25 reasons why The Getaway is a work of goddamn genius:
1. It’s based on the great novel by JIM THOMPSON. It’s directed by SAM PECKINPAH. The screenplay’s by WALTER HILL. It stars STEVE MCQUEEN. Okay, I’m cheating already. That’s four reasons. But seriously: THOMPSON. PECKINPAH. HILL. MCQUEEN. Come on, goddamnit, get on board.
2. The set-up: McQueen plays Doc McCoy, a convict in a Texas prison. When he’s denied parole, he tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to do what she has to do to get him out. What she has to do is bang corrupt businessman and parole board member Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). Doc is released soon after, and Benyon lets him know what’s required to stay out: rob a mom-and-pop bank in Beacon City with two of his goons, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins). The robbery doesn’t go off without a hitch, but it goes off. Rudy kills Frank and tries to cross Doc, but Doc’s too quick for him. He and Carol hit the road for Benyon’s, where they’re meant to divide the dough. There’s another near-cross, one I won’t talk about, and then the picture splits into two separate narratives: a) Doc and Carol encounter various sorts of trouble while making a run for Mexico, and b) Rudy, having been winged by Doc, takes a veterinarian and his young airhead wife hostage and forces them to drive him to El Paso, where he thinks Doc’s headed.
3. The slowness of the movie. I mean that in the best possible way. Peckinpah lets the camera linger on his actors, lets scenes develop. When Doc gets out of prison, we stay with him as he leans against a flagpole and waits for Carol. It’s the kind of scene that’s the opposite of the too-frantic atmosphere that dominates action movies today.
4. The chemistry between McQueen and MacGraw. I guess it’s common knowledge that MacGraw was married to the producer Robert Evans when she started working on this picture and then was with McQueen when it was over. See #25.
5. Home for the first time from prison, Carol asks Doc what he wants to eat. “Drinks,” he says. “Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey, whiskey.”
6. Carol’s expression when she shoots Benyon.
7. Sally Struthers as Fran Clinton, who betrays her husband Harold (Jack Dodson) and, in the movie’s strangest twist, becomes Rudy’s girl. She’s a knockout (even though her character is pretty annoying).
8. Doc slapping Carol around after—well, I won’t spill it. I’m no fan of violence like this, but this scene manages to be weirdly funny and tender and punched through with that McQueen-MacGraw chemistry.
9. One of the picture’s tensest sequences involves Carol being conned at the train station by a man (Richard Bright) who helps her put the suitcase full of money in a locker while she waits for Doc. When they realize she’s been played, they try to track down the small time con artist. It’s a long sequence that meanders wonderfully and that probably would’ve been hatcheted out by a shitballs director.
10. A totally strange scene where Rudy and Fran throw ribs at each other, which then descends into something violent.
11. Doc says to Carol, who does all the driving: “Punch it, baby!”
12. When Ruby and Fran check into Laughlin’s hotel in El Paso, Fran asks Laughlin (Dub Taylor) to carry her cat. “Cat? What’s it’s name?” Laughlin asks. “Poor Little Harold,” Fran says, a joke at the expense of her sucker husband who’s hung himself in a motel bathroom. “That’s a strange name for a pussy,” Laughlin says.
13. A few minutes later, when he shows Rudy and Fran into their room, Laughlin says, “Okay to put the pussy on the bed?”
14. Peckinpah knows how to let sounds do their work. The whir of machines. The screeching of tires. The pumping of guns. The film’s sound, like its chase sequences and shootouts, is striking. (See also Anthony Moretta’s discussion of sound in Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.)
15. Peckinpah’s long-time composer Jerry Fielding did the original score for The Getaway, but McQueen (who had final say on everything) didn’t like it and hired Quincy Jones. You can find the film with Fielding’s original score, but I’ve never seen it. The nervous bounce of Jones’s score can seem obtrusive and over-the-top, but I like the way it works in the film: it’s plucky and never boring.
16. There are a lot of children in The Getaway and they’re only around when blood’s being shed. A body gets dumped from a car in front of schoolchildren in Beacon City. A child finds a con man that Doc’s knocked out on a train. Kids witness Doc shooting up a town after he’s recognized shopping for a radio. Later, he and Carol are made at a drive-in fast food joint where teenagers cower as Doc shoots out the window of a police cruiser. All this to say that Peckinpah’s violence is never cartoonish (even though the blood is BRIGHT red). It’s always something we as an audience must confront. Too often in action movies violence comes across as mere spectacle. Here, in Peckinpah’s dark world, the consequences are implied. Watch the kids huddle. Watch how easily they frighten.
17. Doc and Carol escape the cops by hiding out in a garbage truck. In another film, this might play out as a joke that lasts for a minute or two, but not here. They get trapped in the truck, garbage covers them, and then they get delivered to a landfill where they’re dumped with the rest of the trash. They hide out in the shell of an old car. Carol has a deep cut on her face. Doc warns her of infection. It’s an incredible sequence, one that plays out slowly with no real regard for the picture’s main narrative.
19. The Getaway ends with one of cinema’s greatest shootouts. As much as I love Quentin Tarantino and as much as I liked the shootout at the end of Django Unchained, Peckinpah’s the king and this remains a bloody ballet of epic proportions.
20. During the shootout, we see a book in Laughlin’s back pocket as he hides under the front desk: Sex and the Over-Fifties.
21. After getting out of Laughlin’s, Doc and Carol escape to Mexico with an old cowboy played by Slim Pickens, who is excited to “cooperate” with them. The cowboy’s glad to hear they’re married. He says the problem with the world today is that there “ain’t no morals.” In another director’s hands, this might have played out as cheap. But it’s the best kind of pay-off: Doc and Carol being delivered to safety by a kind old cowboy.
23. Both Peckinpah and McQueen cite High Sierra (1941) as a huge influence on the picture.
24. McQueen called his performance a tribute to Humphrey Bogart. He had final cut on the picture and Peckinpah criticized him for playing it safe, for only choosing “pretty-boy shots” of himself. But McQueen, like Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, is all Bogart swagger and cool radiance here.
25. It’s a real fucking love story.
Bill Boyle lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Chiron Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Battling Boxing Stories, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.
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