THE GETAWAY. National General Pictures, 1972. Steve McQueen, Ali MacGraw, Ben Johnson, Sally Struthers, Al Lettieri, Slim Pickens, Richard Bright, Jack Dodson, Dub Taylor, Bo Hopkins. Screenplay by Walter Hill, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Director: Sam Peckinpah.
I’m going to disagree with Roger Ebert about the merits of this film. I think it’s terrific, a flawed masterpiece, if you will, and if you want to read all about the flaws, you can read Roger’s review, available online here. He seems to have picked up all of them.
To tell you the truth, though, the first time I saw this movie, I was rather underwhelmed myself, but for two reasons that Roger doesn’t mention. Well, maybe three. I’d have to agree that Ali McGraw as never much of an actress, that Steve McQueen was always Steve McQueen in whatever movie he was in, and (playing My Grumpy here) the long sidebar with Sally Struther’s character (the wife of the veterinarian that McQueen’s fellow bank robber kidnaps to medicate his broken collarbone) was totally unnecessary and quite frivolous besides.
The second time through, none of Roger’s quibbles mattered, nor any of mine as well. I enjoyed myself thoroughly all the way through. The photography is brilliant. The little bits of business tossed in here and there all came together, and the action is spectacular. It is not non-stop action, however, as the story takes the time to focus on the rocky romance that develops between the two leading characters for long stretches of time. And the ending was even more enjoyable the second time, maybe because of the anticipation. (If Slim Pickens ad-libbed his conversation between the runaway couple, as I’ve been told, my admiration for his ability as an actor is even higher.)
I think Ali McGraw does everything that was asked of her, including not giving her a lot of dialogue. But the uncertainty in her face I saw the first time fit right into place the second time, as she does not know how Doc McCoy (McQueen) will react when he learns what she did in order to get him sprung from jail when after the parole board turns down an early release. And react he does, probably in a way that wouldn’t be permitted in a movie today.
As for McQueen being McQueen, wasn’t Bogart always Bogart? Gable always Gable? Scott always Scott? McQueen’s presence on the screen is always a plus. What was I thinking? The business with Sally Struthers, well, I’m still not so sure about that, but in parallel and it contrast with the McCoys’ journey, I grew to accept it the second time around.
The story, which I think it’s about time I got around to telling you about, is about a bank heist gone bad, and the problems that result when both big things and little things go bad. Mostly big things, such as having a con man steal the key of the train locker containing the loot, and hiding in a grbage dumpster just before the truck comes along to pick it up.
This movie’s in my top twenty now, no doubt about it.
JIM THOMPSON – The Getaway. Signet #1584, paperback original, 1959. Reprints include: Bantam, paperback, movie tie-in edition, 1973. Black Lizard, softcover, 1984.
I don’t own a copy of the Signet book; in fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a copy. (The least expensive one on abebooks.com is $60.) For some reason, and I’m not sure why I thought this, but I’ve had it in my head all these years that the Bantam edition which I’ve just read (after watching the film) was a paperback adaptation of the movie. Wrong. It was just the opposite. The movie was based on the Signet paperback published in 1959.
And surprisingly enough, within the restrictions of big studio movie-making, the adaptation is reasonably well done. Up to a point, that is, and I’ll get back to that shortly.
But the Doc McCoy in the book is a killer as well a bank robber, and a vicious one at that. There’s no way that Steve McQueen could play a villain as cold-blooded as his character is in the novel. In the movie, Doc McCoy is a killer when he needs to, and only then. His companion in crime, his wife Carol, who helped bring about his parole by sleeping with a member of the parole board, is also not as good-looking as Ali McGraw, nor do we have any feeling of sympathy or rapport with her. She (Carol in the book) has made her bed and all we’re waiting for is how far that will get her.
The story of the two increasingly desperate
movie stars fugitives on the lam eventually diverges from the book around page 132 with just over 50 pages to go. Or to better phrase that, this is where the movie ends. The movie has a much happier end than the book does, and that it putting it mildly. What follows is either a totally allegorical fantasy, or a getaway that only ends when the pair of fugitives reaches safety in Mexico pure hell.
Let me tell you this. One “refuge” the couple on the run find themselves in is a pair of tiny cramped caves in a cliff along the California coast just above the water line. When Carol manages to maneuver herself around in the dark so she can sit up, then finds that she cannot move an inch to lie down again, it was two AM in the morning and I had to stop reading, right then and there.
I’ve not read enough Thompson to say, but other people tell me that this is one of his best. Now I know why.
THE GETAWAY. Universal Pictures, 1994. Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, James Woods, David Morse, Jennifer Tilly, James Stephens, Richard Farnsworth, Philip Hoffman, Burton Gilliam. Screenplay by Walter Hill & Amy Jones, based on the novel by Jim Thompson. Director: Roger Donaldson.
There were a few changes made from the earlier version of the film, but in a way, only a few of any consequence. Instead of robbing a bank, Doc McCoy and two others hold up a dog racing track instead, and some additional back story was added, but not particularly for the better. Personally I think that when back story is added, it takes away from the mystery behind the characters. Not always, but often enough.
Walter Hill was the screen writer of both films, with the addition of Amy Holden Jones on the second. Perhaps that helps explain why in the scene in which McCoy slaps his wife around when he learns what she had done to help free him from prison, Carol (Kim Basinger) slaps him right back.
There are some subtle changes that are more difficult to put words to. Alec Baldwin, whatever his accomplishments, does not have nearly the screen presence of Steve McQueen, and while Kim Basinger is a much better actress than Ali McGraw, I somehow found Ali McGraw a more fitting actress for the character, at least the cinematic one.
The sex scenes are far more explicit in the later movie, and the action seems more violent, but somehow I don’t believe either facts are to the second film’s advantage. The most striking difference between the two films [SPOILER ALERT] is that I found the happy ending rather appropriate [NOT IN THE BOOK], but in the second film, I wondered a whole lot more if I cared that these two rather unpleasant people were going to get away with it.