Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Getaway (1972)

Director: Sam Peckinpah                                 Writer: Walter Hill
Film Score: Quincy Jones                                Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson and Al Lettieri

Sam Peckinpah was a really great director . . . and I’ve only seen a couple of his films. But the opening credit sequence of The Getaway is so well done, so finely crafted to evoke a specific response from the viewer, that it’s difficult not to see in that alone the hands of a master filmmaker. The director had done something similar in the marriage scene in Ride the High Country a decade earlier, and so it’s clear he’d had this cinematic capability for a long time. Screenwriter Walter Hill--who would go on to pen several hits, including The Long Riders, 48 Hours, Aliens, and even the 1994 sequel to this film starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger--had a fantastic piece of literature to work with in adapting noir novelist Jim Thompson’s original story, but he also made some nice changes that played into Peckinpah’s strength as a director. At every turn Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw are met with obstacles, and as the noose keeps tightening the story becomes almost a comedy of errors. But the plot of the film is almost as convoluted as the road to making the film itself--and is a fascinating story beyond the scope of this review. Though Peckinpah had hired Jerry Fielding to score the picture, he was replaced by Quincy Jones, who does a workmanlike job. While initial reviews of the film were negative, the picture’s status has only grown over the years and is now rightfully considered a classic for both the director and McQueen.

There have been hundreds of prison films made, but how does one convey to the viewer the real emotional torment of doing time in prison? The prisoner can be shown in his cell, alone, but so what? That visual doesn’t convey emotion on its own. The prisoner can tell the viewer in voiceover, but again, that’s telling not showing. What Peckinpah does--just in the opening credit sequence--is to do what only film can do, by juxtaposing images in order to convey a feeling or an emotion. Steve McQueen is doing time in prison. The sound of his parole hearing is heard in voiceover as he is escorted to the meeting. But beneath that conversation is the sound of machinery, constant and unrelenting. Then the scenes of the hearing are intercut with McQueen working in the machine shop at the prison. And still the machines keep ratcheting up beneath the soundtrack. When his parole is denied--accompanied by a stern look from warden Ben Johnson--the machine noise is pushed up to drown out every other sound. McQueen is then taken back to work and, after turning on his machine, the noise filling his ears, he slams it off. He tries again, and slams it off again. The increasing noise of the machines is accompanied by close ups of the prisoner and his thousand-yard stare--and brief glimpses of his life on the outside. And still the noise of the machines grinds on. Only then is he shown alone in his cell. It’s a powerful cinematic moment, visuals and sound combining to convey the emotion of being imprisoned, time working on a mind like a Chinese water torture, wanting nothing else but for the noise to stop. And that’s the genius of Sam Peckinpah.

When McQueen is finally taken to see his girlfriend, Ali MacGraw, he tells her to go to the warden and promise him anything, any price, to let the parole go through. And she does. After getting out, Peckinpah eliminates music from the soundtrack in the next few scenes in order to convey the cessation of the machines in McQueen’s brain. The story also provides even more realism when McQueen and MacGraw are finally alone. Instead of ravishing her, which is the usual trope, he needs time to process his incarceration. He can’t just instantly get back to normal. The deal for getting out of prison is robbing a bank for Johnson. But instead of using his own crew McQueen is forced to use Johnson’s men, Al Lettieri and Bo Hopkins. McQueen doesn’t like it, but he’s stuck. He and MacGraw operate separately from the other two, and they all meet at the bank and everything goes well, that is until Hopkins isn’t paying attention to the security guard, gets shot, then returns fire and kills him. Once in the getaway car, however, Lettieri sees Hopkins as a liability and kills him, dumping the body on the street. At the meet up before the delivery, Lettieri tries to kill McQueen, which he had expected all along, and McQueen turns the tables on him. But Lettieri, who had bragged earlier that he never wears a bulletproof vest, is wearing one now. And thus begins the title of the film as McQueen and MacGraw try to get away with the money without even realizing Lettieri is hot on their trail.

But even that brief summary of the first half of the film leaves a ton of things out. Walter Hill’s screenplay has the characters running a gauntlet of unexpected twists and turns that the viewer must endure right along with them. There are so many suspenseful scenes, one after another, that it’s nearly unbearable--and very difficult not to divulge. Even something as simple as McQueen driving up the ramp in a parking garage to find a spot is imbued with a tremendous amount of tension. McQueen is his usual intense, stolid self, and though I haven’t seen Ali MacGraw in a lot of things other than Winds of War, while she's pretty, she's not a very good actress. The rest of the cast was primarily TV actors, including Sally Struthers, Jack Dodson, Ben Johnson, and low-budget series regular, Dub Taylor. The exceptions are the fantastic Al Lettieri, who played Sollozzo in the original Godfather, Richard Bright, who played Al Neri in The Godfather II, and the iconic Slim Pickens. While the film is definitely of its time, the early nineteen seventies, it is also so much more, as the clothes and cars and film stock are the least of it. Sam Peckinpah’s emphasis on both the characters--especially MacGraw's--and the intricate plot make The Getaway a must see, not only for fans of McQueen, but for fans of crime dramas from any era.

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