Warner Bros. // 1972 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // July 29th, 2005
It takes two to make it...the big two.
The gritty crime drama is a staple of the 1970s, but to be perfectly frank, there are better Steve McQueen movies than this one -- and better Sam Peckinpah movies and better gritty crime dramas (there's no such animal as a "better" Ali MacGraw movie). For all that, The Getaway is a raw, riveting movie that runs hot and cold and moves along at a torrid pace, resonating with explosive violence, featuring harsh, brutal characters and a plot that doesn't always make perfect sense -- all of which makes this the filmic equivalent of a Mickey Spillane novel. It's definitely enjoyable on that level, and Peckinpah keeps things moving along just fast enough to keep you from dwelling on what's wrong with the movie until after it's over.
Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, rather than The Mick, The Getaway stemmed from McQueen's desire to work with Peckinpah again after their experience together on Junior Bonner, a critically acclaimed western that unfortunately flopped at the box office. McQueen's wife at the time, Neile, brought the book to his attention, and he suggested it to Peckinpah, who had coincidentally once wanted to make the movie for television and jumped at the chance to work on it with McQueen's company, First Artists.
McQueen is Carter "Doc" McCoy, a career thief serving time on an armed robbery conviction. In a brutally effective title sequence, we feel Doc's mind-numbing desperation from the daily grind behind bars, and so he tells his wife to make a deal with the corrupt Sheriff Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson, Dillinger, 1973) -- "His price," says Doc, not realizing just what Benyon's price will be. Among other things, Benyon wants Doc to pull a bank job in a small Texas town with a payoff of half a million dollars. Benyon even supplies some accomplices for Doc: young Frank Jackson (Bo Hopkins, The Killer Elite) and the sinister Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri, The Godfather). Doc isn't too happy about the arrangement, but a deal's a deal, and so it goes.
Doc is allegedly a master criminal, but I have my doubts -- it seems to me that he's more competent setting up these little capers than actually executing them. Take the bank robbery, for instance, which should be quite simple, but which Doc seems to feel compelled to needlessly complicate with all sorts of Mission: Impossible–style preparations. By the time he's ready to go to work, the gang has gathered in a dank, dark boiler room with a table full of diagrams and blueprints and schematics and photographs and God knows what all else, and there's even a highly detailed chalkboard in the background with all sorts of notes and scribblings and arrows and indecipherable stuff that, like the rest of this movie, looks really cool but serves no real purpose. The entire scene plays out and nobody even glances at it. Even Doc's accomplices seem a bit taken aback at all the time and energy he's putting into this thing. "Aren't we going a little hard?" says Rudy. "That's a walk-in bank, man. A piece of cake."
But there again is the point of the movie, just like those pulp novels I love -- style over sense. It's no fun to just walk into a bank and say "stick 'em up!" The real fun is in covertly taking photographs of the bank from secret locations and synchronizing your watches and setting diversionary explosions and going into the sewer to cut the electricity. Which they do, all of it. "Leave the fine stuff to me," says Doc, tersely: "You two are back-up all the way." The "fine stuff" appears to be coming into the bank by the back door, walking into the vault, and putting the money into a satchel -- a complex and delicate operation that you wouldn't want to leave to just anybody. And yet, with all the careful planning and diagrams and diversionary explosions, the whole thing still goes all to hell, and Doc draws more attention than the bombs do with his maniacal driving. But after all, the movie isn't called The Bank Robbery; it's The Getaway, and that's where most of the attention is focused.
It gets worse. Rudy is primed for a double-cross, and Doc has to gun him down. Later, Doc learns from Benyon just how far his wife went to secure his release -- just how much she was willing to give up -- and Doc is none too happy about it. The two find themselves on the run not only from Benyon's thugs and the police, but from a vengeful Rudy as well, who has survived the gunshot wounds and is forcing a meek veterinarian (Jack Dodson) to drive him after Doc, all the while openly seducing the vet's sex-starved wife (Sally Struthers, All in the Family). The destination is El Paso, and then across the border to Mexico and freedom -- but the strain that's been placed on Doc and Carol's marriage by what she had to do to get him out of jail may tear them apart, and even if they make it to El Paso, there's no guarantee that they'll get out alive.
McQueen is his usual cooler-than-cool self, moving stylishly through slow-motion gunfights and agonizing over his wife's...betrayal? Excessive loyalty? Depends on your perspective, I suppose. Although MacGraw isn't much of an actress (I'm being as kind as I possibly can here), there are genuine sparks between her and McQueen -- due no doubt to the torrid off-screen affair between the two that led to the breakup of his marriage. This creates some genuine emotional tension on screen, as you hope they'll be able to work things out but fear that they just won't be able to. Rudy Butler must be one of the most memorable villains of the genre; his coolly casual psychotic behavior makes both for darkly humorous moments, like the food fight that breaks out in the veterinarian's car, and truly chilling ones, like the casual way that he is able to sit down and take a dump while a dead man hangs from the shower curtain rod right next to him. Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles) helps wind up the movie in a great cameo as a dusty farmer with some sage advice for Doc and Carol about love and morality. And Peckinpah keeps the tension high throughout, even in the quieter moments; one particularly well-done sequence has Doc chasing a con man who has stolen the robbery money from Carol aboard a train in a low-key but effective game of cat and mouse.
Warner Bros. released a bare-bones version of this movie some time ago, but this release gets to be the Deluxe Edition because of two commentaries: one from Peckinpah biographers and scholars Garner Simmons, David Weddle, and Paul Seydor, moderated by Nick Redman (one of the best commentaries I've heard in a long time), and the other a "virtual commentary" -- a selected series of interview clips with McQueen, MacGraw, and Peckinpah, an interesting and enlightening touch.
As I've pointed out, both McQueen and Peckinpah are capable of better work than this. Having said that, this movie kicks ass. The array of great haggard faces and strongly drawn characters is in itself enough of a reason to watch this film at least once. Plus, Ali MacGraw gets slapped. Hard. A lot. And isn't that worth at least a rental?
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary by Peckinpah Biographers/Documentarians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle
* "Virtual" Commentary by Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, and Sam Peckinpah
* Theatrical Trailer