It takes two to make it ... the big two
Written by Jim Thompson (novel) and Walter Hill
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
1994 remake written by Amy Holden Jones and directed by Roger Donaldson
The Getaway refers simultaneously to the classic 1972 Sam Peckinpah action film starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, as well as to the inferior 1994 remake starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.
c h a r a c t e r s
Along with The French Connection and The Great Escape, The Getaway can be fairly described as the standard for action movies in the 1970s, and thus serves as a prototype for the modern action movie. In this film genre, the plot generally takes second billing to two other vital aspects of the film: the characters and the action sequences. In The Getaway, the viewer gets both in droves.
The central character of The Getaway is Carter "Doc" McCoy, masterfully played by Steve McQueen (but doesn't Steve McQueen always master his role? He may not be the greatest actor of all time, but he has a mesmerizing screen presence.). McQueen was pretty much the top dog in terms of 1970s action-adventure films, and he doesn't disappoint here. Doc McCoy is a career criminal serving ten years in the joint down in Texas for armed robbery; his wife, Carol (played by the mesmerizing Ali MacGraw), is still on the outside waiting his escape.
Doc and Carol come off as a latter-day Bonnie and Clyde, playing off of each other and driving each other further down a criminal path throughout the film. The film gives Carol a touch of innocence, but her actions clearly contradict this. This blatant contradiction in her character paints the broad strokes; the fine touches of Carol appear when she interacts with her husband. She attempts to be tough much of the time, but Doc is really a rough character; he often hits her. Darkly enough, Steve McQueen apparently did this a fair amount with Ali MacGraw in real life.
Doc is clearly painted as a cutthroat individualist; it's clear that the only softness in his heart in any way is brought there by his caring for Carol, but even that doesn't shine through most of the time. Doc is quite willing to do whatever it takes to get out of the joint; he's desperate and doesn't have any silly morals holding him back.
So we have Doc and Carol; what other characters pop up in this picture? Jack Benyon plays the man who gives Doc an offer he can't refuse, a Faustian bargain, if you will. Benyon's motivations and resulting actions provide the major impetus for the forward movement of the plot in this movie, discussed shortly. It is Benyon's duality as a crook and as a man of the law that creates the depth in his character, much like Gene Hackman in Unforgiven.
Several other characters play significant if minor roles in the film: Fran Clinton is the figurative damsel in distress (played well by Sally Struthers) with a lack of confidence and a complete absence of common sense; Harold Clinton plays her husband without a backbone; Rudy Butler and Frank Jackson as Doc's accomplices in crime who manage to be scum to the level of making Doc seem heroic; and Slim, whose small role adds some interesting perspective to the whole mess.
It's a mix of intriguing characters mixed up in a sordid mess, and that's the genesis of any good action movie.
p l o t
So, the characters seem interesting, but what happens? If you don't want any spoilers, don't read this section.
Doc is in prison and will likely be there for several more years until his parole officer Benyon offers him a deal: he'll let him out now in exchange for Doc pulling off a bank heist for him. Doc agrees, gets out of prison, finds his wife, and lives up to his word: he assembles a team to rob a bank.
The first half of the film is the setup for the heist, which involves an odd affair between the mentally blank Fran and the conniving Rudy, who Doc recruits to help with the bank robbery. Along with Frank, Rudy and Doc attempt to rob the bank, but the heist goes haywire even if they manage to escape with the money. After the robbery, Rudy kills Frank, and in retribution Doc shoots Rudy, thinking the shot to be lethal, but it is not.
So, we have Doc on the run with the money from a bank heist along with his wife, an angry Benyon chasing after demanding his rightful money, and a wounded Rudy (with Fran in tow) giving chase planning to kill everyone, the remainder of the movie becomes an adrenaline-pumped chase scene with some plot swerves (Carol and Benyon had an affair?!) and an ending that puts some real perspective on the whole situation: the couple is saved by Slim, who holds a belief that the two must be righteous simply because they're a married couple in a time of sin.
Most of the movie consists of well-placed action scenes: car chases, a botched bank heist, an intense series of scenes in an abandoned hotel near the end where all of the characters hunt each other. It flows along quickly as any action movie should, pushed along mostly by the characters from scene to scene. In essence, it's an example of a quality popcorn action flick.
d i r e c t i o n / c i n e m a t o g r a p h y
As with any action movie, the real cement that holds everything together comes from the direction, editing, and cinematography, and with The Rundown, the film hits a real home run.
Sam Peckinpah, the director, is the master of 1960s-1970s action films, helming The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and one of the most underrated films of all time, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. With this movie, he created a sense of unstructured mayhem, as The Getaway comes together mostly as a sequence of blood-soaked subplots, which fits the dry and dangerous acting of the principals (mainly Steve McQueen) to a tee.
Lucien Ballard, the cinematographer, deserves a great deal of credit, too: many of the shots create a sense of desperate claustrophobia, as if all of the characters are trapped on a roller coaster of death and are unable to escape. Each shot frames the characters carefully, holding them into place in such a way that they seemed trapped in their bloody lifestyle. To contrast this, the shots of Slim near the end represent a very open feeling, showing him as a sort of beacon of hope in the whole sordid mess.
The combination of efforts here, along with great editing, create a disturbing portrayal of desperate people, a portrayal in which the film is spliced together with blood and cheap whiskey. It's a stellar achievement, and it's clear after a few viewings that the shot selection and framing are the real stars of the film.
c a s t a n d c r e w
The cast and crew of this film did a tremendous job and deserve significant applause.
Steve McQueen as Carter 'Doc' McCoy
Ali MacGraw as Carol McCoy
Ben Johnson as Jack Beynon
Sally Struthers as Fran Clinton
Al Lettieri as Rudy Butler
Slim Pickens as Slim
Jack Dodson as Harold Clinton
Bo Hopkins as Frank Jackson
Sam Peckinpah (director)
Jim Thompson (writer)
Walter Hill (writer)
Mitchell Brower (producer)
David Foster (producer)
Quincy Jones (music)
Lucien Ballard (cinematography)
1 9 9 4 r e m a k e
In the early 1990s, Alec Baldwin (who would play Doc) and Kim Basinger (Carol, of course), who were a couple at the time, decided to push for a remake of one of their favorite action films with a bit of "modern spice" and an attempt to add some prettiness to the grime and intensity that filled the original. Needless to say, it was a train wreck.
The first problem is taking Alec Baldwin seriously as a cutthroat robber; I can potentially buy him as a white collar criminal (as in Glengarry Glen Ross), but more often I picture him as the character he plays in Beetlejuice: the comedic and inept house husband. He simply doesn't seem to have that icy edge needed to really carry through the character he's playing; instead, he reminds me of Vince Gill attempting to make a mob movie.
The "modernization" of the movie is pretty terrible as well. They introduce a lengthy, terrible subplot involving Rudy (watch Michael Madsen wasted in a role!) and Fran (watch Jennifer Tilly be... Jennifer Tilly!), in which Fran is married to a veterinarian (James Stephens). Fran is a complete simpleton here, far beyond the simplistic worldview of Sally Struthers in the original, and winds up cheating on her husband with Rudy in this weird interlude in the hotel that goes on and on. Her husband watches and hangs himself with a belt while Michael Madsen urinates. Like I said, weird. James Woods (another underrated actor) plays Jack Benyon in this version, but the role is significantly reduced; the size of the role of Benyon and that of Rudy are roughly equal in the remake, whereas Benyon was one of the true principals in the original.
In the end, this remake is strictly inferior to the original in every way, unless you're simply renting it to see a fantastic Jennifer Tilly sex scene.
Major Cast (1994 remake)
Alec Baldwin as Doc McCoy
Kim Basinger as Carol McCoy
Michael Madsen as Rudy Travis
James Woods as Jack Benyon
David Morse as Jim Deer Jackson
Jennifer Tilly as Fran Carvey
James Stephens as Harold Carvey
Richard Farnsworth as "Slim" (i.e., the cowboy played by Slim Pickens in the original)
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Frank Hansen
Major Crew (1994 remake)
Roger Donaldson (director)
Amy Holden Jones (re-writer)
David Foster (producer)
John Alan Simon (producer)
Lawrence Turman (producer)
Mark Isham (music)
Peter Menzies (cinematography)
s o u r c e s
Sources for this writeup include:
IMDb, The Getaway (1972), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068638/
IMDb, The Getaway (1994), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109890/
DVD, The Getaway (1972), film and production notes, ASIN: 6304698593
DVD, The Getaway (1994), film and production notes, ASIN: 0783226993