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 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 all the warmth of 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. Super-thief Doc McCoy (McQueen) is sprung from prison to mastermind a bank robbery for corrupt businessman-with-pull Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). Double-crosses and “unexpected” violence ensue. Doc and wife Carol (MacGraw) head for the border with their ill-gotten loot, fighting off disgruntled co-heisters, Benyon’s henchmen, and good old inconvenient cops along the way. Big shootout before happy ending. (“After all,” one could imagine the box office-minded McQueen reasoning, “the thing is called The Getaway, is it not?”)
Given creative latitude, Peckinpah squeezed pulp into poetry. He took The Siege of Trencher’s Farm — a dime-store rack-warmer with a meek but righteous man of education upholding human virtue against a mob of brutes — and he turned it into Straw Dogs. He took a friend’s whimsy — an absurdity fit for stoned Herschell Gordon Lewis fans about a severed head worth a fortune and the bottom-feeder who’s determined to cash it in — and he gave us Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia with its howl of despair against the twentieth century. McQueen brought The Getaway to Peckinpah after talks with other directors fell through; the star was in the habit of lamenting how little money he’d made from their previous collaboration, Junior Bonner, and Peckinpah knew full well he had but one job here: to deliver a hit.
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 and 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 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, Sam’s hated President Nixon was still in office and the dumpster fire over in Vietnam was still raging. The mood of his English-set Straw Dogs had hitched a ride with him back to America, and The Getaway is Peckinpah stuffing the chapped orifices of the standard action-flick playbook with quiet innovation, eliciting the second of Steve McQueen’s two greatest performances (the first being Junior Bonner).
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 as he’s readjusting to the outside world: 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 sacrificed for the gift of criminal expediency. Take a look at the humorous, tense sequence wherein Doc retrieves their money from the train-station con man who’s absconded with it.
And certainly, there’s the hell-for-leather hotel shootout that splatters us with the film’s climactic juices and retains its pell-mell wobble on even your twentieth rewatch. Peckinpah’s having it two ways here: 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 Seventies media hype and a refinement — perhaps, even a perfection — of his technique. The Getaway is essentially the same syphilitic, Doberman-chewed cunt of a world that Peckinpah’s other films brought into focus. The difference here is the degree to which Peckinpah pushes his camera in to study the boils along the labia. Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia push you close enough to see the camera’s reflection; in The Getaway, said boils are merely wallpaper — confined chiefly to the world around the McCoys, the better to sharpen the studs in their path to safety.
The prickliest of those studs: Al Lettieri’s remorseless, double-crossing Rudy, who’s part of the team Jack Benyon assigns to Doc for the bank job. Naturally, Rudy wants the spoils of the heist to himself, so he knocks off the third man on the crew, then draws first on Doc only to find that Doc shoots quicker. (Rudy’s would-be parting words: “[The other guy] didn’t make it… and neither did you.”) Left for dead, he goes on to hound the McCoys like the specter of past transgressions. Rudy’s a guy who’d leave Lettieri’s Sollozzo from The Godfather lying in the gutter with a piss-streaked face. He’s a guy who kidnaps a veterinarian and his buxom-slut wife, then seduces the wife repeatedly in front of the helpless mook for no reason than to torture him and show him who’s got the bigger dick. Hubby hangs 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.
That’s not to say that McQueen — whose publicist had optioned the rights to Thompson’s novel and whose production company, First Artists, was behind the film — resisted trying to sand off the story’s rougher edges. Thompson was brought on to adapt the screenplay; McQueen fired him when his first draft hewed too closely to the book’s nobody-gets-away-clean cynicism and surreal ending. McQueen also tossed out the score by Peckinpah regular Jerry Fielding and substituted a more “accessible” one by Quincy Jones. He ensured we got a Doc McCoy unable to kill in cold blood when the Doc of Thompson’s genesis would rearrange your innards for looking at him sideways. McQueen’s contract gave him final say over editing; Peckinpah fumed that the actor prioritized his screen-idol appeal over raw truth with the shots and takes he selected.
Thing is, for such a blockbuster-action-film-of-its-time — and all the eschewing of complexity that suggests — 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 big shot to spring him from the hoosegow! See Doc unable to get it up for the woman who’s been haunting his daily thoughts for the last several years! It’s in the vulnerability Doc would rather kill than directly express: he’s all bottled up from that hard-knock life turned prison-survival mechanism — to show tenderness even (or especially) to a woman is suicide. And to compare the likes of McQueen to what passes for emblems of manhood in the Age of Oprah, one only need ask: what modern star is there who would allow himself to be portrayed like this, particularly within the context of a designed crowd-pleaser?
Every hard-bitten old “misogynist” nurses his inner romantic, of course. Carol McCoy is Sam Peckinpah’s woman par excellence, so idealized in her devotion she nearly glows: partner-in-crime and ace getaway driver rolled into one, right up in the shit where it stinks most, elbow-to-elbow with her man, as tough as he is and tougher in many ways.
Plug a few shots in a bad guy? Oh, Carol’s got that. Spread her legs just to spring your ass from jail? She’s got that, too. Help with your decoy explosions and your money-stashing? Waiting for you all night in a decrepit train station while you take off after some half-ass Jimmy? 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 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 Peckinpah’s own 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. Yet, The Getaway stands as likely the only truly happy ending in the Peckinpah canon (are we counting Convoy?): the story of a successful marriage and how a couple’s love for each other perseveres despite the double-crosses, despite all the doubts and fights and insecurities and side-of-the-road bitch-slaps. It’s only on the wings of Doc’s renewed 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-fueled 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 fantasies of that Matrimonial Castle in the Sky — What Could Be — then, Sally Struthers’ Fran is, of course, our funky black proxy for 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 selflessness, 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 boy 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 probably the quickest route by which Peckinpah was able to connect his own ambivalence about relationships to the matter-of-fact sociopathy of the book and find a way into the material*. It’s no different in spirit from Francis Ford Coppola using personal family issues to relate to the dynamics of the Corleone clan or Martin Scorsese reaching down into the sewage of his own coke-laced self-abuse to pull out Raging Bull.
Fran’s every pinched, shrill tart that encourages the worst in men. She’s the ninny in the dive bar who flirts behind her boyfriend’s back, then goads her man into kicking the poor bastard’s face 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 standing: stuck with a rotting corpse of a husband whose suicide she all but encouraged, she’s discarded by the thug who merely used her as a tool to assert primacy over another male, then meets the business end of a Steve McQueen cold-cock. 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 time-ravaged 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.
George Clinton once told us that the funk is its own reward; conversely, then, we might say that to be a treacherous cunt like Fran is — in the pitiless world painted by Sam Peckinpah’s brush — its own worst punishment.
©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted September 29, 2010 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic. Some content has been altered for this re-posting.)
*Of course, Peckinpah (once again) gets to sentimentalize his own helplessness at the calloused hands of Hollywood. It’s impossible not to imagine that he saw himself in Doc’s shoes as the man of unparalleled talent sprung from the pen (i.e., his years spent being blackballed from the movie biz) by a shady son-of-a-bitch with connections (i.e., producer) who promises him that all will be okay as long as he pulls off the job and brings back the money, but is really plotting behind his back to have him killed off (i.e., fired or bad-mouthed into pariahdom yet again). Instead, Doc Peckinpah perseveres and makes off for good to his beloved Mexico with his pride and his reputation intact.