In 1972, famed Western and action film director Sam Peckinpah helmed a neo-noir heist film adapted from a novel by the hardboiled pulp author Jim Thompson. Peter Bogdanovich was originally slated to direct the film and Thompson to adapt his own novel into screenplay format. However, the two butted heads early on in the production as Bogdanovich approached the property as an opportunity to direct a Hitchcockian thriller, despite that approach being fundamentally antithetical to Thompson’s source novel rife with surreal motifs and procedural, hardboiled narrative.
The Studio, sensing problems ahead given the current state of things, fired both men and thankfully replaced Bogdanovich with Peckinpah, and Thompson with Walter Hill. Thankfully in the case of Peckinpah as his approach to filming has always been appropriate to action films than Bogdanovich (despite the latter being a great director in his own right). And thankfully in the case of Walter Hill as the writer of a novel is typically overprotective of their property when adapting a screenplay and often has difficulty cutting the fat from their own work, which means an outside voice was necessary to shape the text into a workable script. In this case, they chose one of the best screenwriters one could imagine as Walter Hill would later go on to write and direct a number of classic films including The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Streets of Fire, and Crossroads, demonstrating his ability (at least in his early career) to really spin a yarn.
Along with Walter Hill, Peckinpah employed his then-favorite cinematographer Lucien Ballard who had previously worked with him on five projects including the television series The Westerner, and the films Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Junior Bonner (which was released after The Getaway in later 1972 despite being shot prior to it). Ballard was something of an old hand by the time he began working with Peckinpah in 1960 and was close to retirement by 1972 on The Getaway. But prior to this period, he had worked with some of the greatest directors of Westerns during the classical Hollywood period including Budd Boetticher (on the Ranown Cycle film Buchanan Rides Alone and the TV show Maverick) and Henry Hathaway (on his classic Westerns The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit).
The film follows the exploits of a couple of bank robbers named Carter (Steve McQueen) and Carol McCoy. Carter begins the film holed up in a maximum security prison for holding up a bank. However, he’s up for potential bail on good behavior and should be released any time now. Therein lies the crux of the problem as he inexplicably is never released. His old crime boss, Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson), pulls the political strings that could have Carter freed, but Benyon wants something in return before he cedes this freedom to his past employee: a sexual experience with Carter’s wife Carol. Obviously Carter is against the whole thing, but realizes this may be his only chance to escape prison for some time. He asks his wife to do the deed and she complies.
Benyon holds up his end of the bargain and uses his influence to free Carter. As Carter is starting over once again and needs some bread, Benyon also gives him a new job on a minor bank heist. He hires both McCoy’s and two goons of his own who turn out to be rather unprofessional. One man is gunned down during the heist itself as he gets trigger happy and lets loose the first kill, thereby inciting cops to fire back. The second man tries to pull a fast one on Carter at the meet-up point, but Carter is quicker to draw and plugs the man, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), four times in the chest. Unfortunately for the McCoy’s, Rudy was wearing a bullet-proof vest, survives and spends the rest of the film tracking them down in an effort to kill them both and reclaim his cut of the heist money (and the McCoy’s cut as well for good measure).
Added to this problem, is the complication of Benyon. During their intimate evening together, he and Carol agreed to take out Carter when the heist was over and he returned to Benyon to deliver the money and take his cut. Carol has once again grown close to Carter, however, and triple crosses Benyon. She changes her aim, and my god, is her aim true. She plugs Benyon, her and Carter run off with all of the money, and now Benyon’s men and his brother are out for revenge as well.
Finally, the cops initially have no clue that Carter and Carol are in on the heist. But eventually, through a series of unfortunate mishaps, they are identified as the prime suspects in the case of the heist, and in the multiple murders surrounding it. So now, with an assassin, a crime family, and the police on their trail, they must trek halfway across the country, stealing cars and hiding in garbage trucks all along the way to escape, they hope, to Mexico. But this wouldn’t be a Peckinpah film without a climactic final shootout with their aggressors, their pursuers. And unlike in The Wild Bunch wherein the death of our heroes signifies the death of the West and an ideological move into a more complicated, less honorable, forthright society based on law and technology, and wherein our heroes must therefore die off as dinosaurs of a time long gone, Carol and Carter are ultimately characters who must continue to survive.
And survive they do. With the help of a sympathetic ex-con (Slim Pickens) who drives the couple over the border and into Mexico, and eventually sells them his truck for the hefty sum of $30 grande: their offer. This shows the relative good faith and decency of the couple who never wanted to hurt anyone, but were dragged into impossible circumstances through problematic turns of fate. And turns of fate that would kill just about any other duo any less smart, or half as hard.
The resultant picture was critically maligned at the time, which is bewildering today upon the re-viewing it. The Getaway is a just a good little heist picture with plenty of action, nihilism, humor, and good-spirited fun. A picture every bit deserving of the box office numbers of drew (more than ten times its budget of $3 million USD), and one of the biggest grosses of any film in Steve McQueen’s career. The biggest of Peckinpah’s. And not even a Western.
[Check out another one of my Peckinpah film reviews here: Major Dundee]