The Getaway: Steve McQueen’s cool charisma powers this highly entertaining action-romance from Sam Peckinpah & Walter Hill

The Getaway(1972) starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, was the most commercially successful film that revered director Sam Peckinpah ever made. Though not as personal as his other works, the film still bears his stamp, both visually and thematically.

The Getaway is Sam Peckinpah’s least personal work and, his biggest commercial success; he made it at a time when he was desperate for a commercial hit; his films after the highly acclaimed The Wild Bunch – like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner – had failed to make an impact at the box office. His reputation as a spendthrift, troublesome, belligerent, alcoholic filmmaker had also alienated producers and studio heads. So he had to have a solid success if he wanted to go on being a big time filmmaker; and, superstar Steve McQueen (who had just worked with him in Junior Bonner) presented him with that opportunity. Interestingly, McQueen, who was touted as one of the biggest stars in the world at the time was himself struggling. After ascending to the heights of superstardom, through a series of very successful movies in the 1960’s (topped off by the smashing success of the cop thriller Bullit(1968)), McQueen’s career had considerably cooled down by the early 1970s, with three of his films flopping in a row – including Les Mans(1971),  his passion project on racing. He was also facing a huge crisis in his personal life, with Neile, his wife of fifteen years, filing for divorce; on top of that, he owed a lot of money to government on back taxes. McQueen was looking for a project closer to his super smash Bullitt in spirit and tone; lots of action, lots of car chases and a cool character for him to play. He finally found it in Jim Thompson’s novel, The Getaway, which was brought to him by producer David Foster.

Foster was working a TV producer when he came across the 1958 “dime novel” paperback original of Thompson’s novel. Thompson was then a struggling crime writer who would achieve lasting fame after his death, but at the time, when Foster had optioned his book, Thompson was sixty-six, frail, and severely alcoholic. Broke and without any income. Foster recognized in the script elements of Bonnie and Clyde, which was a huge hit back in 1967. Thompson’s novel was very dense, dark and even surreal and wouldn’t have transformed well into a mainstream motion picture. But Screenwriter Walter Hill (who was to become a great action film director in his own right) condensed the novel into a workable script by applying his trademark minimalism; He stripped down the book to its barest plot points and turned the characters into easily identifiable action film archetypes. So, as it plays out on screen, it’s rather simple and straightforward story: Tough bank robber Carter “Doc” McCoy’s beautiful and devoted wife, Carol, sleeps with corrupt local Texas politician, Jack Benyon, to get him out of jail. In return for his freedom, Doc will rob a bank and split the take with Benyon. However, once Doc is freed, nothing goes as planned: There are double-crosses, murders, car chases, a spectacular hotel shootout and some intense sexual scenes. In the end, Doc and Carol are successful in evading the cops (and gangsters) who are on their trail and manages to  cross the Mexican border (and into freedom and happily ever after).

When Foster brought the script to Steve McQueen, he loved the character of Carter “Doc” McCoy immensely; Doc was an outlaw: tough, rangy, and vulnerable, the type of antihero Steve felt at ease playing. McCoy especially reminded him of Roy Earle (played by Steve’s favorite actor Humphrey Bogart) in Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra(1941). The only time Steve played a character like McCoy was the rootless and rebellious  Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles(1966); the performance won him his lone Oscar nomination. In Preparing for McCoy, Steve watched High Sierra multiple times, studying every nuance of Bogart’s performance. The suit he wore in the film was an  exact replica of the suit Bogart wore in that film. The original choice for the director was Peter Bogdanovich, whose not-yet-released debut film, The Last Picture Show, had terrific industry buzz. Bogdanovich accepted the job, but later backed out (for multiple reasons, chief among being that he couldn’t see eye tot eye with Steve). With Bogdanovich out, Steve and Foster turned to Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah always needed money, and now more so, as he had just gotten married (for the third time, and under very controversial circumstances). Peckinpah agreed to direct and started rewriting the script to include more action. Though Peckinpah was very clear that this was just a ‘job for hire’, which he was doing strictly for money, it didn’t stop him from putting his personal stamp on the film, both on a visual  and thematic level. His films are mainly about the disintegration of a relationship, where friends (or lovers) become foes, as they navigate their way through a violent, masculine world; an amoral world where the lead characters try to survive with their moral code intact. Here, the husband and wife team of Doc and Carol represent the typical Peckinpah protagonists, whose relationship is on a downward slide, as they are being chased by both cops and criminals through the American-Mexican border towns.

The first 15 minutes of The Getaway, is one of the greatest instances of ‘pure cinema’ that you will ever get to see. Through a series of superbly photographed, edited and  sound designed moments, Sam Peckinpah shows the claustrophobic nature and the tiring monotony of prison life; a life that would turn any human being into a well oiled, robotic machine and suck out every ounce of humanity in him. The opening follows Doc McCoy in the prison, where we see him attending parole hearings; working with machines; being carted outside for prison work; and lying down in his prison cell, staring vacantly at the picture of his wife Carol on the wall. Randomly interwoven with these images is Doc reminiscing about the romantic moments he had with his wife in the past. He is into his 5th year in the prison (for a ten year sentence) and his request for Parole is rejected again. Peckinpah’s camera zeroes in on a menacing Jack Benyon(Ben Johnson) during the scenes of  Parole board hearings, just to show that he’s pulling the strings in denying parole to Doc.  The entire sequence is a perfect mix of Walter Hill’s stripped down plot and character delineation and Peckinpah’s penchant for creating great ‘set pieces’ through purely visual means. In its construction and buildup, its no less suspenseful and thrilling  than any of the elaborately choreographed  action scenes in the film. Finally, we say a totally numb Doc barely able to converse with his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw), when she comes to visit him. He can hardly bring himself to look at her or talk to her; all he could tell her, is to go to Benyon and make a deal to get him out. Carol realizes that Doc’s at the end of his tether and she  meets up with Benyon at his office. What happens next is a little tricky: we see Benyon inviting Carol for a drink and then the film cuts to Doc being released from prison; Steve is wearing that black suit that he modeled on Bogart and, as Bogart in that film, or more importantly, like Cary Grant – who developed his performance around his iconic blue suit in North by Northwest(1959) – Steve would design his performance around that suit; a very subtle, nuanced and very forceful performance, powered by his iconic cool persona. Though the film, on its own, is not that bad, it is unthinkable without Steve at the center powering the film on when it dips into pretty generic and even limbo state from time to time. His accomplishment becomes even more noteworthy in the light of the atrocious performance dished out by his onscreen (and soon to be off-screen) better half, Ali MacGraw. Steve and Ali were having quite a great time behind the cameras, but that doesn’t reflect on screen. They have zero chemistry and most of the time it doesn’t even appear that they are acting in the same film.

Peckinpah follows this scene with another montage like moment, when the newly released Doc and Carol goes into a public park. Doc’s imaginations and his actions are once again mixed up in the visuals, where he is seen enjoying his new freedom after being incarcerated for so long. He is seen jumping into the lake, with Carol following suit, even as the camera cuts back to Doc on the shore lost in his dreams. The final moments of the scene has Doc and Carol arriving at their house all drenched. The film then shifts to those ‘by the numbers‘ moments we find in these crime\heist films. Benyon provides the set up and the team for the heist; there are elaborate preparations and then the actual heist itself (all pretty dated and a little unintentionally funny for today’s times). But once the chase begins, post the botched heist, Peckinpah gets back in form. Things are also spice up by Al Letteiri (Sollozo from The Godfather) who plays a hood named Rudy, who is a part of Doc’s team, but then double crosses him – or at least tries to- before he is shot and wounded by Doc. As in Bullitt, where we see an utterly botched attempt by a group of killers (and by the filmmakers)  on a government witness becoming the centerpiece of the film, here too, Doc’s callousness in not finishing off Rudy rankles. Instead of shooting him in the head and finishing off the job, Doc keeps shooting at Rudy’s body, which is covered with a bullet proof vest. If Rudy had indeed died there , then we wouldn’t have to endure an endless subplot, in which Rudy kidnaps a veterinarian and his young wife – who turns out to be such a sexpot that she starts an adulterous affair with Rudy right in front of her humiliated husband, who commits suicide midway. But this subplot has another significance; it is used by Peckinpah to visually represent the mental state of Doc, who is also a victim of cuckolding and, on account of which, he would treat his wife very harshly – as we will soon see – though i wish Peckinpah and Hill had thought of a better way of showing it.

Doc and Carol reaches Benyon’s place to split up the money; Doc asks Carol to wait in the car while he meets with Benyon. She seems a little disturbed and here, we get the first inkling that things may not be so cut and dry as Doc believes. At this moment the film drifts into Noir territory, with Benyon looking rather ominous in his dealings with Doc and he is not in a mood to cut up the money as planned. Looks like Benyon knows something that Doc doesn’t about the deal, not just about the heist , but the deal that got Doc out of prison. And just as it appears that Benyon is going to divulge some sinister details, Carol slowly walks in and points a gun at Doc from behind. Now we realize that Doc has been set up by Benyon and Carol; she is the femme fatale and Doc is the sap; Benyon and Carol had made a deal to kill Doc and take the money; not just that, to sweeten the deal Carol has also slept with Benyon. Now all that’s required to complete this Noir setup  is for Carol to pull the trigger; which she does, but not on Doc, but on Benyon. Turns out she is no femme fatale, but a woman genuinely in love with her man; she is willing to go to any lengths to save him, even sleeping with the enemy. Though Carol has just saved his neck, Doc is not going to forget her infidelity. He literally beats the crap out of her; pushing, slapping, punching; their relationship from now on is not going to be the same, even though they need each other to escape from the police and Benyon’s men. Now with half a million dollars of the stolen money in their hands and deeply distrustful of each other, Doc and Carol bicker and fight, as they travel across Texas on their way to Mexico. This allows Peckinpah to indulge in some terrific set pieces; like a chase set in the railway station and in the train, when the stolen money is stolen by a common thief; or a chase and shootout in the street, where Doc goes on a rampage with a shotgun; and, finally, the shootout in El Paso, where all the players in the story: Rudy, Benyon’s men, Doc & Carol shoot it out with each other, with only Doc & Carol surviving the carnage. Doc and Carol had made up in the interim and they swear never to bring up the matter of Carol’s infidelity ever again. They finally make their way into Mexico with the help of a benevolent cowboy (played by Peckinpah regular Slim Pickens).

Though the film is full of human causalities, the biggest causality the film generated was off-screen, namely the marriage between Ali MacGraw and Paramount studio chief Robert Evans. Initially, The Getaway was going to be produced by Paramount , with Evans pushing for his wife to play the lead opposite Steve, as a way of “expanding her range” . She was coming off the success of Love Story (1970) and Steve loved the idea of using MacGraw as well, not so much for her acting talent or to stretch her screen persona, but for her golden marquee value. But, Peckinpah preferred Stella Stevens, a barely known movie actress whose best previous role had been in his “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” After much persuasion, Peckinpah finally gave in and agreed to MacGraw starring in the picture. However, before filming even began, Evans abandoned the film, but MacGraw stayed on as Steve’s costar, as  the film landed at First Artists – a production company in which Steve was a partner along with Paul Newman, Barbara Streisand and Sidney Poitier. Steve and Ali were attracted to each other immediately and they started an affair, resulting in Ali divorcing Evans and marrying Steve. It is another matter that their marriage did not last much longer either; Steve’s substance abuse, physical abuse and  infidelity will soon end the marriage (just like his first marriage to Neile). The scene where Steve’s Doc takes out his fury on Carol (for sleeping with Benyon) was improvised by Steve by slapping Ali around, on her face and across her body. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Steve’s violent attacks on Neile. He used to beat her up while being under the influence of drugs and alcohol and once threatened her with a loaded pistol. It is a hard fact to swallow for McQueen fans (including yours truly)  that Steve was a cool guy only on screen; off screen, he was extremely uncool, violent, jealous, unhealthily competitive and rough. Steve’s is a perfect case to why It’s better to leave our admiration for our favorite stars on screen itself and not to dig further into their personal life, as we wouldn’t like what we see. And like all stars who had a rough life, Steve’s performances hinges a lot on him bringing his personal experiences to it. Doc appears to be a very controlled, self-contained character on the surface, but Steve makes us feel the violence and anger bubbling just underneath. And the way Steve brings this out is very interesting : it’s reflected in the way he throws a wad of cash – like when he is taunted by Benyon about his wife, or the way he pronounces the word “Sure” In his first meeting with Benyon where he tells him “You run the job, but I run the show. And don’t forget it.”. Steve is not the greatest actor (he cannot do Shakespeare), but Steve is a great, great movie actor, who knows how to perform for the camera, especially with his eyes.

Steve  had some tough fights with director Peckinpah as well; Steve and Peckinpah were sort of crazy kindred souls; both addicted to drugs, booze and sex. But  despite their loyalty and camaraderie, they were increasingly at odds over the amount of violence in the film. Their fights became so rough that at one point, Steve threw a big magnum of champagne at Peckinpah and almost killed him. Peckinpah just ducked in time, which saved his life. Finally, Steve took over the editing of the film himself; since he was a producer on the film, he had final cut. He didn’t like the music of Peckinpah’s favorite composer, Jerry Fielding either and had him replaced with Quincy Jones, further enraging Peckinpah. But all this did not effect the box office outcome of the film. The Getaway opened December 13, 1972 to good reviews and great box office. It grossed in excess of $35 million on a $3 million budget. Steve was back on top again and, he would follow it up with two more big successes: Papillon and The Towering Inferno; the films would make him immensely rich again, rich enough for him to take a 5 year long break. Peckinpah’s career was boosted by the film’s success and it would enable him to make his most personal film, Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), but, the film’s failure and the failure of his subsequent films, coupled with his increasingly erratic behavior would see him pushed to the sidelines of the movie industry.  McQueen only made 4 films (officially 5, his Enemy of the People did not get a wide release) after this, which is a real pity. He lost interest in acting and by the time he was recharged and wanted to make a comeback, he was afflicted with cancer. He died in 1980 at the age of 50.