‘Tough ole hide’: The Getaway

[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]

In The Getaway director Sam Peckinpah has crafted one of the tightest, cleanest, most physically compelling films to tweak your fancy in a long while. Harrumph, you say? Go soak your head in Kael, I say. Better yet, truck on out to one of the nabes and see the movie. It continues to rank among the top money-grossers of the year and will undoubtedly crop up here and there for some time to come.

The Getaway
The Getaway

From the opening frames of semi-wild beasties startled into postures of alarm by an unseen presence; from our slowly dawning realization that the animals’ tranquil sanctuary functions as precisely the opposite for other creatures caged within its walls; from the moment when throbbing, insidiously penetrating mill noises supersede the dulling monotony of prison life and inject the as-yet-unidentified situation with a crescendoing tension, The Getaway gathers its energy, begins to move, and lunges headlong away from the stasis of a centerpoint, racing toward some spot on the outer circumference of life. Peckinpah navigates the entire course with a winner’s reckless confidence and consummate control.

Most Peckinpah film buffs have their favorite scenes; my personal list runs to just over four hundred examples. But whenever I try to explain my fascination with his technique, why I find it so refreshing and exhilarating and spellbinding, why it’s so gratifying to see an incisive mind using cinematic conventions with a sense of humor and irony, I always flash on a shot from The Wild Bunch. It’s not an overtly outrageous shot by itself. No spectacular bloodletting. It’s not even particularly noteworthy scenically. It’s the kind of shot I suspect fades from memory about two seconds or less after it’s off the screen. But it strikes me as representative of Peckinpah’s technical virtuosity—a gift pooh-poohed by some insensitive soul in the pages of The Village Voice who derisively categorized Peckinpah as “the most academic manipulator of Russian montage in America since Lewis Milestone.” Lewis Milestone he definitely ain’t.

Remember the sequence in which William Holden and his Bunch disconnect the railway car full of unsuspecting soldiers from the cargo they are supposedly guarding? Holden et al. hijack locomotive and loaded flatcar, and chug off around a bend to transfer the shipment of war materiel. Meanwhile, the green recruits and their frenzied NCO storm about in chaotic indirection once they discover the theft. Heist completed, Holden and crew put the locomotive in reverse and send it steaming back, throttle wide open, to rendezvous with the stranded troop car. Peckinpah begins to intercut more and more rapidly between the returning, driverless engine as it gains momentum, and the impotent troop leader trying desperately to organize his gaggle of troops. The tempo quickens. We suddenly know what Holden’s plan is. We begin to anticipate the crash. We experience the NCO’s anguish when he blinks incredulously at the offscreen horror bearing down on him and his paralyzed flock. The engine strains nearer and nearer; the soldiers’ initial predicament expands geometrically into imminent disaster. Nerves snap to attention. The audience holds its collective breath. We hang on the screen for all we’re worth, electrified with anticipation and horror and fascination.

And what happens? Voila! Here’s the shot I was talking about. Peckinpah sets up the camera to show the train tracks flowing diagonally toward us from an area on screen left where Holden and his men were last seen. The tracks continue past us in the foreground and disappear offscreen to the right where the victims are dashing around in confusion and disbelief. Everyone knows that the locomotive has only a short distance to go. We all hear it approaching. It finally looms over the hill on the left, swells larger and larger, and thunders by blindly on its way to reunification with the lost troop Pullman. We flinch at its passage and the whole audience leans into the next shot, expecting to see the shrinking length of track between missile and target. But no. Peckinpah holds the shot of the vacated track while the locomotive roars on out of view. He holds it and holds it. He deliberately shows us the past and won’t let us turn to watch the onrushing present. The audience’s synapses begin to crackle like a string of firecrackers. In a split second, frustration fuses into initiative. Our collective will reaches out to the screen. We wrench the camera around and cut to the moment of impact before it’s too late! Wham! Nothing can stop us! Crash! Explode! Ahhhh, fulfillment. Geeezus, Peckinpah, get out of the way and don’t ever do that again.

Ahem, yes. And then the moment was over and we all settled down in our seats, moving back into the anonymous darkness, suddenly aware of the brittle grins plastered all over our faces. We glanced covertly at our neighbors, our minds still gibbering with excitement and whirring with praise, but we gradually began to respond to a spreading sensation of foolishness and embarrassment. We had just been through something like what Slim Pickens must have felt in Dr. Strangelove when the bomb-bay doors on his strategic bomber opened and accidentally loosed him on a Russian missile site. If you find yourself riding a multi-megaton H-bomb to its final destination you don’t have many alternatives. You’ve got to get on with it. Kubrick cut away to a metaphor to maintain the ironic distance of his allegory. We didn’t feel personally implicated. Peckinpah, on the other hand, gets you by the short hairs. He builds traps, ensnaring the spectator in nets of his own devising. He got us involved in the movement and rhythm of the event by creating a cause and effect situation, by relying on our familiarity with the cross-cutting convention. We were sucked in by a whirlwind of shots, action and sound that spiraled us toward a gut-clenching cataclysm. But then the rascal withheld the result. He interrupted the pace, suspended the flow of logic, drew out the penultimate moment. And in doing so, maneuvered us into a position of complicity. By holding that shot of the empty track, he almost physically forced us to participate in the consummation of the event. Before we could react dispassionately the essential nudge had already been given. Before we knew it, we were driving flat-out down that track ourselves. We were horrified by what we knew would occur and yet we were wildly and hilariously involved in its accomplishment. And we not only helped engineer it, we gleefully enjoyed it. How many somber, sober judgments have you heard or read (cf. the great hue and cry raised over Straw Dogs) where Peckinpah’s films are decried for their perverse violence, for their blatant immorality, for their gratuitous defilements of values? Next time someone starts shouting about what a “prevert” Peckinpah is, look behind that outraged indignation and you’re liable to find a shamefaced critic who was surprised and disturbed at the extent of his own vicarious pleasure, who sanctimoniously rejects the thrill of voyeurism and who puts down Peckinpah as often as he puts on his mental raincoat before scurrying off to Sam’s latest film. It’s hard for some people to admit the existence of an inner self, much less that it has been appealed to and has demonstrated its own reactions.

Let’s face it, Peckinpah is the finest manipulator of cinematic and social conventions working in film. He has a fantastic gift for expanding and contracting time, for shaking the daylights out of film logic, for creating kinetic vortices that drag us viewers inexorably into the eye of a storm where we’re buffeted and banged around violently only to be dropped directly into the path of another storm gathering in the wings. He creeps up on the raw edge of adversity where plot components are slammed together with such force that they generate something greater than the sum of their parts. That’s alchemy, folks. Few directors have Peckinpah’s facility for putting the spectator right where he wants him. The Getaway, although lighter than the heavyweights Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch, proves no exception.

Early in the film a carefully planned bank holdup proceeds rapidly beyond the point of no return. Minor problems, unpredictable hitches accumulate and build ominously. Tension grips the bank victims and the gang threatening them and, most especially, us. A bludgeoned bank guard regains consciousness and foolishly inches toward his gun. In closeup his hand twitches ever nearer. We know what will happen if the gun-wielding psycho notices him, and notice him he must. The spooky robber’s attention is momentarily diverted. Marshalling his strength, the guard calculates his move. The robber senses movement out of the corner of his eye. He whirls. The guard plunges for the gun. The other gun jerks toward its target and explodes. Blood erupts from the body as it heaves with the impact. Flinching uncontrollably, the psycho squeezes off more explosions. The corpse writhes in macabre slow-motion. We strain to relax but the tension shifts gears and builds in another mode. The gang scatters. Pre-planted dynamite charges begin to detonate throughout the town, throwing the constabulary into total confusion, punctuating the pulses in our own vicarious frenzy of involvement. Another body’s wounds gush blood and we blanch in helpless amazement at its close-range destruction. The corpse is ejected from a careening getaway car in a slow-motion arc and rebounds on fiery pavement. No time to catch a breath here. Energy expands, shatters, grows again, leaps off the screen and is redoubled by the energy-generating surfaces focused on it. McQueen’s and MacGraw’s car spews toward us in long-lens lethargy. A crosswalk matron unwittingly attempts to restrain them. But only momentarily. The car continues its rampage, raging wildly through the streets and, eventually, with balletic grace, ruptures through an unsuspecting, lazy, dozing-in-the-sun porch, splintering it to smithereens and blowing the lid off our impacted tension.

The bounder. In this single, five-minute-or-so sequence, Peckinpah catches more ordinary people, buildings, in fact a whole town, cars, bodies and assorted spectators unawares and off guard, and successfully exploits that momentary shock and disorientation and apprehension, better than ninety-nine and forty-four one-hundredths percent of all directors working in film today. And in virtually every moment of almost unbearable crisis, the thick laughter of irony and black humor gurgles in the back of your throat. Not only laughter at the underlying bizarreness of the situations and the grotesque overreactions of robbers and victims—gun barrel thrust right into the mouth of a frightened patron to stifle a welling scream—but also the laughter of self-awareness as a portion of our consciousness appreciatively observes the mesmerized intensity of our interest in what we see.

The Getaway, however, is not composed entirely of nerve-jangling episodes. In fact, if you were to make an abstract diagram of the film you might begin with a terrible snarl out of which a straight line emerges only to become hopelessly entangled in a second snarl, but which appears once more, moving toward yet another horrible knot, and so on. Sprung from the Huntsville pen by a politician with both feet planted firmly in the underworld (Ben Johnson), “Doc” McCoy (Steve McQueen) and his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) leave the snarl of prison life behind and drive to a riverside park for his first breath of fresh air in several years. A lazy afternoon crowd lolls about on the grass treating themselves to the sun. A boy swings out over the river on a rope attached to a tree and drops in with a splash. Doc watches him closely. In a longer shot, accompanied by Quincy Jones’ score—all other background noises having seeped discreetly away—we see Doc shuck his ugly black prison suit coat and move toward the rope. Continuing in a slow-motion action montage he grabs the rope, swings out and drops in, fully clothed. Carol dives in after him. They laugh and gambol and embrace, and in the process regain a measure of their former intimacy. Peckinpah then cuts back to the park: Doc and Carol stand in exactly the same positions as before, their clothes dry, and the activity around them resumes its claim on our awareness. We realize that we have just witnessed a split-second fantasy, a wish that has yet to be fulfilled. Doc hesitates an instant, begins to take his coat off, moves slowly toward the rope. Carol looks after him with dawning understanding. We feel a thrill of anticipation; the daydream we mistook for the real thing is about to become reality; and we beam silly grins of appreciation at the two increasingly sympathetic characters. Doc reaches for the rope and Peckinpah cuts to the inside of a room. That’s right. Before they take the plunge again, we’re miles away from the river. The door opens and Doc and Carol enter streaming water from drenched clothes, happy for the moment, having overcome the first barrier toward reintegration.

This ingenious narrative ellipsis establishes the kind of privileged information we have about their relationship. We shared their impulse with them before it was manifested in action. It illustrates the instinctual type of communication that binds them into an effective team. Each repeatedly senses the other’s thoughts before they are expressed. This faculty enables them not only to act in harmonious accord in moments of crisis, but also to eliminate the otherwise necessary—and in their profession, deadly—interval required to communicate thoughts. While the robbery and ensuing flight from capture provide the plot framework for the film, the various metamorphoses of their special, private channel of communication create the film’s substance.

At the risk of oversimplifying things, one could say that most of Peckinpah’s films deal in some way with bonds that are created between individuals because of a similar type of special communication or understanding. In some films, these bonds can’t be established precisely because communication breaks down or never existed. Holden and his Bunch overcame internecine rivalries and operated effectively as a unit against superior odds not only because they were professionals but also because they could anticipate and rely on the immediate contribution of the others to the group’s success. Hildy (Stella Stevens) and Cable (Jason Robards Jr.), in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (my personal Peckinpah favorite), shared an unspoken value system that set them apart from the panhandlers, whores, pimps, scalawags, back-stabbers, revivalists and Gila monsters who inhabited that portion of the American Southwest desertscape they left their mark on. David (Dustin Hoffman) and Amy (Susan George), in Straw Dogs, hadn’t established the necessary communications .link that permits fundamental understanding and appreciation; she sought it desperately and in doing so brought them perilously close to annihilation. Junior (Steve McQueen) found himself divorced from long-term relationships and isolated from the possibility of participating in this kind of exchange by the simple fact of reality; the passage of time and a depersonalization brought about by encroaching “civilization” cut him off from contact and set him adrift. He accepted his role as an outcast (another familiar Peckinpah theme), deriving his only real satisfaction in those moments of truth when he met the same rodeo bulls time after time, alone in the arena in Peckinpah’s seventh feature film, Junior Bonner.

Steven McQueen and Ali McGraw and Doc and Carol
Steven McQueen and Ali McGraw and Doc and Carol

Doc and Carol’s strongest suit—their intuitive understanding of the other’s thoughts and motives—was seriously challenged by the long, physical separation that preceded his release from prison. A chasm of doubts and suspicions had opened between them; they were out of synch with each other and could only grope awkwardly toward reestablishing their former unity. In a dramatically powerful episode oozing with black humor, Peckinpah literally and symbolically demonstrates the fact that close, almost bodily contact is required for the bond to work. About halfway through the film, when the couple’s relationship has reached its nadir, Doc and Carol find themselves compressed claustrophobically inside a monstrous garbage truck as it makes its early morning rounds. Their trip to the dump in suffocating proximity offers them a temporary reprieve from the law and also, ironically, serves as the vehicle for salvaging their wrecked marriage. Out of the dust and filth of the refuse heap to which they are consigned, rising from a blasted wasteland of modern consumerism, the couple emerges united and leaves behind the burned-out remains of deceit and shame and inhibition that were threatening to destroy them.

They proceed with renewed purpose in a straight line toward the film’s ultimate labyrinthine snarl and the last stop on their route to freedom. All the essential representatives of the drama throw themselves together in a grand finale, winner-take-all orgy of destruction and mayhem that culminates not only in the elimination of the assorted villains, but also in the virtual “killing” of EI Paso’s raunchy Laughlin Hotel—located conveniently just across the Rio Grande from Juarez and liberty—as it is ripped apart from within by the violent explosion of pent-up frustration, anger and an arsenal of shotguns, .345 Magnums, submachine guns and .45s.

But Peckinpah doesn’t permit the catharsis that we and the protagonists, Doc and Carol, have experienced in the hotel sequence to dangle ineffectually. He portrays its regenerative consequences for this couple in an astonishingly appropriate and touching denouement (another Peckinpah trademark) that is all the more effective here for its juxtaposition with the violence that has preceded. Doc and Carol, whose mastery of cars, equipment, trains and guns extends to buildings, wend their way successfully through the Laughlin’s dangerous corridors. They blast the last remaining antagonist and bail out of a window only to run directly into one of cinema’s most delightful reprobates—a prototype of cussed orneriness and intransigent independence—leather-faced, affable cowboy-of-all-trades, Slim Pickens, in The Getaway, a junk dealer scrounging in alleys and ruins for scraps of “building materials” which he apparently peddles in Mexico. Doc and Carol dash up, .45 brandished, and easily convince him to drive them across the border. But not before Peckinpah and Pickens treat us to a bracing display of the infectious nature of excitement. Adrenalized by the promise of adventure, especially one outside the law, and wide-eyed with the unexpected thrill of it all, Pickens throws his pickup into gear, leaves his wine-befuddled assistant reeling in the dust, and launches the clattering truck into thin air by driving straight off an unseen abutment. All are taken totally by surprise. The truck, of course, slams down to the pavement a few feet below and Pickens vigorously crunches his way through some nearby parked cars, beaming with pleasure at his own free-wheeling demolition derby and proud to make good the getaway.

Doc and Carol begin to respond affectionately to what they discover is a kindred soul as Pickens drawls on, articulating in his own homespun vernacular the values they share as a couple. Pickens says: “Mind if I ast ya a personal question? You kids married? … That’s good. That’s the trouble with this world. They ain’t no morals. Kids nowadays don’t feel like they’re livin’ les they’re livin’ together…. Let me give ya some advice. Get ya some money together, buy ya a place, settle down, have some kids. I been married thirtyfive years to the same ole gal. Tough ole hide. Everything I am I owe to her.” Mutual respect, constancy, the capacity for compromise and understanding, compassion, a testament to a lamentable if noble failure made more poignant by his last declaration of achievement. Doc and Carol reward his good faith, ostensibly by buying his silence, when they give him $30,000 of their half-million-dollar booty for his pickup to use as an unlikely getaway vehicle. But more than a gift, a tribute to Pickens’ gnarled grace, this money is a down payment on their contract for the future.

Peckinpah peoples the background of his films with distinguishable entities who, by retaining their individuality, lend an added dimension of authenticity to the action. And Pickens’ appearance at the end of the film indicates Peckinpah’s penchant for intensifying his dramas by casting recognizable character actors and then playing off on their accumulated screen personae. Pickens, for instance, frequently stumbles his frontiersman’s way through films as an amiable stereotype, an oddity with nothing of long-lasting value to offer either protagonists or viewers. Not so in The Getaway.

Peckinpah laces Pickens’ lines with weighty substance, uncovering the brotherhood of the genuine adventurous spirit in the unlikeliest of people. Ben Johnson, as a corrupt, snake-eyed politician, deviously obtains McQueen’s parole from prison on condition that he mastermind the robbery of an oil company bank. Peckinpah obviously amused himself in exploiting Johnson’s potential for sinister inscrutability and in doing so no doubt thwarted many moviegoers’ attempts to identify with Johnson as they had with Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show. Sally Struthers (from TV’s All in the Family) casts off her bitchy conventionality and blossoms into a clutch of libidinous fleurs du mal under the influence of Al Lettieri’s lustful attentions. Dub Taylor huffs and puffs in scarlet-faced impotency, and while his cockroach-infested Hotel Laughlin disintegrates around him, tries to hide his trembling fear under the counter only to have it magnified by a porno paperback fluttering in a hip pocket. A train station bunco artist (Richard Bright) lifts MacGraw’s satchel containing the bank swag, thinks he gives McQueen the slip by boarding a Dallas-bound train, sinks into a seat with relief, looks around cautiously, decides to see what made the bag so important, opens it, stiffens in amazement at the stacks of bills, rubs his eyes, looks again, and melts back into the seat embracing the case, an expression of sublime beatitude transforming his features into the little boy whose wildest dream has just been granted. Not for long, however. McQueen materializes beside him, admonishes him for showing so little skill in covering his escape, and then, lesson taught, furiously smashes the immature pleasure out of the small-time con man.

But the supporting player who, more than any other, serves as a measure of McQueen’s abilities is Al Lettieri With grunting pig noises on the soundtrack, oily-smooth, tenacious, almost indestructible Rudy (Lettieri) rises magically out of a dusty, open-pit grave early in the film after McQueen has shot him repeatedly with a .45 at fairly close range: he was wearing a bulletproof vest. He rises to conduct a personal vendetta, to avenge his initial defeat at McQueen’s hands, and spends the rest of the film working patiently toward the one moment when he can get the drop on him. He travels the route to that confrontation with inspired, swinish savoir-faire, unscrupulously perverting everyone he meets, capitalizing on people’s fears with utter disregard for individual sensitivities or sensibilities. Unfortunately for him, he also accumulates the rutting Sally Struthers and hubby (Jack Dodson) as baggage along the way and finds himself fatally encumbered when the moment finally presents itself. Lettieri follows in a long line of Peckinpah antagonists—Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Susan George’s former lover in Straw Dogs, Joe Don Baker in Junior Bonner—whose principles and methods closely parallel the independent values manifested by the protagonists but who, for the sake of expediency, or because of an obsession, or due to a crucial weakness, step over the thin line that separates virtue from immorality—a step the protagonists resolutely refuse to take. But as the ablest opponents they provide the protagonists with their ultimate tests of strength, and also with a point of focus for the competition that illuminates the level of skill, the worth and the dignity maintained by the central characters.

Slim Pickens drives Steven McQueen and Ali McGraw over the border
Slim Pickens drives Steven McQueen and Ali McGraw

When Slim Pickens hears his cagily calculated $20,000 selling price for his pickup magnanimously multiplied into a $30,000 offer, his jaw drops and an expression of incredulous joy sweeps fiftyodd years of scrambling depression from his features. Doc and Carol exchange their first look of genuine delight and the long-intimated notion that the money signifies something entirely different for them than for the others who covet it pays off. It represents an abstract goal, and in successfully winning and defending it, they earn their right to enjoy its benefits. They rattle off down a Mexican highway and disappear over the brow of a heat-shimmering hill, completely subverting the traditional denouement of the caper-film convention in which even the most appealing bandits are ultimately captured. Many Peckinpah films end with the central character(s) riding away from the scene of the drama. But the ambiguous conclusions of earlier films clearly do not prevail in The Getaway. Peckinpah seems to have purged himself of personal demons and to have gained confidence in the lifestyle he advocates. He freezes the last shot of the film just as Doc and Carol drop out of view. The action stops, we pause, a realization that the film has ended crystallizes, and gradually a mental image of the truck and couple rises in our mind’s eye (at least it did in mine), a sheer, unqualified apotheosis of the determined, skilled individualist who forsakes the comfort of conventionality for the risk and thrill of independence and who, finally in Peckinpah’s eighth film, will have the opportunity to experience that independence with someone else and in relative freedom.

© 1973 David Willingham

THE GETAWAY
Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Walter Hill, after the novel by Jim Thompson. Cinematography: Lucien Ballard. Music: Quincy Jones.
The Players: Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers, Ben Johnson, John Bryson, Dub Taylor, Bo Hopkins, Slim Pickens.