The Getaway

Year: 1972
Production Co: First Artists
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writer: Walter Hill
Cast: Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Ben Johnson, Al Lettieri, Sally Struthers, Slim Pickens

There were a couple of moments early on in this movie where I wondered to myself if audiences back in the 70s were really so much more forgiving of weird (and seemingly unintended) editing choices than we are today.

Many of them would render a modern movie as shlock, but because this had Sam Peckinpah at the helm and Steve McQueen in front of the camera it's mostly unassailable.

Its cult of cool was further galvanised recently after providing the behind the scenes image that appeared on the cover of Quentin Tarantino's book Cinema Speculation.

It wasn't the most culturally impactful film of the era or McQueen's career and not nearly as well known and commercial as films like The Towering Inferno, The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape.

So I might not have ordinarily bothered with it, but it's been on my list for the longest time because I actually saw Roger Donaldson's 1994 remake starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in cinemas and really liked it.

At the time I had no idea it was a redux of a classic or that critics and audiences in Tarantino's camp probably hated it for daring to homage such a classic.

So I wanted to know if the original really was the best. The most revealing thing about them both is how closely Donaldson's version hewed – probably the reason it was largely rejected.

It wasn't quite a shot for shot remake but I recognised all the story turns, devices and set pieces (the double cross, the kitten, the garbage dump scene, the train chase) as soon as they came along.

But I believe most of the credit for any creative success in the film should go to writer Water Hill. Apart from some early outliers – more below – the story is sparse yet tightly wound, every character and their goals forming an easy to digest and exciting structure that plays neither too self-importantly nor too free-wheeling on screen (the same reason I liked Donaldson's version).

Career crim Doc McCoy (McQueen) is a few years into a ten year stretch in Texas but can't stand it anymore, telling his gorgeous and loyal wife Carol (Ali McGraw) to visit a corrupt associate to broker his release when his parole is denied again.

After he gets it and enjoys a few days of peace in the outside world, the chickens come home to roost and the corrupt associate, Benyon, assigns him a bank robbery. Doc is none too pleased with the team Benyon saddles him with but has no choice but to go along with it.

The robbery goes bad but they get away with the money, and it's only by his wits that he survives, sensing the lead hood, Rudy (Al Lettieri, who'd play the ill fated Sollozzo in The Godfather) is going to double cross him at the post-job meet and gunning him down instead. It's another pretty delicious moment I remembered well from the 1994 version too; 'he didn't make it... neither did you'.

So Doc and Carol go on the run with the dough, knowing Benyon will have ordered the hit on Doc but with no idea Rudy actually survived thanks to the bullet proof vest he was wearing and will be gunning for them both.

As they try to evade both Benyon's goons and the cops long enough to reach the Mexican border, Rudy takes a couple running a veterinary practice hostage and makes them tend his wounds and ferry him around on Doc and Carol's tail.

In a nice bit of character work that doesn't detract from the core story and raises just the right amount of dimension, the innocent young wife of the pair (Sally Struthers) is so gormless she barely realises she's the captive of a killer, considering the whole thing a big adventure, flirting and bonding with Rudy and seemingly in love with him by the time their story plays out.

Maybe it was Peckinpah's infamous excessive drinking but the movie feels like he finds a groove and the shoddy cutting gets better as it goes along.

The same goes for the tightness in the script as well – despite what I said about it all being cohesive and efficient there are a few sequences early on that are nearly avant garde in their hippie-era aesthetic, like when Doc and Carol go to the riverbank so he can savour his freedom (and imagine a bizarre dream sequence of them cavorting in the water).

Fans of this era's movies know it as the one where McGraw started an affair with McQueen behind the scenes that would prompt her to leave her husband, heavy hitter producer Bob Evans, but I was interested in even deeper trivia.

At the end of the final credits the production thanks a guy called Warren Skaaren, who was the Texas government liaison responsible for bringing film productions to the state at the time. He'd go on to a successful screenwriting career before his death in 1990, working on the script for Tim Burton's Batman a year earlier.

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