The Getaway Review
“We’re not doing War and Peace. Tolstoy is not writing this thing. We’re here to be pros – get it on, get it over with and get the fuck out. “
Sam Peckinpah (Quoted in Weddle, p.436)
Following the commercial disaster of his beloved Junior Bonner, Sam Peckinpah was in dire need of a lucky break. Despite its notoriety, Straw Dogs had not been a runaway success and there were rumblings around Hollywood that Peckinpah was a loose cannon who didn’t bring in enough money to make him worth the trouble. Nor was his personal life any more straightforward, engaged as he was in an affair with his personal assistant Katy Haber while still involved with his ex-girlfriend Joie Gould. Not for the first time, Sam was saved by a grateful collaborator. Steve McQueen had enjoyed working with Peckinpah on Junior Bonner and suggested that he might be the right director for The Getaway, an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel financed by his own company First Artists. As it happened, Sam was very familiar with the book and had tried to get it filmed when he was working in television. His attitude to the project, as the above quotation suggests, was one of a director for hire. But for Sam, this never suggested a lack of care, it simply meant that his responsibility was to make the film as well as he could in order to please the studio and, hopefully, get some of the money he never quite made on his earlier work.
Steve McQueen, in one of his most memorable performances, plays Doc McCoy, a prisoner on a one to ten armed robbery stretch who is waiting to get his parole approved. Years go by, with his parole blocked by powerful local businessman Jack Benyon (the great Ben Johnson). Tired of the endless tedium of prison life - well represented in a montage of repetitive routines - he asks his wife Carol to approach Benyon to see if a way out can be negotiated. Sure enough, the parole decision is reversed, and Benyon approaches him to perform a bank robbery. Doc has no option but to agree and is forced to work with two strangers as back-up, one of whom is Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), a decidedly unbalanced heist veteran. The robbery seems to go well at first, despite the unplanned shooting of a security guard, and the four robbers haul half a million dollars. However, this is where things get complicated, as Butler not only shoots the fourth team member, but is planning to kill Doc and Carol too and steal the cash for himself.
I have to make a confession upfront. I was never very keen on The Getaway. It seemed an anomaly in the middle of that wonderful streak of Peckinpah’s personal movies that begins with The Wild Bunch and reaches a roaring summation with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, the review I wrote for this site back in 2000 is heavily critical of the movie, dismissing it as second-rate. Well, I’m not sure what’s happened over the course of five years but it now strikes me as a brilliantly controlled piece of popular filmmaking that contains some classic Peckinpah touches even if it’s not quite up there with the best of his other work. One thing which may have influenced my change of mind is a viewing of the 1994 remake, which managed to take the same story – and broadly the same script – and turn it into an impersonal, flashy and compromised piece of Hollywood fluff. In other words, even a Peckinpah-for-hire movie like The Getaway is packed with the personality and obsessions with the director because he was artistically incapable of making a film any other way – this is what he meant by being a pro. Not caring, at least at this point in his career before the coke took over, was an attitude which was completely alien to him.
Peckinpah’s skill is immediately in evidence with the opening, a lengthy montage which flicks backwards and forwards in time to give us a vivid impression of the monotony and aching frustration of prison life. Combined with brief flashbacks of Doc and Carol’s lovemaking, this vibrantly establishes the relationship between the central characters which Carol’s deal with Benyon – which involved sex as well as the robbery – puts in jeopardy. Throughout the film, Peckinpah’s style is crisp and straight to the point, driving the story forward with a raging momentum. His slight self-indulgence in the use of slow-motion is easy to forgive when placed in such a focused context. Sam also uses ellipsis to great effect, often giving the bare minimum of explanation and relying on us to fill in the gaps. It’s never directly stated, for example, that Carol slept with Benyon in order to get Doc out of prison. But it’s obvious in the unspoken looks between Doc and Carol, in Benyon’s self-satisfied manner, in Doc’s confused anger at his wife and his own post-prison impotence. Incidentally, it’s in this sideline of the story that we see Peckinpah’s own puzzlement and fury at women being reflected and it’s surely no accident that Doc’s slapping of his wife is so sudden and brutal. Yet the irony is that Carol is often as much of an active force in the film as her husband – it’s she who makes the deal and she who shoots Benyon for his assumption that she would happily kill her husband for her own safety. Although Ali McGraw’s blank-faced performance tends to mask this a little, Carol is a tough and intelligent woman and it’s not hard to see that this is one of the key factors keeping her and Doc together.
The relationship between Carol and Doc is pure Peckinpah, both in its vicious twists and turns and its ultimate fairy-tale ending. Sam was just as much of a romantic as he was a misanthrope and his feelings towards women were finely pitched between adoration and disgust. This also comes out in the subplot where the injured Butler forces a timid veterinarian to tend to his wounds and then decides to seduce his wife. The wife, played by the TV actress Sally Struthers, is deliberately and crudely sketched as the living embodiment of a sexist joke and I see her as the summation of Peckinpah’s negative feelings about women as unfaithful whores who want it rough because that’s the only thing they understand. If this were the whole of Peckinpah’s view of women then the labelling of him as a misogynist might have something to it but there’s also the tender, admiring side which comes out in complicated characters like Ida Lupino’s Ma Bonner in Junior Bonner and Isela Vega’s tough-as-nails heroine in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, Sam is often at his best when the two attitudes collide as in the character of Carol in this movie, in Straw Dogs and, most interestingly, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Having accepted that the Struthers character is an unashamedly sexist creation then it’s easier to appreciate some of Sam’s black humour such as the brilliant food fight in the car and the fact that what Butler actually wants is to humiliate the husband far more than he wants to screw the wife.
Many of these refinements come from Peckinpah’s careful use of his actors. Sally Struthers is perfect in these scenes and she plays very well with Al Lettieri. Lettieri, who died shortly after the film was finished, is very funny as Butler while still retaining an edge of psychopathic danger. He was an interesting actor, more renowned for his connections with the mob than his acting skills but he always brought a very individual presence to the few films he made. Several members of Sam’s rep company are present. Slim Pickens has a delicious cameo at the end where he improvised a monologue about morality while Dub Taylor is the sleaziest hotel manager imaginable. Best of all, Ben Johnson stretches himself to play a memorable bad guy whose eyes suggest more lechery than he’s allowed to show on screen.
Indeed, one of the things which defines much of Peckinpah’s work in this period is his use of a stock company of technicians and actors whom he happened to find agreeable. He wasn’t able to use many of them on Straw Dogs - hence the appearance in his filmography of John Coquillion who later took over regular DP duties – but they’re all here bar one. Lucien Ballard is the cinematographer, doing a superb job with the extensive location shooting in Texas. Robert L. Wolfe is the editor, working alongside Roger Spottiswoode, and they produce some stunning stuff, particularly in that opening montage, the famous garbage truck scene and the climactic hotel shoot-out. Indeed, the action in The Getaway is superbly achieved throughout – although there’s less of it than you might expect and it’s never allowed to overtake the careful plotting and character development which Walter Hill’s screenplay takes such pains to achieve. In many respects, it’s very close to the original novel but it’s less cynical and the ending is completely different. Thompson’s ending is darkly brilliant as Doc and Carol find themselves in a living hell but I tend to agree with most other writers that this wouldn’t have worked in this kind of film. Thompson’s central couple are mean-spirited and opportunistic while Peckinpah’s are likeable and have their own sense of honour. I suspect the new happy ending was a commercial decision but I think it’s the right one. Peckinpah certainly wasn’t averse to downbeat endings per se, however, as a look at Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia will confirm.
The key member of Peckinpah’s regular collaborators who is missing is Jerry Fielding. The composer was a good friend of Sam’s and had, in fact, put him up when he returned to America from Europe. His score was completed for Peckinpah’s cut but junked by Steve McQueen, who had final approval of the release print. McQueen’s new score, by Quincy Jones, is serviceable enough but it would be wonderful to hear Fielding’s score back in place. In order to ease relations with Fielding, Peckinpah took out a full page advert in Variety thanking him for the score but then managed to sour their relationship further by using Bob Dylan to write the music for Pat Garrett.
It does have to be said, however, that McQueen and Peckinpah got on very well during the filming and the star behaved very well right up until the point that he exercised his contractual right to final cut. The result is one of the star’s defining performances. Doc is a classic McQueen creation; taciturn, resourceful and thoughtful with a grin that seems to light up the whole room on the few occasions that it appears. Peckinpah shoots him brilliantly, making him the centre of many scenes and allowing him to exercise his legendary skill with props – the glasses were apparently McQueen’s own idea. There’s a sense in which the film glamorises crime but this is in an old, if not so honourable Hollywood tradition which makes us sympathise with the hero no matter what he does. The film is very careful to avoid any scenes in which Doc does any unnecessary killing and this makes it distinctive in Peckinpah’s action movies even if it does give some justification to Pauline Kael’s charge that the film turns criminals into sweethearts. Some of the likeability which radiates from McQueen may come from the actor’s infatuation with his co-star.
Ali McGraw’s performance is mediocre at best and appalling at worst and a measure of how irritating she is can be suggested by my memory of hearing a whole room full of right-on, politically correct and impeccably liberal viewers whoop and cheer when she gets a smack in the mouth. But McQueen clearly adores her. It’s evident in his body language, in the way he looks at her and in the chemistry between them. In itself, this does something to give an unusual level of credibility to the film.
If I’ve come to appreciate The Getaway, that’s not to say that I think it’s one of Peckinpah’s great films. It’s too light, too much of a piece of fluff to stand alongside The Wild Bunch or Alfredo Garcia. But in its presentation of a venal, cynical world where parole is decided by adultery and the only competent people in the film are a couple of criminals, it’s certainly recognisable as Peckinpah’s vision of the world and the genuine style and intelligence of the filmmaking mark it out as the work of fine film artist.
The Getaway was originally released by Warners back in the early days of DVD on a barebones disc. This new release, available both on its own and as part of the Essential Steve McQueen boxset, is a definite improvement even if it’s not entirely ideal.
The film is presented at an anamorphically enhanced ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer strikes me as improvement on the original single-layer release. How much of an improvement will inevitably depend on how you’re watching the film – I’ve heard that when projected onto a 50” screen it has distinct flaws. But on a normal widescreen TV it looks pretty good to me. There’s a little bit of aliasing here and there and occasionally the level of details dips below what I would have expected. But the colours are spectacular – look at Benyon’s tablecloth in the scene on the boat for example – and the picture is generally crisp. Very little print damage is evident. This isn’t quite as good as the new edition of Bullitt but it’s still very pleasing indeed.
The soundtrack is the original mono recording and it’s absolutely fine. Clear, crisp and well balanced.
The extras are not exactly extensive but they are valuable. Along with the lengthy theatrical trailer we get two commentary tracks – well, one and a bit. The first is a roundtable discussion between Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Paul Seydor, moderated by Nick Redman, and it’s just as good as the other tracks that they have done. There are plenty of original and fascinating observations, some good-natured disagreement and the sense of a good time being had by all. I particularly liked a suggestive comparison between Peckinpah and Robert Altman that Simmons makes and then seems to back away from. The second track lasts for the first reel of the film – roughly ten minutes – and contains comments from Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw and Sam Peckinpah which have been drawn from contemporary interviews. These are fascinating for fans but I’m not sure what more casual viewers will make of it.
I enjoyed the extras which are there but I am disappointed that the mooted extras regarding Jerry Fielding – principally his original rejected score which was to have been presented as an isolated track – haven’t emerged. Maybe Warners will include them if this film is part of their mooted 2006 Peckinpah boxset – although I certainly wouldn’t put money on this happening.
The film contains optional subtitles but the commentaries and trailer do not.
The Getaway is not in the first rank of Peckinpah’s work but it’s a damn sight better than most recent action movies, refusing to sacrifice careful pacing and character building for the sake of cheap thrills. The DVD presents the film impressively but it’s a shame it couldn’t have packed in a few more extra features to justify the ‘Deluxe Edition’ tag.