In the grand tradition of TCM Film Festivals past I didn’t stick around for the opening night film. No offense to West Side Story (1961), but I’ve seen it plenty of times (though the conversation with Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn was excellent). Then again, I could not have picked a more different film to start the festival off than Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway.
The Getaway has a lot of backstage drama that tends to color the feature, but I think that also hampers what’s presented on-screen as the movie isn’t nearly as brutal and cynical as Peckinpah’s past work, nor is it as glitzy and slick as most Steve McQueen films are.
Doc McCoy (McQueen) is serving time for armed robbery. When his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) gets him out, it’s under the condition that he pull off one last job. When the bank heist goes awry, Doc and Carol are sent on the run, all the while questioning each other’s motives.
The Getaway is best known for being the movie where McQueen and MacGraw first met and fell in love. Their affair caused both of their respective marriages to break up — MacGraw was married to film mogul Robert Evans — and sparked a marriage that lasted for five years. On top of that very public relationship, both McQueen and Peckinpah were desperate for The Getaway to be a success considering both men were coming off of flops, although the two butted heads on what type of movie they were making. And that’s where The Getaway falls apart.
Peckinpah’s work is generally hyperviolent, loud, bombastic and almost immediately that’s missing here. The only sound in the opening minutes of the movie is the repetition of the machines that fill the jailhouse where Doc is. So consumed by the noise, and recently denied for parole, it’s enough for him to tell Carol to go to corrupt businessman Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) and do whatever is necessary to get Doc out. However, once Doc realizes what his wife’s had to do, it causes him to lose faith in her. Peckinpah’s issues with women are well-documented and seeing a movie wherein a guy has demanded his wife do whatever necessary to secure his release, only to be upset when he realizes what that something is…..feels hypocritical.
McQueen and MacGraw certainly have chemistry (unsurprisingly) and a lot of the business in the first half of this movie works so perfectly because of their natural ease with each other. Carol understands that Doc is shaky from being in the joint for the last two years and much of their reunion together is based on trying to make him comfortable being with her again. Peter Bogdanovich was originally set to direct this and I can see why. Much of the movie, in its quiet way, is about a couple trying to get back into the groove and Bogdanovich would do that perfectly, especially in films like What’s Up, Doc? (1972), the film he’d ultimately direct instead of this.
It would have also been better suited for MacGraw and McQueen’s skillset. Allegedly, Peckinpah was unhappy that McQueen still wanted to present himself as a leading man in this film, whereas the director wanted to strip away the artifice of Hollywood and give the actor a grittier image to match the Jim Thompson source material. The way it plays out is an odd mix of both tones, with McQueen being a silent, brooding man needing little aggravation to hit a woman or shoot his way out of a situation. At the same time the film revels in showing off McQueen shirtless or otherwise cool.
For MacGraw she’s given even less grist for personality but does a lot of expressive facial acting. When it’s believed she’s turning on Doc, the look of anguish on her face illustrates her mixed emotions. Later, when the two are bonding in a hotel room, it’s easy to see her at ease with him, desperate to rekindle what they’ve lost. Too often, though, MacGraw is silent, leaving you to wonder if screenwriter Walter Hill just saw no need for her. MacGraw herself believed she was miscast and that she didn’t do anything good, but I’d be inclined to disagree. Where everyone is so macho, she’s a bit of a calm and humanity found within.
The element that feels the most like Peckinpah is the B plot with double-crosser Rudy (Al Lettieri). Rudy was working on the heist with Doc only to attempt to get the money and ending up with a bullet in his shoulder. He takes a veterinarian and his wife, played by Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers respectively, hostage. Lettieri was allegedly difficult to work with — just as hard-drinking as Peckinpah was — but he’s certainly terrifying as the unrepentant Rudy. He falls into a relationship with Struthers’ Fran that flirts, at times, with being a darker version of the Bonnie and Clyde relationship. Struthers’ performance and character feels like it’s ripped from the director’s earlier feature, Straw Dogs (1971), but her and Lettieri are like a powder keg waiting to explode.
The Getaway is an acquired taste that will probably not suit those expecting either a full Peckinpah or Steve McQueen feature. Too polished to feel like the former and too gritty for the latter, the movie is an interesting curiosity project none the less. And Ali MacGraw is so lovely to look at.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.