The Secrets Behind the Getaway


Betsy Serman

(from the website)

There's a world of hurt in the opening sequence of Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway(1972). But contrary to the director's reputation as "Bloody Sam," it's not flagrant, gut-splattering hurt; rather, it's inner, gut-twisting anguish.

The vrooming and screeching promised by the movie's title does come, but later. First, during the opening credits, Peckinpah concisely etches a portrait of the film's protagonist, played with quiet intensity by Steve McQueen. The centerpiece of the sequence is a hearing where Carter "Doc" McCoy (McQueen) is denied parole after serving four years for armed robbery in the Huntsville, Texas, penitentiary. The scene is interspersed with shots of Doc's daily grind, and with memories of intimate moments with his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw). The images and stretches of dialogue are shuffled so sound and picture don't always match, producing the effect that time is out of joint. The montage conveys Doc's anger and frustration as he realizes being a model prisoner means nothing when a local bigwig like Jack Benyon (Ben Johnson) wants to bend you to his will. The metallic din of the prison's textile mill dominates the sound-effects track; its visual counterpart is the steely look on Benyon's face at the hearing.

This tour-de-force opening shows the director of The Wild Bunch(1969) in peak form. The Getaway, however, is not considered one of Peckinpah's more personal works. He made the movie for commercial reasons, and it was his biggest hit. The project, an updated version of the 1958 pulp novel by Jim Thompson, was initiated by McQueen. The actor hired Peckinpah to direct; the two men had just finished working together on Junior Bonner(1972), an eloquent family drama disguised as a rodeo picture.

Peckinpah and screenwriter Walter Hill lightened up Thompson's original (relentlessly seedy) story and changed the ending. Ultimately, The Getaway would earn a place in Hollywood history because of the incendiary on-set romance between the freshly divorced McQueen and costar MacGraw. The Love Story star, for whom The Getaway was only her third film, was then famously married to Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans, but was quickly drawn to her sexy costar. That said, The Getaway thwarts viewers' expectations of a steamy story of a bandit couple on the run; McQueen and MacGraw barely touch each other. In fact, there's almost a dark humor in the way Doc and Carol don't connect physically. Maybe this is what Peckinpah meant when he called The Getaway his "first attempt at satire."

From their first onscreen meeting, Doc and Carol seem more like acquaintances than lovers. When they're reunited outside the prison gate ' Benyon pulls strings to have Doc released once Doc agrees to mastermind a bank robbery for him ' there are no terms of endearment, no hugs or kisses. The homecoming bedroom scene finds Doc insecure and Carol similarly awkward. But this initial tension is nothing compared to the mood after Doc finds out that Carol traded sex with Benyon as part of the deal for his freedom. A confrontation at Benyon's ranch culminates with Doc and Carol pointing pistols at each other. By the time the couple jump in their car and barrel towards the Mexican border with a case full of cash from the robbery, they're both seething with resentment.

The turning point in Doc and Carol's relationship comes when they're literally forced together. The dumpster in which they're hiding from the police is picked up by a garbage truck. As debris rains down on them, Peckinpah intercuts shots of the driver's hand working the controls. This unseen being, now in charge of their destiny, disposes of Doc and Carol at the dump at dawn. The couple emerges shaky, but safe. They're stinky, but it's a cleansing stench. And although they still bicker, their body language is softer, humbler. Peckinpah then provides a trademark shoot-'em-up finale and a comic coda featuring Slim Pickens.

There was plenty of drama behind the scenes of The Getaway. McQueen and Peckinpah occasionally bumped chests, just as they had while filming Junior Bonner. But the men shared a mutual respect 'that is, until McQueen hijacked the picture after Peckinpah delivered his final cut to First Artists. The star not only tinkered with the editing, he also jettisoned the musical score by Jerry Fielding and replaced it with one by Quincy Jones. Peckinpah responded by taking space in "Variety" to publicly praise Fielding's version.

Critics found it difficult to praise MacGraw's performance (a reviewer in "Newsday" described her as being "all face"). Then again, MacGraw had a lot to handle during that life-changing shoot, including arriving on the set of this road movie without ever having learned how to drive. In her 1991 autobiography "Moving Pictures", MacGraw recalls those three months in Texas: "I walked the nasty razor's edge between occasional moments of sanity and remorse on the one side and, on the other, feverish excitement."

MacGraw would not work again for five years. Her split with Evans ruined her chance of being cast in her dream role, as Daisy Buchanan in Paramount's adaptation of The Great Gatsby(1974). McQueen, whom she married in July 1973, forbade her from acting. When she accepted Peckinpah's offer to play the female lead in Convoy(1978), McQueen left her.

MacGraw wrote of Peckinpah, the director who gave her another chance, that "underneath an almost caricature machismo was a most gentle, kind, and intelligent soul." Kind soul or not, Peckinpah obviously had a ball with The Getaway's salacious subplot involving the loose-cannon bank robber Rudy and the hot tomato he picks up while in pursuit of Doc and the loot. Rudy forces sexpot Fran and her husband to drive him to El Paso at gunpoint. Fran is all too eager to do anything the big bad man wants and to torture her husband by making him watch. Rudy and Fran's storyline plays like a funhouse mirror to Doc and Carol's; their unbridled sexuality mocks the star couple's frigidity. To reinforce this, Peckinpah cast actors who were opposite types from McQueen and MacGraw.

The director originally wanted Jack Palance to play Rudy, but the actor priced himself out of the running. Peckinpah chose swarthy Al Lettieri, who had just completed work on The Godfather as Sollozzo. For the sleazy Fran, Peckinpah fouled one of America's TV sweethearts: petite, buxom Sally Struthers of "All in the Family." Struthers and Lettieri virtually steal the picture with their inspired schtick. And there was more, but it was lost in editing. Not realizing McQueen was the one who had made the cuts, Lettieri had to be restrained by Peckinpah from attacking producer David Foster after seeing the finished film, minus Lettieri's favorite bits, at a preview screening. One witness was heard to say that it was the only time he ever "saw Sam trying to break up a fight.