There's a world of hurt in the opening
sequence of Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972). But contrary to the director's
reputation as "Bloody Sam," it's not flagrant, gut-splattering hurt; rather,
it's inner, gut-twisting anguish.
The screeching promised by the movie's
title does come, but later. First, during the opening credits, Peckinpah
concisely etches a portrait of the film's protagonist, played with quiet
intensity by Steve McQueen. The centerpiece of the sequence is a hearing
where Carter "Doc" McCoy (McQueen) is denied parole after serving four
years for armed robbery in the Huntsville, Texas, penitentiary. The scene
is interspersed with shots of Doc's daily grind, and with memories of intimate
moments with his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw).
The images and stretches of dialogue are
shuffled so sound and picture don't always match, producing the effect
that time is out of joint. The montage conveys Doc's anger and frustration
as he realizes being a model prisoner means nothing when a local bigwig
like Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) wants to bend you to his will. The metallic
din of the prison's textile mill dominates the sound-effects track; its
visual counterpart is the steely look on Benyon's face at the hearing. This tour-de-force opening shows the director
of The Wild Bunch (1969) in peak form. The Getaway, however, is not considered
one of Peckinpah's more personal works. He made the movie for commercial
reasons, and it was his biggest hit. The project, an updated version of
the 1958 pulp novel by Jim Thompson, was initiated by McQueen. The actor
hired Peckinpah to direct; the two men had just finished working together
on Junior Bonner (1972), an eloquent family drama disguised as a rodeo
picture. Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill lightened up Thompson's
original (relentlessly seedy) story and changed the ending.
Ultimately, The Getaway would earn a place
in Hollywood history because of the incendiary on-set romance between the
freshly divorced McQueen and costar MacGraw. The Love Story star, for whom
The Getaway was only her third film, was then famously married to Paramount
Pictures chief Robert Evans, but was quickly drawn to her sexy costar. That said, The Getaway thwarts viewers'
expectations of a steamy story of a bandit couple on the run; McQueen and
MacGraw barely touch each other. In fact, there's almost a dark humor in
the way Doc and Carol don't connect physically. Maybe this is what Peckinpah
meant when he called The Getaway his "first attempt at satire."
From their first onscreen meeting, Doc
and Carol seem more like acquaintances than lovers. When they're reunited
outside the prison gate ' Benyon pulls strings to have Doc released once
Doc agrees to mastermind a bank robbery for him ' there are no terms of
endearment, no hugs or kisses. The homecoming bedroom scene finds Doc insecure
and Carol similarly awkward. But this initial tension is nothing compared
to the mood after Doc finds out that Carol traded sex with Benyon as part
of the deal for his freedom. A confrontation at Benyon's ranch culminates
with Doc and Carol pointing pistols at each other. By the time the couple
jump in their car and barrel towards the Mexican border with a case full
of cash from the robbery, they're both seething with resentment.
point in Doc and Carol's relationship comes when they're literally forced
together. The dumpster in which they're hiding from the police is picked
up by a garbage truck. As debris rains down on them, Peckinpah intercuts
shots of the driver's hand working the controls. This unseen being, now
in charge of their destiny, disposes of Doc and Carol at the dump at dawn.
The couple emerges shaky, but safe. They're stinky, but it's a cleansing
stench. And although they still bicker, their body language is softer,
humbler. Peckinpah then provides a trademark shoot-'em-up finale and a
comic coda featuring Slim Pickens. There was plenty of drama behind the scenes
of The Getaway. McQueen and Peckinpah occasionally bumped chests, just
as they had while filming Junior Bonner. But the men shared a mutual respect
'that is, until McQueen hijacked the picture after Peckinpah delivered
his final cut to First Artists. The star not only tinkered with the editing,
he also jettisoned the musical score by Jerry Fielding and replaced it
with one by Quincy Jones. Peckinpah responded by taking space in "Variety"
to publicly praise Fielding's version.
Critics found it difficult to praise MacGraw's
performance (a reviewer in "Newsday" described her as being "all face").
Then again, MacGraw had a lot to handle during that life-changing shoot,
including arriving on the set of this road movie without ever having learned
how to drive. In her 1991 autobiography "Moving Pictures", MacGraw recalls
those three months in Texas: "I walked the nasty razor's edge between occasional
moments of sanity and remorse on the one side and, on the other, feverish
excitement." MacGraw would not work again for five years.
Her split with Evans ruined her chance of being cast in her dream role,
as Daisy Buchanan in Paramount's adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974).
McQueen, whom she married in July 1973, forbade her from acting. When she
accepted Peckinpah's offer to play the female lead in Convoy (1978), McQueen
left her. MacGraw wrote of Peckinpah, the director who gave her another
chance, that "underneath an almost caricature machismo was a most gentle,
kind, and intelligent soul."
Kind soul or not, Peckinpah obviously had
a ball with The Getaway's salacious subplot involving the loose-cannon
bank robber Rudy and the hot tomato he picks up while in pursuit of Doc
and the loot. Rudy forces sexpot Fran and her husband to drive him to El
Paso at gunpoint. Fran is all too eager to do anything the big bad man
wants and to torture her husband by making him watch. Rudy and Fran's storyline plays like a
funhouse mirror to Doc and Carol's; their unbridled sexuality mocks the
star couple's frigidity. To reinforce this, Peckinpah cast actors who were
opposite types from McQueen and MacGraw. The director originally wanted
Jack Palance to play Rudy, but the actor priced himself out of the running.
Peckinpah chose swarthy Al Lettieri, who had just completed work on The
Godfather as Sollozzo. For the sleazy Fran, Peckinpah fouled one of America's
TV sweethearts: petite, buxom Sally Struthers of "All in the Family."
Struthers and Lettieri virtually steal
the picture with their inspired schtick. And there was more, but it was
lost in editing. Not realizing McQueen was the one who had made the cuts,
Lettieri had to be restrained by Peckinpah from attacking producer David
Foster after seeing the finished film, minus Lettieri's favorite bits,
at a preview screening. One witness was heard to say that it was the only
time he ever "saw Sam trying to break up a fight."