Sam Peckinpah’s star-powered crime thriller “The Getaway” sees Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw on the run along the U.S./Mexico southern border. McQueen was a huge movie star at the time and had a say in most aspects of the film. He fired director Peter Bogdanovich due to creative differences. He disliked the music by Peckinpah’s long-time composer Jerry Fielding and hired Quincy Jones to completely rescore the movie. And to Peckinpah’s chagrin, McQueen used his final cut privileges to change several of the director’s chosen takes. How’s that for creative control?
For some, “The Getaway” is just as much remembered for what happened behind the scenes. MacGraw was riding high having just starred in the big hit “Love Story”. Though at first intimidated by McQueen’s presence, the two quickly hit it off and began an affair. McQueen was in the process of divorcing his wife of 15 years, Neile Adams. MacGraw was married to Robert Evans, the head of Paramount Pictures who actually suggested she take the role in “The Getaway”. While some feared a possible scandal could hurt the film, it ended up being a box office success.
Written for the screen Walter Hill, the film is an adaptation of a novel by pulp writer Jim Thompson. McQueen plays Carter “Doc” McCoy who we first meet in a Texas prison where he’s serving ten years for armed robbery. Four years into his sentence Doc comes up for parole but is denied. He tells his wife Carol (MacGraw) to contact Jack Beynon (Johnson), a crooked San Antonio businessman. Beynon uses his political influence to get Doc out but with one stipulation – Doc is to knock off a local bank that’s holding $500,000 of an oil company’s money.
Doc wants to pick his own men for the job, but Beynon insists on his goons, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins). Needless to say the robbery goes bad. A security guard is shot and killed, there’s an expected double-cross, and soon Doc and Carol are on the run across south Texas with both the law and Beynon’s hoods on their tails. The wild card in it all is Rudy, who Lettieri plays with equal part slime and menace. He too is after Doc, but his journey is far darker and more sadistic.
Despite having plenty of violent and often bloody action, there’s a strangely uneven pace to “The Getaway”. Peckinpah has a tendency of dragging scenes out and making them longer than they need to be. Normally I like this kind of patience, but here it zaps certain scenes of their energy. Then you have the lead performances. McQueen nails the cold, tough-as-nails part of his character. But he shortchanges the other side of Doc – the softer side needed if we’re to believe in his relationship with Carol. As for a miscast MacGraw, she seems uncomfortable for much of the film. Her performance comes across as dry and often far too mechanical.
Still, the combustible story at the heart of “The Getaway” is pretty gripping. The action is well done, especially the terrifically shot finale which takes place in a border town hotel. The film is also helped by a fine supporting cast that includes Johnson, Lettieri, Sally Struthers, Slim Pickens, and Jack Dodson. There ends up being enough good ingredients to make for a tasty crime thriller. Perhaps not as good as it could have been, but tasty nonetheless.