Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #63 The Getaway (1972)
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Alternately, you could follow in the footsteps of one kind, incredibly appreciated patron and have me watch and then write about a filmmaker’s entire filmography. I could write about the life’s work of anyone: Billy Wilder. Frank Capra. Preston Sturges. James Belushi.
The possibilities are limitless, not unlike my favorite Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless, but so far the only filmmaker that has been chosen for this unique feature is good old “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, the manly man behind such masterpieces of machismo as The Wild Bunch.
With 1972’s The Getaway, Peckinpah met Jim Thompson, the prolific pulp novelist who explored the seedy underbelly and black heart of American society in a series of revered hard-boiled novels and his screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.
I’ve probably read more Jim Thompson than any other novelist. I went through a huge Thompson kick as a teenager because his sensibility and worldview resonated with how I saw the world as a rage-choked, angst-ridden juvenile delinquent. Thompson depicted American society as hypocritical and unhinged, bloody and sex-crazed, more than half-mad with greed and lust yet convinced of its own piety and purity.
Thompson’s aesthetic is as brutal and uncompromising as Peckinpah’s, if not bleaker. The original ending of The Getaway is ugly and apocalyptic to the point of being commercial suicide, even at the height of New Hollywood, when a sick piece of work like The Getaway was the seventh top grossing film of the year, ranking somewhere between Behind the Green Door and Fritz the Cat.
In Thompson’s novel the criminal couple succeeds in pulling off a lucrative heist. They then make it to an ostensible sanctuary for criminals in Mexico where the costs of staying there are so sadistically, cruelly high, monetarily and morally, that life becomes a fate crueler than both death and even the longest, hardest prison sentence.
Even Peckinpah wasn’t going to go that dark. So The Getaway ends in a way that feels like a betrayal of the eviscerating darkness and fatalism that comes before it. The Getaway is about people who are fucked. It’s about people who are doomed.
In Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, life is a long, tragicomic game of “Choose Your Own Adventure” where no matter what choice you make, you end up dead, in jail, or in a state so dire it makes death and eternal imprisonment seem like appealing options by comparison.
Yet Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill, still many years away from breaking into directing, spare bank robbers and killers “Doc” McCoy and his wife Carol the bleak ending the material angrily demands.
But if The Getaway’s ending feels like a cop-out the rest of the film is true to the unforgiving harshness of Thompson’s hard boiled oeuvre, its brutal lack of sentimentality.
The Getaway opens with McQueen’s canny career criminal dying a slow, agonizing spiritual death in prison. A broken man, he’ll do anything to get out, so his gorgeous wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) arranges to have her husband freed with the assistance of oily powerbroker Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) on the grounds that he pull off a heist for the oily, sausage-fingered politician with two of Benyon’s best/worst men: malevolently mustachioed super-creep Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins).
The role of Frank falls snugly into Hopkins’ wheelhouse playing wild-eyed lunatics who fuck it up for everyone by shooting people erratically and unnecessarily whenever given a chance.
Doc is as cool and calculating as only a killer played by Steve McQueen can be but the world of crime is so full of impossible to anticipate variables that violent chaos is never more than a moment or mistake away.
Hill’s screenplay is notable partly for the way it favors image and mood over dialogue. The opening is particularly dialogue-light as it documents with grim authenticity the cold, grey, unbearable despair of life inside prison and then the overwhelming, overpowering release of being sprung from that cage and ushered back into a world full of sunlight and pleasure and carefree Southern-fried hedonism.
Dialogue does not define the screenplay because men of action like Doc have very little use for words. For Doc, words are a means to an end, nothing more, nothing less. What matters, ultimately, is action. Action defines Doc as a man and as a character: decisive, violent action. He expresses himself with bullets instead of words because when you’re confidently wielding a gun with purpose the way McQueen/Doc does here, words suddenly have a way of seeming terribly inconsequential.
McQueen is terrific, all ice and steel and stoic sexuality. He’s effortlessly authentic as a hardened criminal who knows his way around guns and cars, a doomed man running out of time, running out of luck and running out of options.
MacGraw, hot off the zeitgeist-capturing success of Love Story is all wrong as Carol, however. She positively reeks of class, of breeding, of poshness. She always seems like she just emerged from the make-up and costume trailers, even when she and Doc are literally neck deep in garbage.
Doc and his deplorable co-conspirators succeed in stealing some seven hundred thousand dollars in cash but things go violently awry from the very beginning.
The two wild-card collaborators Benyon saddled Doc with prove predictably erratic. Frank proves that you can often judge a book by its cover in movies like these by quickly realizing his destiny as the hot-headed punk whose itchy finger gets a whole lot of people killed unnecessarily, including himself, while Rudy predictably tries to double-cross Doc only to end up shot and left for dead by his rival.
Rudy proves nearly as unkillable as a serial killer slasher, however. He uses a bullet proof vest to cheat death and then forces hapless veterinarian Harold Clinton (Jack Dodson) to treat his wounds.
Rudy is the sort of brutish degenerate who takes what he wants without asking but he does not need to seduce the veterinarian’s ditsy sexpot wife Fran (Sally Struthers, a world away from either All in the Family) because she’s into him sexually in a way she doesn’t feel the need to hide from her deeply humiliated husband.
To put things in the contemporary parlance, Rudy cuckolds the sad-eyed, defeated animal doctor by having sex with his wife in front of him, taunting the mortified vet with the knowledge that his wife vastly prefers the violent thug holding them hostage to the good man who has devoted his life to her.
The luckless veterinarian looks distractingly like the brutish criminal his wife throws herself at minus the life, vitality and brash, boorish confidence. Jack Dodson has such an expressive face that he does not need dialogue. Dodson’s look of soul-shattering despair and existential confusion as he watches Fran flirt outrageously with her new lover says everything.
The suddenly sexually liberated Fran doesn’t torment her husband with her sexual relationship with Rudy so much as she ignores him entirely so she can focus on her masochistic schoolgirl crush on the violent criminal in their midst. That’s somehow even crueler, even colder.
The poor man grows smaller and smaller before our eyes until he ceases to exist at all. Humiliated beyond words, he hangs himself in a motel bathroom and, in one of the coldest moments in Peckinpah’s filmography, Rudy enters the bathroom, notices the corpse of his emasculated and defeated sexual rival and nonchalantly takes a seat on the toilet, momentarily inconvenienced by the man’s suicide but so unmoved that the death barely registers.
Harold Clinton barely existed in life. He seems to disappear entirely in death. In a typically unsentimental move, Fran never reacts to her husband’s suicide. The only effect it seems to have on her psyche is strengthening her connection to Rudy, since he’s now unmistakably the only man in her life.
Rudy is intent on stealing back the money he stole with Doc but Doc has his own trials of the damned trying to hold onto the money after it is purloined by a slick con artist at a train station.
In The Getaway, as in Bill Murray’s wonderful and weirdly simpatico Quick Change, robbing a bank is the easy part. It’s getting away that proves absolute murder. Every step Doc takes to try to extricate himself and his wife from the terrible bind they find themselves in just makes everything worse.
The Getaway is such a riveting and convincing exploration of the fundamentally doomed, fucked nature of mankind that it angrily demands an ending as brutal as its beginning and middle but Hill and Peckinpah uncharacteristically take pity on their cursed lovers. Slim Pickens has a brief but pivotal cameo as a good-hearted cowpoke who takes pity on Doc and Carol in a time of great peril and is rewarded disproportionately for his kindness and compassion.
Even with this unexpectedly, unsatisfactorily soft ending The Getaway is still a brutal and bracing experience.
To Robert Evans cultists like myself, who revere the man and his elaborate self-mythology, The Getaway has a legacy beyond bringing together the complementary nihilism of two of American pulp’s greatest and most uncompromising poets of brutality.
Readers and viewers of The Kid Stays In the Picture know The Getaway as the movie that sadistically yanked Ali MacGraw, the red-hot, ice cool movie star love of Robert Evans’ life, away from her adoring husband and into the arms of another.
The rival? This was no mere rival, friend. This man was a GOD. A sex GOD. A momentary fling? If only! Try love, or at least LUST when Steve McQueen, alpha male of the Western world seduced McGraw into leaving her husband and becoming his old lady.
The drama in The Getaway was as intense and darkly fascinating behind the scenes as in front of the camera. It sucks that Evans lost his wife to a movie and a movie star, but as movie stars go, you can do a whole lot worse, and not much better, than McQueen, a timeless, eternal icon of cool, and The Getaway. If The Kid had to lose a spouse to a movie, at least it was a good one.
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