The Getaway – 1972

Director Sam Peckinpah
Screenplay Walter Hill
Starring Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers, Bo Hopkins

Steve McQueen is one of the heroes of Hollywood where it feels like one had to be there. The Getaway is exhibit A. His appeal seems to stem from the fact that he used a gun very dramatically and every car he is in seems to fishtail no matter the speed. Ali MacGraw, soon to be his wife, was billed as the top box office draw for an actress when this film was released. She also got nominated for A Love Story. If anything, it makes more sense that people like Natalie Portman have won Oscars since.

The start of the film goes back and forth, from future to past to present. It reminds me of Soderbergh’s superior editing in Out of Sight. I would venture to guess the latter film is some sort of homage to Peckinpah. For this story, the flashing back and forth is annoying, doing little for either McQueen’s Doc McCoy or MacGraw as his wife, Carol.

The story starts out with McCoy being denied bail after 4 years in the clink. Ben Johnson’s Jack Beynon looks on with self satisfied amusement. We know it’s Beynon that McCoy is talking about when he tells his wife when she visits next time that he can be sold.

The next scene, we see McCoy saunter out of the penitentiary, getting a reminder from one of Beynon’s men that he will see him within 2 days. Then for an interminable amount of time we see McCoy waiting to be picked up by Carol, who said she had a hair appointment.

Really? Wasn’t she one who would know before the prison if Doc was being released?

The second act is, of course, the heist. There would be no Getaway with no heist that goes wrong. It’s not clear why someone would leave a gun within arms reach of the officer on the floor, but then, it would require more thought to make the problems complicated. One of the men (Lettieri as Rudy Butler) selected for McCoy goes rogue. Then the whole deal falls apart at Beynon’s house. It’s then that we see the film’s most obvious attempt at acting.

After driving away, McCoy pulls over, then beats Carol. He hits her several times, quite dramatically. It’s supposed to be a significant moment in the film. It feels horribly dated now, 50 years later. In 1970, near the dawn of E.R.A., they just have some things to work out while they’re on the road.

This is all the plot you’ll get. There’s not that much more, but might as well have something saved for later. Suffice to say, the gunfight scenes are as silly as expected from Peckinpah, who got many raves for his bloody violence in the day. Shotgun blasts shouldn’t look the way he has them look. Sure it might have been scary seeing red splotches on screen for the first time, even if it doesn’t look like blood as much as paint.

All of this must be compared to its time, one would suppose. If Georges Méliès could pull off his magic decades before Peckinpah, though, I think we can just admit it isn’t that great for any era. Gunfights where someone shoots from a distance and hopes they killed someone who isn’t moving doesn’t make good storytelling in any era. How else, though, does one get to see Butler comeback twice from what should have been certain death?

Lettieri, MacGraw and McQueen suffer from Peckinpah’s awkward approach. The whole film is littered with scenes that could have been much tighter if they’d taken the time to get it right. The scene in the car with Butler throwing ribs from the back seat is agonizing because it just feels like no one knows how to improvise such absurdity.

Even worse is the affect this style has on real life couple McQueen and MacGraw. If there is any heat between them, Peckinpah does his best to avoid catching it. She didn’t do another film until 1978’s Convoy, and one can’t help but wonder if this experience and the critical backlash had as much to do with it as being married to McQueen.

There is a scene set in garbage that goes on for an agonizing amount of time. It could have been cut down by 5 minutes and still gotten the claustrophobic point across.

The chase scenes are all awkwardly paced, sans the train scene, which is decent. The conversations mostly feel like one searching for their lines. At best, the film feels competently directed, horribly edited. Robert L. Wolfe was nominated for Oscar 3 times subsequently, so I have to lay all of this on the director.

Hill’s screenplay is okay. There are some real blank spots by McCoy’s protagonist. How he could walk into the problems he does, yet avoid some other tricky spots is puzzling. I don’t know how much of the plot would have improved with a better director. Roger Donaldson took the same material 20 years later and came up with worse.

Quincy Jones’ score is decent, but hard to say it does much to fill the awkward silence between its leads.

Ultimately, I think this film only serves as a time capsule for what qualified for popular action in 1972. If I had a parallel for today, one could place something in the Fast and Furious franchise for its equivalent. Not sure we’ll ever see any of the FF movies on Criterion. This one shouldn’t be on here, anymore than Armageddon or The Rock.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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