Sunday, October 19, 2014

Film Pairings — Two Films From The Seventies, Escape American vs. European Style

I can’t think of two more diverse approaches to film than these two 1970s crime films. One is American (U.S.) and the other European. If one needed an explanation of the difference in our cultures, this double feature should do the trick. 

Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw
The Get Away (1972) is about as American as a movie can get.  Sam Peckinpah directed.  Arthur Hill wrote the screen play based on a Jim Thompson novel.  There are are guns — lots of guns — car chases, crashes, fires, explosions, falling elevators, even a potential hydraulic compaction in the back of a trash truck. McQueen is an ex-con who, in his exchange for what he imagines to be his freedom, trades his girlfriend and agrees to do a bank heist.  We go from bad to worse.  No end to treachery.  Along the way, the Thompson noir got a Hollywood detour.  Quincy Jones provided some happy ending music.  Even so, the movie was a big hit, and despite its ‘70s sentiment, Getaway is nonetheless an adventure. You won’t doze off.  The casting director deserves an award.  Ali MacGraw costars with merit, and supporting actor Al Lettieri is appropriately and masterfully despicable. Sally Struthers is at her irritating best.

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson
The theme of the evening is “escape,” from what to what.  In The Passenger we find Jack Nicholson playing British-born American TV journalist David Locke who is fed up with his wife, his life, and his job, which has devolved into a shallow practice of a once important profession.  At a remote hotel in Chad, he discovers that a fellow Western traveller with whom he had befriended has died of natural causes. The dead man had few ties back in England. Locke figured that, given the circumstances and with a little tinkering, he could exchange identities.  It was Locke who would be dead, officially. And the Nicholson character would be reborn as Robertson, set free from his encumbrances. However, Robertson turns out to have been a munitions supplier in the Chad civil war.  The new Robertson comes into a large sum of money, but of course cannot deliver the goods.  In this European film, written in part and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, the threats are more implicit than manifest.  The character’s philosophically existential dilemma is more important than his physical survival.

The Passenger (1975) is a slow, beautiful film. While Getaway is nearly all action, The Passenger slows so you can see the amazing stream of still photographs that make up the whole.  The life force in the film, however, comes from actress Maria Schneider, who plays a young and eccentric "passenger,",if only the main character would get it. She is a sprite who does her best to help a human (Nicholson) find what he is really searching for.

Oddly, at the end of Getaway, Steve McQueen tells Slim Pickens, “I hope you find what you’re lookin’ for.”  The thing is that the Slim Pickens’ character, hardly pivotal, was the only one (in both movies) not looking for anything and seems quite content.

The roughly four hours watching these two movies are spent in hot, dry and desolate places.  To help you endure your cinematic surroundings, put some ice into a glass with tequila or rum to stay cool.  Lemonade is nice too.

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