Monday, March 22, 2010

Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon: The Getaway

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Jason Bellamy over at The Cooler.
By the time he made The Getaway (1972), Steven McQueen was in desperate need of a commercially successful film. His last three were box office flops, especially his last one, Junior Bonner (1972). Incidentally, Sam Peckinpah, who directed both films, was also in a need of a hit and saw this project as a way to show Hollywood that he could make a box-office hit. In doing so, the director once again was forced to compromise his vision for someone else’s – in this case, McQueen who did everything in his power to make The Getaway his ticket back into the elite, A-list club of major Hollywood players.

Carter “Doc” McCoy (Steve McQueen) is a career criminal just released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. The opening credits play over a montage of the repetitive grind of life in prison for Doc as symbolized by the monotonous clacking of the machinery he works with during his time spent there. We get glimpses of his daily routine and the things he does to try and pass the time but they do little to ease his frustrations. With the help of his beautiful wife Carol (Ali MacGraw), who has sex with local corrupt politician Benyon (Ben Johnson), Doc is released early for “good behavior.”

Carol and Doc are reunited and they celebrate by going to a park, an idyllic setting where they spontaneously decide to go for a swim. Doc revels in his freedom. He and Carol seem happy. They share a rare, tender moment together at home when she comforts him and he confesses to her how prison has changed him. He’s even apprehensive about making love with her because so much time has passed but she is loving and patient with him. The next morning we see them briefly experiencing domestic bliss as Doc makes breakfast for Carol. There’s an incredible intimacy displayed during these scenes and McQueen conveys an astonishing amount of vulnerability. This is the first and only time we’ll see them this carefree. It’s fleeting as the rest of the film will see Doc in professional criminal mode.

Indebted to Benyon, Doc meets with him about a potential job. Ben Johnson plays his character with the smug confidence of a man who knows that he has power over others. As Benyon tells Doc at one point during their meeting, “You run the job, but I run the show.” Benyon orders Doc to rob a bank that has over $500,000. He assigns him two accomplices, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri) and Frank Johnson (Bo Hopkins). One look at these two hired goons and you know that they can’t be trusted. Doc is a smart guy and realizes this as well but what choice does he have?
In a nice attention to detail, we see Doc and his crew thoroughly plan and prepare for the job. Both he and Carol check out the bank in order to see how many employees it has, what kind of security they have, the local police presence, and so on. It becomes readily apparent that Doc leaves nothing to chance. He’s efficient and well-prepared. However, despite all of his meticulous planning, the heist does not go smoothly and a bank guard and Jackson are killed. Not surprisingly, this sequence allows Peckinpah to cut loose with some of his trademark slow motion mayhem, including a fantastic bit where Doc plows through the front porch of a house with his getaway car. Peckinpah’s films are always a marvel of editing and this one is no different. During the bank heist, he uses editing to ratchet up the tension. Because of the rhythm of the editing he employs in this sequence, you intuitively anticipate that something bad will happen at any given moment and when it does, it almost comes as a relief akin to a release valve.

Doc and Carol rendezvous with Butler and the latter foolishly tries to double-cross the former. Doc shoots Butler and leaves him for dead. The rest of the film plays out their attempts to escape for the border and safe haven in El Rey, Mexico, and also Butler’s pursuit for revenge.
Steven McQueen brings his trademark cool and intensity to the role of Doc and is not afraid to play a relatively unlikable character. We don’t know what Doc was like before his prison stretch, only how he behaves once he gets out. McQueen plays him as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I find it interesting that two of his strongest performances came from back-to-back Peckinpah films: Junior Bonner and The Getaway. The former featured a very nuanced, introspective performance from McQueen, while this one is all on the surface as he plays an irredeemable criminal.

Ali MacGraw faced a lot of criticism back in the day for being a lightweight actress out of her depth in this film but she does a good job, especially in the scene where Carol exacts retribution on Benyon and then in the follow-up scene where she tearfully confronts Doc about what she had to do in order to get him out of prison. He lashes out at her, repeatedly slapping Carol, reducing her to tears in a truly uncomfortable moment. Peckinpah is never afraid to expose raw emotions. Doc knows how to switch his emotions on and off at will but Carol doesn’t work that way. MacGraw does a nice job of portraying a woman that feels out of her depth in a world filled with hardened criminals and this mirrored the actress’ own experience making a film she clearly was not comfortable doing in the company of people that intimidated her.

When you have someone iconic like Steve McQueen as your protagonist, you better have someone who can match him as the antagonist. Peckinpah found that in Al Lettieri who plays the ruthless Rudy Butler. The actor brings an uneasy intensity to his sociopathic character. Butler only cares about the money and getting revenge while also delighting in tormenting a couple he takes hostage along the way. There’s a seedy ugliness to the scenes where takes advantage of a veterinarian (Jack Dodson) and his wife (Sally Struthers) that would be taken up another notch in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
For some time prior to The Getaway, McQueen had been encouraging his publicist David Foster to become a film producer. Foster’s first attempt was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with McQueen starring alongside Paul Newman but 20th Century Fox did not want Foster as part of the deal. The project fell apart and while McQueen was making Le Mans (1971), Foster acquired the rights to Jim Thompson’s crime novel The Getaway. Foster sent McQueen a copy of the book and urged him to do it. The actor was looking for a good/bad guy role and saw these qualities in Doc. McQueen admired Humphrey Bogart since he was a child and patterned his performance from Bogart in High Sierra (1941).

Foster began to look for a director and Peter Bogdanovich was brought to his attention. He and McQueen screened Bogdanovich’s soon-to-be-released The Last Picture Show (1971) and loved it. They met with the director and a deal was made. However, Warner Brothers approached Bogdanovich with an offer to direct What’s Up Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand but with the stipulation that he would have to start right away. The director wanted to do both films but the studio refused. When McQueen found out, he was very upset and told Bogdanovich that he was going to get someone else to direct The Getaway. Foster and McQueen hired Jim Thompson to adapt his own book into a screenplay which he spent four months writing. However, they did not like the ending where Carol and Doc “descend into a nightmarish physical and spiritual hell” in Mexico and fired him from the project.

McQueen had just worked with Peckinpah on Junior Bonner and enjoyed the experience. He recommended the director to Foster who then approached Peckinpah. He agreed to do it. The filmmaker had read the novel when it was originally published and had even talked to Thompson about making it into a film when he was starting out as a director. Foster and McQueen then met with screenwriter Walter Hill and hired him to adapt Thompson’s novel. Peckinpah read the screenplay and Hill remembers that he didn’t change much: “We made it nonperiod and we added a little more action.” After Junior Bonner, Peckinpah wanted to make Emperor of the North Pole (1973), a story set during the Depression about a railroad conductor obsessed with keeping hobos off his train. Foster made a deal with Paramount Pictures’ production chief Robert Evans who would allow Peckinpah to do his personal project if he would helm The Getaway.
For the role of Carol, Peckinpah wanted to cast Stella Stevens whom he worked with on The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with Angie Dickinson or Dyan Cannon as possible alternatives. Foster suggested Ali MacGraw, a much in-demand actress after the smash-hit Love Story (1970). At the time, she was married to Evans who wanted her to get away from being typecast in preppy roles and set up a meeting with Foster, McQueen and Peckinpah to talk about the film. According to Foster, she was scared of McQueen and Peckinpah because they had a reputation for being “wild, two-fisted beer-guzzlers.” When McQueen met MacGraw there was a very strong, instant attraction between the two. She was unsure about the project because of her attraction to him. She said, “He was recently separated, and free, and I was scared of my overwhelming attraction to him.”

For the role of Rudy Butler, Peckinpah wanted Jack Palance but could not afford his salary. Impressed by his performance in Panic in Needle Park (1971), Walter Hill recommended Richard Bright. He had worked with McQueen 14 years ago but did not have the physique that McQueen pictured for Butler. Peckinpah got along famously with Bright and ended up casting him in a smaller role of a small-time grifter that tries to steal the bank heist loot. Al Lettieri was brought to Peckinpah’s attention by producer Al Ruddy who was working with the actor on The Godfather (1972). Ruddy showed the director footage of Lettieri and Peckinpah knew that he wanted him to play Butler. Like Peckinpah, Lettieri was a heavy drinker and this caused problems during filming due to his unpredictable behavior. The director, on the other hand, drank all day but did not appear drunk.

A potential roadblock arose in the form of a conflict between Paramount and the film’s budget. Peckinpah was dismissed from Emperor and was told that Paramount was not making The Getaway either. McQueen’s agent had 30 days to set up a deal with another studio or Paramount would own the rights. Fortunately, his agent was inundated with offers and went with the First Artists group because McQueen would receive no upfront salary, just 10% of the gross for the first dollar taken in on the film – very profitable if it was a box-office hit.

Principal photography began on February 7, 1972 in Huntsville, Texas. Peckinpah shot the opening prison scenes at the local penitentiary with McQueen surrounded by actual convicts. During the course of filming, McQueen and MacGraw fell in love. Naturally, Foster was worried that their relationship was going to have a negative impact on the production by causing a potential scandal with the media ruining the reputation of the film.

McQueen and Peckinpah got into occasional heated arguments during filming. The director recalled one such incident: “Steve and I had been discussing some point on which we disagreed, so he picked up this bottle of champagne and threw it at me. I saw it coming and ducked and Steve just laughed.” Despite these disagreements, McQueen had his moments of brilliance. He had a natural aptitude with props, especially the guns he used in the film. Hill remembered, “you can see Steve’s military training in his films. He was so brisk and confident in the way he handled the guns.” It was McQueen’s idea to have Doc shoot up two squad cars in the scene where his character holds two police officers at gunpoint.

MacGraw got her start as a model and her inexperience as an actress manifested itself on the set where she struggled with the role. According to Foster, Peckinpah and MacGraw got along quite well but she was not happy with her own performance. She said, “I looked at what I had done in it, I hated my own performance. I liked the picture, but I despised my own work.”
Under his contract with First Artists, McQueen had final cut on The Getaway and when Peckinpah found out he was very upset. Richard Bright said that McQueen chose takes that “made him look good” and Peckinpah felt that he played it safe: “He chose all these Playboy shots of himself. He’s playing it safe with these pretty-boy shots.” McQueen also used his clout to replace Jerry Fielding’s completed score with one by Quincy Jones.

There were two preview screenings, a lackluster one in San Francisco, and a more enthusiastic one held in San Jose. However, critics were less than jazzed with The Getaway. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and called it, “a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy.” Time magazine described McQueen as having “primarily a deep-frozen presence,” and called MacGraw’s screen presence “abrasive. As a talent, she is embarrassing.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The action and the violence of The Getaway are supported by no particular themes whatsoever. The movie just unravels.” After everything was said and done, The Getaway was the second highest grossing film of the year, making $18 million domestically and $35 million worldwide. McQueen was back on top and a major Hollywood player once again.

Peckinpah never forgets what kind of film The Getaway is – a crime thriller – but still manages to inject his trademark stylistic flourishes and thematic preoccupations while still fulfilling all the necessary conventions of the genre, especially in the exciting, bullet-ridden climax. The Getaway may have been a paycheck film for Peckinpah but he still found ways to make it his own despite McQueen’s tinkering.

8 comments:

  1. Tremendous and informative post JD! I know this isn't one of Peckinpah's greatest films but it is kind of a personal favorite...great post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Jeremy! Yeah, I like this film quite a bit even if it isn't Peckinpah's greatest. There is still a lot going on and I dig McQueen in this one.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post, J.D. This one remains a favorite over the years. I'm glad you included the titles sequence at the beginning of this film. It's has a wonderful touch and sets up the character's psyche under incarceration wonderfully. I especially appreciate the number of great films you cover in this review. From JUNIOR BONNER to EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (a highly underrated Aldrich film), THE LAST PICTURE SHOW to THE GODFATHER, and of course, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. Every film you mention here is quite special, as is THE GETAWAY. Thanks for this!

    ReplyDelete
  4. le0pard13:

    Thanks for the kind words, my friend! yeah, the title sequence is something else and as you so rightly point out, shed light on Doc's psyche and mindset while in prison. It really informs his behavior later on.

    I really like JUNIOR BONNER and came very close to writing about it instead for the McQueen Blog-a-thon. It's a very atypical Peckinpah film!

    ReplyDelete
  5. J.D. This is a fun read. Thanks for taking part in the blog-a-thon.

    There’s an incredible intimacy displayed during these scenes and McQueen conveys an astonishing amount of vulnerability. This is the first and only time we’ll see them this carefree.

    Though there are moments of great action in The Getaway, it's the intimacy between McQueen and MacGraw that gets to me. Your last line isn't entirely right, though. By the time they reach the hotel near the border and think they are home free, they fall back into that same intimacy, and it feels just as real. That's why even though McQueen is the ultimate badass in this film, we feel sorry for him that guys are hunting him down. Doc and Carol just seem so happy, and you want to let them stay that way. I think the offscreen romance between the two certainly bleeds into the film here, and to positive effect.

    Thanks again for contributing!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Informative review J.D. As others have said, this isn’t one of Peckinpah’s great films but it is entertaining and that is due to McQueen and I believe the source material, the novel by Jim Thompson, one of the great pulp writers. I always thought McQueen and MacGraw made a nice team and while she is no great actress, I though she did fine in this film. Interesting background material, did not know about Stevens, Dickinson or Cannon as potential female leads. It is always fun to imagine other actors in roles. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Jason Bellamy:

    "Your last line isn't entirely right, though. By the time they reach the hotel near the border and think they are home free, they fall back into that same intimacy, and it feels just as real."

    You make a good point! I hadn't thought of that. I guess it felt a tad fleeting because of the impending shoot-out with the bad guys on their trail.


    John:

    Thanks for the compliments! I love Thompson's book and actually re-read it to prepare for this article. While there are notable differences, I did feel that Walter Hill's screenplay certainly captured the spirit of the novel.

    I agree with you about MacGraw. I felt that she was give a raw deal by critics when the film first came out. She isn't bad, just average but, thanks to their off-screen relationship, have a excellent chemistry in front of the camera which goes a long way.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hey JD, great post, thanks for sharing. i really enjoyed reading this, i'm a huge fan of Steve McQeen and i kinda like this film!
    Plumbers London

    ReplyDelete