#10 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
This is Sam Peckinpah completely selling out to Steve McQueen in order to find some kind of financial success, and it works. It’s not deep. It’s not moving. It is pretty consistently entertaining, though. This is a Steve McQueen vehicle first and foremost, and Peckinpah brings the professional quality to the action and direction something like this needs.
Doc McCoy (McQueen) gets rejected for parole in prison, so he tells his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) to go to Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) and tell him that he’ll do whatever Beynon wants if he gets Doc out. Carol, an attractive young woman, desperate to get her husband out of prison, does as she is bid, and Beynon pulls some strings to convince the parole board to change its mind. Beynon wants McCoy to lead a heist of a small Texas bank and get $500,000 from its vault. He imposes a team on McCoy of two men, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Jackson (Bo Hopkins).
In a quick sequence that a post-Ocean’s Eleven world feels far too short (it’s not a problem in the film, Peckinpah and the script by Walter Hill are just more concerned with the aftermath than the heist itself), McCoy makes his plans, and it’s obvious that this team is not going to work. Rudy is too contrarian to McCoy’s hard work, and Jackson is simply too dismissive of everything to prepare properly. However, McCoy doesn’t really have a choice.
The heist goes wrong (of course), Rudy kills Jackson and tries to kill McCoy. McCoy wounds him (not checking the supposedly dead man’s vitals because the movie needs to happen), and he’s off with Carol to try and patch up the whole thing. There’s a meeting with Beynon where a hidden truth about the heist is revealed, and Carol’s complicity in manipulating McCoy comes out.
Now, I’m convinced that this is supposed to be the heart of the film. The film’s final scenes make that really obvious. The most common motif in Peckinpah’s body of work is men outside their own time, and that manifests here in the form of McCoy being in prison for four years only to emerge to a new world, in particular around his wife. They don’t really seem to know each other anymore, and what Carol was willing to do just to get him out of prison, up to conspiring against him, shows the distance. However, it’s all very, very thin, helped in no small part by the relative lack of interest MacGraw brings to the part of Carol. Instead of looking desperately relieved when he comes back to her at some point, it’s like they’ve been apart for five minutes. She lacks conviction, and I wonder if it’s because McQueen protected her from Peckinpah’s directing style which has often been described as harsh and manipulative. Most of the film is really occupied with the progression of events as the noose around the McCoys gets tighter.
That noose is really a three-way pincer movement between Rudy who takes a veterinarian (Jack Dodson) and his wife Fran (Sally Struthers) hostage, cuckolding the vet along the way towards the border crossing he knows McCoy will take (with everyone on his tail, why doesn’t McCoy choose another border crossing into Mexico? I dunno), the police, and Beynon’s brother (John Bryson). There’s a little sidequest when Carol accidentally loses the big suitcase full of cash to a random smalltime thief that leads to a tense little chase through a train that puts the police on McCoy’s tail.
As their options become more limited, as more people begin to recognize them from news reports the closer they get to El Paso, their actions become more desperate to the point that they end up in a garbage truck that throws them into a dump outside of town. The straining of their relationship comes to a head here, and more focus on the relationship and a better pair of performances (McQueen is himself and little more) could have made this really affecting. It’s not, thought. It’s pretty functional, at least.
There’s a final showdown at a hotel that feels like Peckinpah simply giving people what they want since it’s very reminiscent of the big ending of The Wild Bunch, and Slim Pickens shows up in a small role at the end to get them a bit further on their journey. He has some dialogue that makes it extremely obvious that the point of the film is supposed to be this reconciliation and reconnection between husband and wife, but so much of the film is dedicated to the action of the eponymous getaway that it doesn’t connect as well as it probably should.
Rudy is an interesting character, because he seems like the kind of character that Peckinpah would normally have as a main character. Working under McQueen’s thumb, Peckinpah seemed to have little say in how either of the McCoys were presented, but with Rudy, he’s purely Peckinpah. He gets involved with a short, buxom, blonde woman who is a shade removed from being a prostitute. He’s mean and cruel, especially to the poor veterinarian who eventually decides he can’t take anymore of the degradation. I’m actually surprised that he’s not played by Warren Oates. In what feels like an overall safe, star vehicle for Peckinpah to rehabilitate his reputation to some degree, it’s in the character of Rudy that Peckinpah seems to have poured himself.
The Getaway is Peckinpah’s least personal film since The Deadly Companions, but he proves himself a capable director for hire nonetheless. He did start work in television. He manages the action well in addition to the tension. He couldn’t help Ali MacGraw’s somewhat limited performance and the script really needed another pass to focus more on the characters, but the end result is a good, tense chase through the Texas countryside.