Review: Scarecrow

[Originally published in Movietone News 24, July-August 1973]

Scarecrow, the latest film by Jerry Schatzberg (Puzzle of a Downfall Child, Panic in Needle Park), is a warmly authentic and unselfconscious examination of a highly unlikely friendship between two misfits whose respective stances vis-à-vis life seem, at first glance, totally incompatible. Al Pacino turns in an understated performance, mannered yet unpretentious, as Lion, a diminutive dropout from the school of hard knocks—hard knocks being what you get if you stand still, allow people to get too close, get serious; in short, if you grow up. Instead, Lion chooses to stay on the move: five years at sea to dodge the scary stasis of matrimony and fatherhood, a current trip as a constantly clowning naïf whose jokes block blows and caresses with a desperate lack of discrimination. On his way back to claim his son, Lion picks up a father of sorts, an unpredictable bear of a man named Max (Gene Hackman). Max, unlike the cowardly Lion, gets in the way of hard knocks—as well as less hostile strokes—as often as he can, indeed more often than he should, since he frequently ends up in jail after one of his enthusiastic rough-and-tumbles. He is a man willing to mark and be marked by the men and women whom his life touches in his peregrinations about the country. Though at first Max comes off as much the less “practical” or survival-minded of the two friends, it soon becomes clear that the reverse is true. Lion’s comic camouflage and strategic withdrawals ultimately result in the loss of his son (and by implication his own adulthood) and, ironically, all contact with the world he tried too hard, too successfully, to keep at bay.

Schatzberg’s direction is gently compassionate and humorous; it never lapses into the sort of clinical condescension that so tainted John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy for me. No such specimen-under-the-microscope attitude mars Schatzberg’s development of scenes like the one in which Max and a blowzy but goodnatured bimbo named Frenchy tacitly agree to become bed-partners. As though rooted by the same impulse to make the most elemental of human connections, they stand in a junkyard indulging in irrelevant chitchat while their bodies confront each other in a mutual exchange of more pertinent information. In the background, Lion leaps about trying by his wry comic mobility to distract his friend from that dangerous (to Lion) intimacy. The contrast is visually and symbolically concrete, as it is in a later scene when Max, on the edge of yet another barroom brawl, tries to placate his increasingly disgusted (and disintegrating) friend by taking on Lion’s guise of clown. But Max’s hilarious striptease, far from merely deflecting antagonism, eventually involves everyone in the tavern in a joyously communal event—from which Lion is physically and psychically alienated.

Part of the credit for the successes of Scarecrow must go to Vilmos Zsigmond, a cinematographer with a rare talent for making the spiritual as well as physical climate of a film very nearly tangible. The film begins with a visual tour de force: Max and Lion meeting on a dusty country road meandering through a yellow-gold hillscape. In one direction, the sky is azure; in the other, an improbable gun-barrel gray, with lowering clouds presaging a summer storm. Thereafter, the film turns increasingly murky, darkening visually as well as thematically. But for all its darkness, Scarecrow is a genuinely upbeat film that celebrates one of the most believable screen friendships between .two men I’ve seen in a long time. This accomplishment is especially welcome when it has become nearly de rigueur among chicly psychoanalytic screenwriters and directors to treat such relationships as though their ultimate motivation could only be homosexual. Schatzberg and company consistently refuse to simple-mind Scarecrow into any such cookie-cutter generalizations.

SCARECROW
Direction: Jerry Schatzberg. Screenplay: Garry Michael White. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Music: Fred Myrow.
The Players: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Ann Wedgeworth, Dorothy Tristan, Richard Lynch.

Copyright © 1973 by Kathleen Murphy