The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 09/07/09

Legendary director Sam Peckinpah’s adaptation of the brilliant novel by the amazing Jim Thompson, starring Steve McQueen,…well, you’d think it would have turned out better.

I recently re-read Thompson’s The Getaway on a plane flight back from Australia.  Thompson has been a favorite author of mine for nearly two decades now, and though I have read most of his work, it’s been some time since I had read him at all.  The Getaway is, narratively, one of his most straight-forward crime novels, but its power, darkness, and commentary on life, love, and marriage, is a bleak, horrific, endlessly impossible one.  It’s about the ability to trust, and the harshest of challenges to know and love another person.  And it doesn’t turn out well.

The story starts out in action, in the robbing of a bank, through to the ensuing “getaway”, and twists and turns down into various corners of hell.

The movie, unfortunately, takes great liberty with the novel, not simply allowing a “happy ending”, but cheapening the danger and uncertainty of the relationship between “Doc” McCoy (McQueen) and his wife Carol (played by Ally MacGraw).  While the film still plays with their uncertainty and doubts, it absolutely squaders the potentcy of Thompson’s bleak and terrifying story.

The best sequence in the film is the one that follows the book the most closely.  That is the scene in the train station in which Carol has the bag of loot stolen from her by a shifty grifter and the hunt to find him on the train and get the money back.  Again, in the book, Carol is not so sophisticated as MacGraw’s character is supposed to be (not that she comes off that way exactly).  And the thing is, that it’s a shame.  There are great elements there, but the alchemy and probably lots of Hollywood bullshit, including star egos as well as studio interference ruined it.  Apparently, Thompson was originally the scriptwriter eventually replaced by Walter Hill.

The film is at its strongest where is adheres to Thompson’s novel.  The theft of the moneybag in the train station and the catching up with the crook on the train (though “Doc” doesn’t kill him in the movie) is great.  The sequence in the garbage truck is pretty good, but pales starkly in comparison to the elided sequence in which “Doc” and Carol are “entombed” in an underwater cave.  The paranoia and outright terror are nowhere matched.  Al Lettieri does a good turn as the co-robber who tries to doublecross them, though he’s much different from the character in the book.  His kidnapping of the vetrinarian and his flousy wife (played by a young and perfectly apt Sally Struthers) works very well, too.

But instead of psychological strain between two people who need to trust one another but cannot, the visceral nightmarish hell through which they move together, the compromises and bleakness…well, I guess you can’t have all that and have a happy ending.

The thing is that the film is really not bad on the whole.  Watching it right after reading the book, it seems a sadly squandered opportunity to make a great film from a great book.  Peckinpah certainly has his masterpieces, though not in this film.  A shame, really.

The bottom line: Read Jim Thompson.

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