3 stars out of 4. Mismatch between commercial overtones, big star power and director.
After the colossal failure of Junior Bonner (1972), Sam Peckinpah re-teamed with star Steve McQueen in this box office smash. Of course the box office of that time was not really what Peckinpah had in mind, so the resulting film is really a bit of a mess. It also the first film in the director’s career that bears little or none of a personal stamp. It’s more of a for-hire job to be honest.
The reasons? Not much to work with and star power. Steve McQueen essentially began to dictate where the production would go and how things were going to get done. He also had a little thing called final cut. What little interest Sam may have had in the film seems to have been completely evaporated. For such a boring film to come out of a Jim Thompson novel is truly incredible.
The film tells of inmate Doc McCoy (McQueen) who is fed up with his 10 year stretch in a Texas prison. After being refused parole, he tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to begin “arranging” for his release with corrupt business man Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson). McCoy is released on the understanding that he will now complete a bank robbery with an appointed team. There’s a double cross of course, (several actually) and the result leaves McCoy and his wife on the run.
The plot loses itself constantly, and at the point that the story decides to have some logic again, this will soon go right back out the window. It is a frustrating experience to try and understand this movie. Not only do the characters make illogical decisions that seems to have no basis in anything, but the ending sequence is something that should never have happened. There is a point where the McCoys can simply go anywhere, and they just go to a prearranged location where they can easily be ambushed!
The best parts of the film are about the lesser characters. The subplot about the wounded gunman and the veterinarian’s wife is far interesting than the “plight” of the McCoys. The action is pretty standard fare, so that the film drags even in the places where it’s supposed to be exciting. There’s very few scenes that even have a semblance of Peckinpah’s touch, the most notable being the garbage truck sequence. Other than that there’s a wonderful Slim Pickens cameo. Really. That’s it. This film was built around the McQueen-MacGraw relationship and that’s exactly what sold it to people in 1972. Thompson’s book simply became yet another 70’s star vehicle.
There is one great sequence though. In a train station, Carol is hoodwinked into losing a bag full of money. The simple con man doesn’t know what he’s got a hold of and slips onto the next train. McCoy goes after him and methodically stalks him through the moving train. It’s a brilliantly executed sequence that has the right balance of tension and humanity that Peckinpah could deliver so well. For a moment you forget what film you’re actually watching.
The Getaway is not a bad film, but it is strangely indifferent to itself or anything else for that matter. A bit of a mess that stands out as a curio maybe. You get left with a bad taste in your mouth. To top it all off, the whole “couple on the road chased by police in the early 70’s” bit was done two years later in The Sugarland Express (1974), and absolutely bests this film. It even features Ben Johnson in a much better role, here his part is basically a cameo.
The Getaway is compromised, commercially minded Peckinpah-lite. Which of course is still better than most directors anyway. It isn’t anywhere near the awfulness of Convoy (1978, and rumored to not have even been truly directed by Sam), and is much more cohesive than The Killer Elite (1975).
Oh, and there’s another great scene where McQueen actually slaps MacGraw. It’s such a wonderful moment of nasty self-disgust that perfectly reflects the film.
Note: This film was photographed in the rare Todd-AO 35 process. This was a process made by Todd-AO to try and compete with standard 35mm production, not that it made any difference here.
EDITIONS: Originally released on an early snapper case DVD by Warner, the 2005 DVD Deluxe Edition was simultaneously released alongside a Blu-ray and HD-DVD. All three come from the same new master. 1.85:1 16:9 anamorphic video image which looks quite clear, with maybe an occasional blemish or two. Of course, there’s very little to distinguish the film visually as this was an early 70’s production. The HD-DVD is no longer viable, so the Blu-ray is your best bet. Being the same transfer, the disc is stuck around the single layer size. Unfortunately no release has lossless mono, not that it was that enveloping of a soundtrack to begin with. So DVD or Blu-ray take your pick, but one’s $5 and the other usually $7.