Warner Bros. // 1973 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // July 25th, 2005
Meet Max and Francis, the owners of Max's car wash in Pittsburgh.
Take Al Pacino, right between parts I and II of the Godfather trilogy and just before Serpico, pair him up with Gene Hackman, shortly after The French Connection and just before The Conversation, in a long-forgotten 1973 film. Is it a letdown or a misunderstood cinematic gem?
Max (Hackman) and Francis (Pacino) are drifters who meet in California and at first are standoffish with each other. More to the point, Max doesn't like Francis. Max has just been released from jail after being in for a few years for beating up a man, and Francis has been recently discharged from the Navy and is looking to find the child he had with a woman he barely knew before he shipped out. The two become friends (Max renames Francis Lionel) and travel across the country, first to meet Francis's child, then on to Pittsburgh to get money from a bank where Max has an account. There, Max wants to open a car wash, and he decides to bring Francis on as his business partner. Despite his time in prison, Max still hasn't learned his lesson, and he can fight with anyone at the drop of a hat. Francis, on the other hand, is a clown at heart and is convinced that making two people laugh will end any hostilities between them. The pair stop in Colorado and meet Max's friend, or relative (it's not made clear). With Coley (Dorothy Tristan, Klute) and Frenchy (Ann Wedgeworth, Steel Magnolias), Max and Francis find some comfort, and they even almost go back to Colorado, but things happen that cause them to detour from their trip.
Shot by a then relatively unknown Hungarian cinematographer named Vilmos Zsigmond (who later became cinematographer of such classics as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Deer Hunter, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among others), the film looks beautiful. Even with an average video transfer, the picture looks excellent, and after not having seeing the movie in ages, I'm reminded of how amazing Zsigmond's work is. The northern California countryside looks amazing, and you get a good feel of how the film develops as it shifts from an almost barren, peaceful setting to the poorly lit, smoke-filled bars the closer the pair get to Detroit.
Director Jerry Schatzberg (The Seduction of Joe Tynan) at least had the understanding, even back then, to put the camera on Hackman and Pacino and let things run their course. The dynamic between Hackman and Pacino really is something to watch. Max starts off in the film as a rough, abrasive man, and Francis is clearly the clown. During the course of the film, though, Francis evolves as the wife and child in the relationship, and his innocence clearly affects Max. He becomes more outgoing, more social, and when in Colorado with Frenchy he shows a soft side that not many roles of his have exhibited before. After this trip, Max even becomes fiercely protective of Francis. The end scene results in a nice performance by Hackman, maybe not touching, but at least as close to touching as you can get. As Francis, Pacino exhibits a performance of enjoyment and subtlety that you also don't see in his films now. Al seems to be doing nothing now but yelling, save for his Shakespeare films and the occasional film like The Insider or Insomnia. There's even a quick scene where Pacino even exhibits a bit of Chaplin, for heaven's sake! It's the quiet films like this, where he displays a playful side, that really cement his place as one of the great actors.
The downside, however, is clearly the story, written by Garry Michael White. It's stagnant and lacks any real action, and what action does occur seems to be organically created by the actors. It's a bit of a shame, since you've got two phenomenal talents who try to save a stagnant script but can only do so much with it. However, they did do enough with it to win the Grand Prize at Cannes.
If you look past the performances, which really are fascinating and show a surprising level of emotional depth, the movie can very easily be pigeonholed as one of the casualties of '70s filmmaking, where a director who may have been given too much creative control directs a meandering, nearly inactive film with an unsatisfactory conclusion.
Considering the filmographies that Hackman and Pacino possess now, it's nice that you can see different sides to them here that they may not choose to play anymore. The sound quality is barren, but the picture looks very good, and the film is worth revisiting for fans of each actor.
Hackman and Pacino are found not guilty, as they provided the court two rediscovered acting gems. Zsigmond should not have been brought in front of the court in the first place, and White is found guilty of producing a pathetic story. The fact that he has virtually disappeared from the screenwriting and Hollywood platforms is his punishment.
Review content copyright © 2005 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "On the Road with Scarecrow" Featurette