fact — but it's likely the quickest way Peckinpah had to connect his own ambivalence about relationships to the matter-of-fact criminality of the book, and it's where the bread nibbled by all great filmmakers gets buttered. It's no different in spirit from how Coppola used personal family issues to relate to the dynamics of the Corleone clan or the way that Scorsese reached down into the sewage of his own coke-laced self-abuse to pull out Raging Bull.

Fran's every pinched, shrill little tart that encourages the worst in men. She's the ninny in the dive bar who strikes up conversations with men behind her boyfriend's back, then prods her boyfriend to defend her honor by kicking the poor bastards' faces in. She's the reason for half the guys sitting in penitentiaries on manslaughter and second-degree murder charges, and if the King of Screen Violence refrains from sending her off in her own slo-mo death spiral framed by ejaculatory spurts of cherry-red stage paint, she's still saddled with the worst fate of anyone in the film: left with a rotting corpse of a husband whose suicide she all but encouraged, discarded by the thug who merely used her as a tool to assert primacy over another male, meeting the business end of a Steve McQueen cold-cock and folding like Michael Spinks in the first round against Mike Tyson. One needn't a crystal ball to envision Fran's life after the screen's gone black and the last Toots Thielemans harmonica riff has faded out — squint hard enough into the distance and you'll see a leathery, time-ravaged old hag still wandering the dusty byways of the American Southwest, still crying out for "Ru-deeee!" and thoroughly ignored; nothing to do in her closing years of sexual viability but throw herself at truckers and watch her tits sag from under a dingy waitress' uniform.

No, no need to make her sternum leak from entry wounds. As George Clinton once told us that the funk is its own reward, so being a treacherous cunt like Fran is — in the pitiless world painted by Sam Peckinpah's brush — its own worst punishment.
  1. On top of that, Peckinpah once again sentimentalizes his own helplessness at the calloused hands of Hollywood. It's nigh-on impossible not to imagine Ol' Bloody Sam seeing himself in Doc's shoes as the thief (read: artist) of unparalleled talent sprung from the pen (read: his forced exile from the movie biz) by a shady son-of-a-bitch of a politico (read: producer) who promises him all will be okay as long as he pulls off the job and brings back that money, but is really plotting behind his back to have him killed off (fired/blackballed/shunned into pariahdom yet again). But instead, Doc Peckinpah perseveres and makes off for good to his beloved May-hee-co with his hide and his reputation intact.
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