The Getaway (1972)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson
Synopsis: A recently released ex-con and his loyal wife go on the run after a heist goes awry.
Prison has its own unique soundtrack: the rattle of keys, the chiming clang of barred doors, the unwavering thrum of the workshop. It’s an environment that promotes rueful contemplation and reflection, and it crystallises the frustrations of Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy (Steve McQueen — The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt), an armed bank robber who has just seen his application for parole summarily dismissed by a board of suits. One of those suits was Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson — The Last Picture Show), and for reasons that are never explained, Doc singles out Beynon as the man to whom his wife Carole (Ali MacGraw) must offer a deal: get the board to reverse its decision and he’ll pull any job to order.
The job Beynon has in mind is the robbery of $500,000 from a bank. Doc wants to use his own men, but the corrupt businessman insists on two of his own: Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri — The Godfather) and Frank Jackson (Bo Hopkins — The Wild Bunch, Monte Walsh), two wild cards who Doc — and we — knows are trouble the moment he lays eyes on them. Frank messes up during the heist, killing a security guard, and pays for it with his life (“Take the wheel,” Rudy instructs him, and then shoots him as he steers).
Rudy also tries to shoot Doc at their post-heist rendezvous, but Doc’s ahead of him. He leaves Rudy for dead, but Beynon’s man was wearing the bulletproof vest he’d earlier dismissed when it was offered to him by Doc, and is only wounded. Then Beynon tries to renege on their deal. It’s Carol who shoots Beynon dead, and for a moment husband and wife have a tense stand-off, facing each other with guns aimed. Doc’s realisation that Carol gave Beynon a little something extra to sweeten the deal when she made Doc’s offer threatens to derail their relationship. Meanwhile, the police, a vengeful Rudy, and Beynon’s brother are all hot on the troubled couple’s trail…
McQueen’s affair with MacGraw during the shooting of The Getaway — she left producer Robert Evans for him — earned the movie plenty of publicity, but the movie was really all about McQueen and director Sam Peckinpah. The two men had worked together on Junior Bonner the previous year, and had got along well enough so that, when McQueen was looking to adapt Jim Thompson’s nihilistic novel for the screen for his production company, he turned to Peckinpah. Both men were in need of a hit; McQueen hadn’t had a box office success since Bullitt in 1968, and Peckinpah’s stock had fallen considerably since The Wild Bunch in ‘69. In The Getaway, they saw the potential for a slick commercial heist movie. McQueen had Walter Hill re-write Thompson’s original script, dropping the novel’s downbeat ending which saw Doc and Carole trapped on a financially-draining thieves-refuge island with only the bleak prospect of certain death ahead of them when their money finally runs out. He also had final approval of the release print. He dropped Jerry Fielding, Peckinpah’s regular musician, replaced his score with one by Quincy Jones, and had the film re-edited in his favour, but it still remains unmistakably a Sam Peckinpah movie.
Even with a prison haircut, McQueen looks effortlessly cool, handling weapons with practiced ease and seducing the camera the way only he could. Nobody did that deep-in-thought look better than McQueen, and the camera seems to linger on him as if incapable of tearing itself away. It’s noticeable that MacGraw receives much less attention, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing seeing as she’s an actress of limited ability. Not that her character has that much to do once the ‘lovers on the run’ theme kicks in, other than to be pushed around by Doc; she’s 1970s America’s idea of the perfect female in that respect — a good-looking woman who doesn’t complain too much about whatever her man tells her to do — and is typical of Peckinpah’s tendency to do down the women in his movies.
The rest of the cast is filled with a host of memorable ‘70s faces: the ever-wonderful — if frankly scary — Al Lettieri proves to be a hypnotic adversary for McQueen. He kidnaps Harold (Jack Dodson), a mild-mannered vet, and his slutty blonde wife, Fran (Sally Struthers) with whom he repeatedly has sex while her trussed up husband is forced to look on. It would have been nice to see Harold have his revenge, to be honest, especially as we get the sense that the mobster gets a bigger kick out of his humiliation than out of the actual bedding of Fran, but sadly it isn’t to be. Ben Johnson, one of those actors comfortable playing good guys or bad, is suitably oily as the corrupt Beynon, while Peckinpah regulars Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens have small but colourful parts.
The Getaway might not be one of Peckinpah’s greatest movies, but it’s a solid thriller, typical of Hollywood’s gritty 1970s output. McQueen owns it, MacGraw looks decorative at least, and Peckinpah ensures there’s plenty of his trademark violence on display.
(Reviewed 16th September 2014)