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Getaway, The (1972) Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

Image Steve McQueen was pleased enough with director Sam Peckinpah during the making of “Junior Bonner” that he hired Sam to direct “The Getaway.” It resulted in one of the most satisfying movies of either man—and apart from “Papillon,” was the last genuinely good movie that McQueen made. His career and life off screen began to go offtrack during the making of “The Getaway;” he had a torrid affair with co-star Ali MacGraw, married to Robert Evans, then head of Paramount, and it ended his long-time marriage to Neile Adams. Soon, McQueen was involved in drugs and alcohol, though his early death was due to cancer. His marriage to MacGraw burned out in five years, and he left a third wife, much younger than him, a widow.

Peckinpah had a few more good years, but he, too, was notoriously self-destructive, and he spiraled down to the likes of “Convoy” in much the same manner as McQueen.

But they’re both at the top of their form in “The Getaway;” even though it’s more than two hours long, it’s a trim, focused and dynamic crime thriller with terrific action sequences, although it’s not really an action picture. The climax is understated and quiet, as fleeing bank robber Doc McCoy (McQueen) huddles down to exchange a few words with a wise old cowboy (Slim Pickens), whose pickup he’s commandeered for, what else, a final getaway. It’s a tribute to both McQueen and Peckinpah, and to writer Walter Hill, that this gentle, almost relaxed ending feels so satisfying and complete.

The opening sequence is also excellent. We see a few deer grazing on a vast lawn, then realize the lawn is around Huntsville Prison, and Doc McCoy is inside. Behind the credits, we hear the harsh mechanical sounds of the work he has to do as a prisoner, we see the dreary details of his everyday life, and we see him rather rotting away in a cell. He’s been turned down for patrol—you might notice squinty-eyed Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) on the parole board—but he’s increasingly aware of the isolation and grimness of his daily life. And finally tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to pass on to Beynon that he’s had enough. And just like that, he’s out of jail. Beynon wants Doc to rob a bank on his behalf, and has rounded up a crew of two, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and the younger Frank (Bo Hopkins). Doc’s a careful planner, and needs to be the boss of the operation; he recognizes that Rudy is a brutal animal of a guy, and may cause problems. But when the robbery is carefully set up and executed, it’s the somewhat vacant Frank who ruins things by impulsively shooting a bank guard. With Carol, Doc roars off one direction, Rudy and Frank another. Rudy almost immediately kills Frank, shoves him out the door of the car, and heads for the rendezvous with Doc and Carol.

But naturally, things aren’t all that simple. First, Doc learns that to get Beynon to spring Doc, she slept with the older man—who thinks he’s convinced Carol to kill her husband. Big mistake. Then at the rendezvous, Rudy thinks he can kill Doc. Another mistake. But Doc makes one, too—he doesn’t notice that despite Rudy scorning one earlier, he is wearing a bullet-proof vest. Doc’s bullets knock him out, but he’s still alive. He invades a veterinarian’s office, and takes the man prisoner as his driver; he’s instantly lustful for the vet’s much younger wife, Fran (an excellent Sally Struthers), and she too is drawn to Rudy. Hey, she likes animals.

The getaway of “The Getaway” is now in full swing. Doc and Carol clash, but elect to keep going together; the bag of money is stolen from her at a railway station, but Doc ingeniously gets it back. On they head for El Paso, pursued by Rudy and Fran, and by Beynon’s brother and a handful of cowboy-hat-wearing thugs. (Though set in 1972 Texas, and filmed entirely there, “The Getaway” is essentially a Western.)

The cast is peppered with Peckinpah buddies and regulars—Ben Johnson, Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins—but mostly consists of solid character actors, even some friends of Sam’s who weren’t actors at all, but whom he knew could embody on screen just what he wanted. On the other hand, there’s Ali MacGraw, famous because of “Love Story.” She does the best she can in “The Getaway,” but there’s always—ALWAYS—something amateurish about her, no matter what film she’s in. She’s clearly an intelligent, sharp-witted woman, but it takes more than a gorgeous face and intelligence to be a good actress, and she doesn’t really have it. That being said, however, “The Getaway” features what is her most professional performance—and as with Bogart and Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” you can see the two stars actually falling in love.

Though “The Getaway” has long been available on home video, this release is the best yet. Not only is it in crisp, almost harshly clear high definition, but it includes two outstanding extras. The movie takes place entirely during daylight, and out there on the dusty Texas plains, so there are no glittering nighttime cityscapes and very little green—both of which high definition is particularly responsive to. Though this is a chase movie, there is only one scene of car action, as Doc escapes from the botched—but remunerative—robbery: some explosions he’s set go off in big fireballs, and he has to smash through a porch to get around traffic delays. But it’s not really a car-chase sequence, but rather an escape. You can see every fragment of the shattered porch, you can practically feel the heat of those explosions—but this movie is not one that’s especially well enhanced by high definition. To demonstrate your system to friends, you’re much more likely to pull out far worse, but more visually spectacular, movies as demonstrations—but you’re more likely to watch “The Getaway” all the way through again.

Particularly if you also listen to the very good commentary track by Peckinpah experts Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. They’ve contributed similar tracks to other Warner Bros. DVD releases of Peckinpah movies, and they’re always well worth listening to. Some of them aren’t just Peckinpah experts, but were friends of the brilliant, troubled director himself. They know the details of how “The Getaway” was made, they know its strengths, its weaknesses—they point out that one scene of children staring down at Hopkins’ corpse is an example of Peckinpah deliberately (and unwisely) adding the kind of “Peckinpah touch” which by this time had been praised by various reviewers and critics.

There’s also a superb documentary on the score by Jerry Fielding that WASN’T used. He and Peckinpah had battled like duelists through the scoring of “The Wild Bunch,” but Peckinpah eventually realized that Fielding’s score was a masterpiece. They became close friends, and Sam hired him to score “The Getaway,” which he did. But then McQueen, whose company made the film, replaced Fielding’s very good score with another very good score by Quincy Jones. Fielding’s score is included on the disc as a no-visuals extra, and the beautifully-edited bank robbery scene is included with Fielding’s score.

The documentary features both Fielding’s widow and Katie Haber, who long worked for (and slept with) Sam Peckinpah; both are articulate, and clearly still devoted to those two colorful men.

There’s also an unusual “virtual” commentary track, on the first reel shown separately. As we see the film playing off to the left, on the right are stills of Peckinpah, McQueen and MacGraw, and we hear excerpts from interviews they did over the years. One interesting, and somewhat surprising, comment comes from McQueen: he says that to a large degree, he modeled his performance here on Humphrey Bogart, evidently one of his favorite actors, particularly from “High Sierra.” Peckinpah also expresses appreciation to Raoul Walsh, who directed that classic.

“The Getaway” isn’t a balls-to-the-wall masterpiece like “The Wild Bunch” (what IS?), it’s not an eccentric dazzlier like “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” It’s more like “Junior Bonner,” Sam working his wonders with reasonably traditional big-studio material, and showing clearly that he was capable of great work even when he wasn’t struggling to express his own inner drives. You suspect he had a great time making “The Getaway;” you’re likely to have a great time watching it.

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