Monday, October 3, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah, 1972)

From my experience with Steve McQueen, when didn’t he ooze coolness? Whether he is riding a motorcycle (The Great Escape), driving a car (Bullitt) or wielding a shotgun (in The Getaway), he is a complete badass.

The latter is a 1972 American crime thriller from controversial director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs prior to this). Based on a novel by Jim Thompson, with an adapted screenplay by Walter Hill, The Getaway became a financial success and is now considered to be a 70’s crime classic – enough to spawn an ill-received 1994 re-make starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, anyway. 

From the opening sequences you know immediately that this is a Peckinpah film. There is a complete rejection of convention as we are introduced, in a haphazard, out-of-sorts, non-linear audio/visual montage, to the monotonous existence of life in a Texas prison – and the torments of one particular prisoner, Carter “Doc” McCoy (McQueen). Gutted at being denied parole from a 10-year sentence, McCoy sends his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to make a deal with Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson), a corrupt businessman who wields the power to secure his parole. He is successful, on the provision that Doc organizes the robbery of a bank with men personally selected by Benyon: Rudy (Al Lettieri from The Godfather) and Frank (Bo Hopkins).

Having become quickly acquainted with civilian life outside of prison, Doc begins his careful planning for the robbery. He distrusts his shady and potentially volatile colleagues, who either oppose his instructions or seem disinterested. During the robbery, as expected, his plans go sour. Frank shoots the guard when he reaches for a gun (that is incomprehensibly allowed to remain lying right next to him throughout the event), and in the ensuing escape, Rudy first double-crosses Frank, and then is wounded in his attempt to kill Doc and keep the money for himself. Doc and Carol then set out for Laughlin’s, the arranged hotel hideout in El Paso, while Rudy forces a rural veterinarian, Harold (Jack Dobson) and his wife, Fran (Sally Struthers), to treat his wounds and drive him to El Paso in an attempt to intercept the pair.

The second half is punctuated by some great action sequences, which hold up just as well today. Most notable is McQueen's pursuit of a conman, who has stolen the robbery loot from a railway locker, through a train. Brilliantly edited, and really generating some tension, this is much more low-key than most of Peckinpah's other action sequences, but just as effective. The violent climactic shootout between McQueen and Benyon's henchmen is also excellent and features some of the most realistic use of a shotgun I have seen to date. I did feel the film's most famous sequence, which ends with McQueen and MacGraw trapped in a rubbish truck and hitching a ride to a dump, was contrived and not necessary.

I gather this was an against-type role for McQueen, who is again compelling. Though he is a professional criminal and a border-line psycho, we can’t help but desire that he and Carol eventually escape. Plus it's Steve McQueen. The guy is effortlessly cool. In order to make Doc likeable, though, he has to be pitted against some despicable goons and Rudy is surely one. Al Lettieri has a lot of fun, but his ridiculous villain is taken a bit too far in the scenes where he is intimate with Fran while her husband is tied up and forced to watch. Ali MacGraw’s flat performance must also be noted. I thought she was awful, and though her loyalty to Doc is dubious, and we are never sure whether her devotion to him is all for show, their chemistry was challenged by her lack of convincing emotion. The tension and underlying mistrust that mounts throughout the story is also hindered by clunky dialogue.

The Getaway is grimy – corrupt businessmen, double-crossing, desperate vehicular pursuits and a sweaty climate - and full of Peckinpah’s trademark visual style and balletic violence (the intense, and well-edited shootouts are imbued with the typical use of slow-motion). The story unravels at a breakneck pace and though contrived and ultimately purposeless, the film has plenty of style - if predominantly through the presence of McQueen.


  1. I thought this was a pretty good film but in comparison to The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Straw Dogs, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in that great Peckinpah period. I thought it was one of his weaker films in that period though I can't say anything about Junior Bonner having not seen that film.

    What do you think of the remake with Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, James Woods, Michael Madsen, and Jennifer Tilly?

  2. Definitely had my eye on this for a while as I love Peckinpah. I feel ashamed to say I have only seen the remake.

  3. I actually haven't seen the re-make, only the DVD around at stores and learnt when reading about this one that it was the re-make. While I think The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs are better films (though not amazing either) I think this is the one I have 'enjoyed' the most. Next, I'll check out BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, which I hope will finally be a Peckinpah film that I love.

    THE GETAWAY is a definitive 70's grimy cop thriller in the vein of the Dirty Harry films - corrupt cops, intense shootouts and a bleak outlook - and I can only imagine how it wouldn't work being made in the 90's.

  4. Excellent review Andy, I really enjoyed The Getaway when I finally got around to watching it a couple of years ago and you sum it up very well in your post.
    As for Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, it's worth watching if only for Warren Oates, and you might want to check out Junior Bonner as well, as it isn't a typical Peckinpah film being quite slow moving and non violent.
    I know Junior Bonner was Peckinpah's personal favourite film and it also features an excellent performance from Steve McQueen as the eponymous Junior.
    I'll look forward to reading your thoughts on the work of Peckinpah in the future.

  5. I had only planned to check out Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, but perhaps I will go back and look at Junior Bonner also - thanks for the info Paul, and for reading. I appreciate it. The Getaway is enjoyable, and there are some impressive scenes - Peckinpah is gifted in the ways of violence!

  6. Andy, this is a great movie, and it feels even stronger when compared to the remake. They have similar plots, but the original does pretty much every scene better. Plus, it really helps to have McQueen. Nice review.

  7. There are two memorable performances here. Al Lettieri chews up the scenery fantastically well (he really was the archetypal 70s villain), and Ali McGraw, beautiful as she was, displaying once more that the ability to act eluded her.

  8. @ Dan - I'm not sure I am ready to declare it a great movie, but I understand it's iconic place in the 70's crime genre, and amongst the work of Sam Peckinpah. It's also the film where Steve McQueen goes badass with a shotgun, which is enough to make me enjoy the film - if it has flaws in the narrative.

    @ Colin - He's a big man isn't he? A giant in the frame. Plus he has unique features, so he ate this fairly ridiculous role up for breakfast. I was actually disappointed by the final confrontation between Rudy and Doc. Doc and Carol had escaped (with McQueen throwing the briefcase and bouncing it off the wall and catching it) before firing a single bullet back at Rudy to neutralise him. It was just a bit of a letdown. Ali MacGraw was terrible - except in the slapping sequence, where she showed something that didn't resemble robot. Still, I have been thinking about the film ever since I watched it - and I re-watched that brilliant train carriage sequence again - so it left an impression!

  9. A great performance from McQueen. It really is a great film from a genius filmmaker but I always watch it in the knowledge of Hollywood superstar producer Robert Evans' recollection of the film in his memoirs. Ali McGraw, who was Evans' wife at the time, began having an affair with McQueen during the making of the film and would consequently leave Evans for McQueen. It is fair to say McQueen and Evans weren't best of friends.

  10. @ Dan - Yeah I read about this. It's hard to believe because McQueen and MacGraw's chemistry ain't too hot in this film. I certainly enjoyed it, but I can't say I am a big Peckinpah fan. The Wild Bunch (a film I was disappointed by) is the best I have seen of his, though strangely, I did enjoy Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia!