As with this month’s other 70s Warner Bros. release, ‘Night Moves’, there’s a surfeit of talent in the cast and crew of ‘Scarecrow’: Pacino, at the time fresh from ‘Godfather’ glory; Hackman, who had just taken the Oscar for ‘French Connection’; and a gifted Hungarian cinematographer called Vilmos Zsigmond who would go on to provide the decade with some of its most resonant cinematic images. Equally, as with ‘Night Moves’, there’s a reason why the film has become marginalised since it tied with Alan Bridges' 'The Hireling' for the Palmes D'Or in 1973 . Despite individually brilliant elements, it doesn’t engage on a deep level and its sleight storyline fails to make a lasting impact. What it does have, however, is charm, humour and a succession of exquisitely shot scenarios.
Ex-con Max (Hackman) meets easygoing Francis (Pacino) on a country highway. Max is on his way to Pittsburgh to open a carwash. Francis, just back from a long time at sea, is going to Detroit to reunite with the wife he abandoned and the child he’s never seen. Max persuades Francis to join him and the two reach an agreement: they’ll visit Detroit so Francis can deliver a gift to his son, then head for Pittsburgh and go into business together. However, Max’s incendiary temper and bizarre collection of friends soon create complications…
Although it’s set contemporaneously, Jerry Schatzberg’s film and more to the point Garry Michael White’s screenplay has the feel of a Depression-era fable. Max and Francis are bums, hobos, hitching rides on goods trains and sleeping rough. Their concerns are perennial: wanting to atone for past mistakes and make something of their future. As such, their story could be set in any country and pretty much at any time. The filmmaking style, however, is very much of its period. The 70s was the decade when America cinema slowed down (and dropped out, quite a lot too) and there’s a lot of long, long takes in ‘Scarecrow’. The opening shot of Max and Francis waiting for a lift lasts several minutes alone. The next scene is a single shot, lasting over five minutes, of Max and Francis talking in a diner. Long takes. Talking in diners. Taking time to tell a story. I love it all, and it’s one of the reasons that I return again and again to films from this decade, but such devices need a strong storyline to sustain an audience’s interest and separate ‘atmosphere’ from ‘tedium’. While ‘Scarecrow’ never reaches the latter extreme, its narrative is too light to really justify such lengthy scenes.
There’s also a sense of square pegs in round holes as regards the casting. Despite featuring two of the greatest American screen actors of the past fourty years, ‘Scarecrow’ doesn’t contain the kind of onscreen Method fireworks that you might expect. Pacino has allegedly commented on his and Hackman’s failure to connect during filming and there is a sense of two fine individual performances occurring separately within the same film. With ‘The Godfather’ already behind him, Pacino’s onscreen confidence is a joy to watch. It’s an easy, naturalistic performance, but it’s designed for a different character. The light-hearted, clowning Francis doesn’t suit Pacino’s gift for stillness and watchful malice. While he makes the character come alive to an extent, it feels as if he’s operating machinery from a distance, uncertain who the hell this Francis guy really is. ‘Serpico’, which he made the same year, was a much better fit.
Conversely, Hackman is almost too right for the role of gruff, violent Max. In an interview for a magazine, Dustin Hoffman once related how, when he was sharing a flat with Hackman, the hulking actor would disappear on certain evenings and return scuffed and beaten, having gone to a local bar to get into a fight. That quality is already so present in him that it doesn’t need to be stated. Unfortunately that’s exactly what the script does: “I gotta tell you something about me,” Max confides to Francis early on, “I’m, like, the meanest son of a bitch alive. I don’t trust anybody. I don’t love anybody. And I can tear the ass out of a goddamn elephant too.” Enough already! With his character overwritten to this extent, Hackman doesn’t have a lot of room to move. He’s great – he always is – but, like the layers of hats and clothes his character wears, he’s burdened by an excess of self-conscious machismo. There's also strong support for these two titans: Dorothy Tristan as Max's feisty pal Coley, Ann Wedgeworth as her sexy pal and the always menacing Richard Lynch, in his first film role, superbly creepy as the trustee Jack Riley.
The high point of the film is without doubt Zsigmond’s breathtaking cinematography. This was a golden decade for the Hungarian master, shooting ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, ‘Deliverance’, ‘The Deer Hunter’ and most of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ amongst others. His gift for creating compelling, literate scenes, with characters moving through landscape like words across a page, is at its height here. It’s not just the vivid colours that impress. His camera glides majestically after Max and Francis, following their quixotic journey with the eye of a patient and careworn angel. When Max and Francis disembark sleepily from the back of the hay truck they’ve hitched a ride in, late afternoon sunlight breaks through the vehicle’s slats, giving their arrival some of the false grandeur of a dream. Equally, in the film’s first, exquisite shot, Max wanders out of the distance in a frame bisected by the blue-grey of thunderclouds and the worn yellow slope of a hill, a single dull green tree hovering at its crest. Everything one needs to know about his character – and indeed the film – is in that opening shot: the stormy temperament that pursues him, his efforts to escape it and the lure of a single, impossible goal. This is the kind of visual storytelling that the truly great cinematographers can achieve.
Like the ‘Night Moves’ DVD, ‘Scarecrow’ has just the original Trailer and a fluffy featurette called ‘On the road with Scarecrow’ which looks at the filming of a few scenes. At under four minutes, it’s very light stuff.
As you can see from the above, I love the way this film looks and its arrival on DVD in a 2:40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is something to be glad of. This is a good-looking picture, without being stellar. The colours are muted throughout. There are a lot of dark scenes in bars, at which time the grain becomes particularly noticeable, but black levels and detail are consistent – I’ve noticed other reviewers commenting on some edge enhancement, but I couldn’t see it. Print damage is minimal – there’s the odd speck or glitch here and there, but nothing that’s going to spoil your viewing pleasure. Look, I loved this image.
As with ‘Night Moves’, there’s a mono soundtrack and a mono French dub included. This is obviously not a soundtrack that’s going to cause seismic disturbance, nor is it supposed to. There was no hiss or distortion that I could detect and the dialogue was clearly audible. Fred Myrow’s quirky score comes across very clearly. No complaints.
For fans of the 70s or of its two leads, ‘Scarecrow’ is pretty much an essential purchase, but I’d encourage anyone who can appreciate a beautifully shot, low-key character drama to give it a look. It’s not a ‘lost classic’ or a buddy movie to rival ‘Midnight Cowboy’, as some have claimed, but it is worth seeing. It’s full of odd little incidental pleasures – Max and Francis hitch a ride on a corner that looks exactly like the one where the hunting party stop for a leak in ‘The Deer Hunter’; later, Pacino, his hair neatly combed so that he resembles Michael Corleone, visits a church while the soundtrack switches to a solemn, Nino Rota-like melody. From a contemporary perspective, such incidents further locate the film within its historical context, that greatest of all decades for American film, the Seventies.
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