Monday, June 3, 2013


This would have been a very different film had it starred, as originally intended, Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon; as it is, up-and-coming Al Pacino and Gene Hackman give performances that are amongst the best of their careers, and it remains a mystery why the film has remained so long under the radar. The answer is largely because, despite winning the Palme d’Or, it was cold-shouldered by Warner’s a week into its theatrical release, in favor of The Exorcist publicity. Perhaps too, because it is about a pair of bums, with no real story aside from the picaresque of meanderings and passing encounters; but it also charts the growth of a male friendship, in a beguilingly low-key fashion, and genuinely moving.

The opening scene is terrific, as grandpa-dressed Max (Hackman), stomps across a field, observed by kiddish Lion (Pacino), like a faun in the crook of a tree. Max glares at Lion as they wait on either side of the road, passed mostly only by tumbleweed, gingerly joshing one another, before an olive branch is extended, and silently accepted, as the sun goes gently down. A beautifully naturalistic scene at a diner counter has them get out just enough back story, and from then on they’re together, headed to Pittsburgh to start Max’s carwash, via a stop for Lion to see his son, who was born since he went to sea six years prior.

They are set up as an odd couple, in physical stature most obviously – Hackman, in his flat cap, steel-rimmed specs, and layers upon layers of clothes, towers over little Pacino, who’s all tousled hair, sneakers, and expressions of innocent friendliness. Lion is a joker, and Max is an ornery bastard, jailed for fighting, but unrepentent. By the end of the film, when he decides to handle things like Lion, diffusing a fight in a bar, and loving it, we feel for him; but we feel too for Lion and his ambiguous, downcast expression, perhaps now uncertain of himself as not the only scarecrow (his theory is that the crows are not frightened, but laughing). In fact, as Max seems to come back to life under the companionship of Lion, the latter’s lifeforce slowly, and almost literally, is sapped, and it would be heart-breaking bleak, if Max weren’t there for him, getting by for the both of them with brutish luck.

The film was shot more or less in sequence, crossing the country, and director Jerry Schatzberg several times stages scenes in bars, with non-professional background and bit parts. The authenticity is palpable, as is the downhome atmosphere and repartee as they stop over with an old flame in Denver (Schatzberg allowed his actors a certain amount of latitude with improvisation, and Hackman and Pacino tramped around California for a month before production). There was undisguised tension on Hackman's part, over the relationship formed between Pacino and Schatzberg on Panic In Needle Park (1971), photographer Schatzberg's directorial debut (in between the two films, Pacino shot The Godfather). Schatzberg also clashed with DP Vilmos Zsigmond, but between them they conjure a beautifully photographed string of mid-west wastelands.

This is a world with no hint of hippies or Vietnam. It is the world of little people, regular folk, an unhip point of view, where going to jail for a month is not much of a surprise or a hardship; they are too bogged down in struggling to get their own lives up and running to worry about the world at large. It seems like a small, unshowy, and inconsequential film, but the close attention in performance and direction to the dynamic between the two men, the shifting levels of need and love, and the space allowed for small, natural details to emerge, act like a gradually magnifying glass, until the ambiguity of the ending makes one realize how very much we want these two to succeed.

d Jerry Schatzberg p Robert M. Sherman sc Garry Michael White ph Vilmos Zsigmond ed Evan A. Lottman pd Albert Brenner m Fred Myrow cast Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Dorothy Tristan, Ann Wedgeworth, Richard Lynch, Eileen Brennan, Penelope Allen, Richard Hackman
(1973, USA, 112m)
posted by tom newth at

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