Sam Peckinpah reined in his directorial idiosyncrasies long enough to make this tautly-paced thriller, one of his most successful films.
When people sit down to analyze the career of maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, his 1972 thriller The Getaway is usually found wanting, and remembered mainly for the scandalous affair that developed between co-stars Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Coming smack in the middle of a filmmaking stretch that was preceded by the highly controversial The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971), and followed by the wildly idiosyncratic Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), it feels like an exercise in playing it safe from a director not exactly famous for doing such things. Despite that, it still works as a solid crime thriller that demonstrated that Peckinpah could play by Hollywood’s rules if he wanted to do so.
Peckinpah was not the first filmmaker contracted to bring this adaptation of Jim Thompson’s acclaimed 1958 crime novel to the screen by McQueen, then at the zenith of his stardom, and producing partner David Foster. Initially, Peter Bogdanovich was hired on the strength of his 1971 breakthrough The Last Picture Show, and Thompson himself was chosen to do the screenplay. These selections didn’t last too long—Bogdanovich was let go when he expressed a desire to make What’s Up, Doc? first, and Thompson had his screenplay rejected when McQueen objected to its bleak tone, especially regarding the grisly ending.
To rewrite the film, McQueen and Foster turned to Walter Hill, who was then beginning to emerge as a screenwriter based on his script for the crime drama Hickey & Boggs (1971). Ironically, considering his later reputation for violent thrillers, Hill consciously set out to convey the story in a less overtly brutal manner than in the novel. To direct, McQueen turned to Peckinpah, with whom he had just worked on Junior Bonner. For the all-important female lead, Ali MacGraw was considered to be a practical suggestion—she was a big star in the wake of the mammoth success of Love Story (1970), and she was the wife of Robert Evans, the production chief at Paramount. Even when Paramount declined to produce it at the end (the star-driven First Artists Productions would finance it), she remained with the project.
In the film, McQueen plays Doc McCoy, in the fourth year of a ten-year prison stretch for armed robbery who, as the story opens, has his bid for parole denied. He asks his wife, Carol (McGraw), to make a deal—any deal—with corrupt influential businessman Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) to secure his release. Beynon comes through, but the price is that he must then rob a bank with the aid of two of Beynon’s henchmen, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins). Although the robbery goes off to the tune of $500,000, Frank kills a security guard, and Rudy kills him as part of a double-cross. He tries the same thing with Doc, but Doc manages to shoot him first and leaves him for dead while he goes off to meet Beynon, not realizing that he has planned to double-cross Doc himself by having Carol sneak into the meeting and shoot him. Instead, Carol shoots Beynon, though not before he reveals the details of how she convinced him to spring Doc in the first place.
Although tensions are understandably high between Doc and Carol, the two grab the money and head for El Paso to cross the border to Mexico and freedom. While at a train station, a con man steals the bag of cash from Carol, requiring Doc to get on a train to get the money back, an act that catches the authorities’ attention. At the same time, the two are also being pursued by Beynon’s brother and henchmen as well as Rudy, who has forced milquetoast vet Harold (Jack Dodson) and his wife Fran (Sally Struthers) to fix his wounds and then takes them along as hostages (let’s say that one member of that couple is far more into the whole thing than the other). They all end up converging at the same El Paso hotel, and, suffice it to say, bloody and highly choreographed mayhem quickly ensues.
Perhaps appropriately, considering the nature of the story, Peckinpah would often claim that he made The Getaway for the most mercenary of reasons—he needed the money and wanted to prove to the industry that he could make an overtly commercial project as well as anyone else in Hollywood. In that latter regard, he certainly succeeded—this is one of the few films in his oeuvre that could have been made by virtually any other competent director. without too much difference in the results. The problem is that Peckinpah goes a little too far in the opposite direction. Compared to the spellbinding likes of his greatest works, the action beats (such as the train sequence and the big finale) lack intensity, and the characters are essentially little more than ciphers being jerked around by the machinations of the plot. As a result, it isn’t easy to care that much about whether Doc and Carol get away with everything.
And yet, despite its undeniably formulaic nature and elements that have not stood the test of time (especially the perverse relationship that develops between Rudy and Fran that raised hackles 50 years ago and which still comes across as a bit gross), there are plenty of moments and elements in The Getaway that do work. The opening sequence, in which we see Doc beginning to crack under the pressures of prison, is an intricately constructed affair that finds Peckinpah working on all cylinders with beautiful results. Although the action beats lack the intensity of something like The Wild Bunch, they are presented powerfully and efficiently, and make you wish that he and Hill could have teamed up again on another project.
While the characters they play are non-entities, the chemistry between McQueen and MacGraw is undeniably off the charts. When news of their inevitable affair (which led to the breakups of their marriages) hit, it helped to fuel interest in The Getaway with the public in a way not seen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hooked up on the set of Cleopatra. Peckinpah also finds nice supporting turns for such familiar faces as Johnson, Dub Taylor, and Slim Pickens, who gets a nifty showcase towards the end as a cowboy who ends up assisting Doc and Carol in their bid for the border.
[I]t still works as a solid crime thriller that demonstrated that Peckinpah could play by Hollywood’s rules if he wanted to do so.
Boosted by the film’s box-office success and perhaps also by some distaste over what he needed to do to accomplish that, Peckinpah went on to direct two strange, violent, and deeply personal masterpieces, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, that flopped and burned up whatever goodwill he might have held within the industry. His subsequent films (The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron, and Convoy) were so chaotic that Peckinpah was reduced to directing second-unit on Don Siegel’s Jinxed (1982) before ending his career with the odd spy thriller The Osterman Weekend (1983) and a Julian Lennon video before dying in 1984.
For his part, McQueen followed it up with the hits Papillon and The Towering Inferno before spending years trying to make a barely released film version of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and concluding his career with the 1980 potboilers Tom Horn and The Hunter before his untimely death from cancer later that year at the age of 50. MacGraw would not make another movie until reuniting with Peckinpah for Convoy and only worked sporadically afterward, turning in her best performance in the comedy Just Tell Me What You Want (1980).
Seen today, The Getaway comes across as a well-crafted, if somewhat impersonal, crime thriller that goes about its business with a cool efficiency that puts most current films of the same genre to shame (and it certainly beats the misbegotten 1994 remake that co-starred Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger like a gong). The most lasting thing about it is the way that it shows how easily Peckinpah could have made things for himself professionally if he had been willing to play along with the studios that crank out formulaic enterprises like it all the time, and how lucky we are that he preferred to choose another path.