By: Anthony Francis
When Action Films Had Balls-
The Getaway- 1972
Written by Walter Hill (based on the novel by Jim Thompson)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
In 1972 the movie gods gave us a perfect storm of talent and perhaps one of the best examples of the kind of action film that walked it like it talked it. A film that is a shotgun blast of macho cool.
Written by Walter Hill, starring Steve McQueen, and directed by Sam Peckinpah, The Getaway is a tough, gritty, kick-ass, action film.
Peckinpah, unfairly dubbed “Bloody Sam” by this point in his career, had come off a couple of back to back flops(The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner were respected but failed at the box office.) and desperately needed a massive financial hit. While 1971’s Straw Dogsmade money, it was deemed too controversial and was never fully accepted by the masses.
Contrary to popular belief, Sam Peckinpah did not consider himself to be an action director though his films had many moments of masterful action and balletic violence. He was a filmmaker who explored character and fate through the worlds of the Western and the modern crime film. Peckinpah’s examination of violence was not exploitative, as some of his critics would argue, but rather a reflection on the true nature of men who exist in a violent world.
When McQueen and Peckinpah read Hill’s screenplay, they knew they had struck pure gold…and they were right!
Steve McQueen plays Doc McCoy, a convict in a Texas prison who is denied parole so he sends a message to a Texas crime boss (the always great Ben Johnson) that he will “do a job” for him if he will use his influence to get Doc out of prison. Doc’s offer is accepted and Johnson’s character orders McCoy do a dangerous bank heist,forcing Doc to use men he has never worked with.
Peckinpah mainstay, the great Bo Hopkins and the brilliant character actor Al Lettieri play the two shady characters to the hilt. Of course, this is a Walter Hill screenplay from a novel by Jim Thompson so there are immediate betrayals and violent consequences that set in motion a “lovers on the lam” scenario that plays to that subgenre and make it something very special.
The Getaway is a tough film about even tougher people. Every man is old-school macho. Every double cross is handled with a gun and bloody retribution.
It is revealed that Doc’s wife, played very well by Ali MacGraw, slept with Ben Johnson’s character to “seal the deal” and get McCoy released from prison. When McCoy figures this out, after his wife has shockingly shot Johnson dead, he pulls over to the side of a highway and they both get out. MacGraw cries and says how sorry she feels but tries to make him understand why she did it. McQueen slaps her hard and then again and again. It is a powerful emotional moment made more potent since MacGraw has stated she did not know the slap was coming. Her reaction is all too real. A revelation like that simply would not stand today. There would be outrage and a call for McQueen’s head!
There is another scene where a woman, played by Sally Struthers is punched unconscious by McQueen’s character because she will not stop screaming. The moment is played for laughs and is, indeed, very funny, and most welcome amongst the madness. A few moments later, after she has regained consciousness in the middle of a shootout. Struthers asks one of the gunmen what happened Lettieri’s character, as she has become his “moll” after cuckolding her husband into suicide. The gunman says to her “I don’t know where he is you crazy broad!” Again, played for laughs in the middle of a shootout. Think that would play these days? No way in Hell! It would be a line forced to be removed or overdubbed to avoid hate emails from modern cancel culture.
By the time Peckinpah arrives at the end shootout where McQueen and McGraw have to blast their way out of a hotel while Ben Johnson’s hit men infest every floor, the audience is ready, and the filmmaker doesn’t disappoint. Peckinpah primes his audience by allowing them to watch McQueen go into a gun store and purchase a shotgun and some shells. As he walks outside, the police who are after him are in the street. He blasts their cars so they will explode and won’t be able follow. It is smart to get the audience ready for the gun battle to come by showing that, while Doc is certainly a criminal on the run from both the law and other bad men, he isn’t a murderer of innocent police. A man in a criminal life that has a soul is representative of Sam Peckinpah’s filmmaking.
The finale is a marvelously executed sequence that holds that signature Peckinpah style and keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It is in this moment where Robert L. Wolfe’s editing shines brightest as the slow motion and cross-cutting are used to great effect.
Another detail that gives this film brass balls exists in its portrayal of one of the villains and his “hostage”. SallyStruthers plays the wife of a nebbish veterinarian who is forced to stitch up Lettieri’s villain, who takes the couple hostage and along the way, rapes the (willing) wife in front of the tied-up husband. However, and this is a point where the studio would BURY this film today, Struthers is turnedon by this repulsive man and willfully engages him in his sexual needs. Each time, it is in front of her helpless husband who eventually hangs himself over the ordeal. Even after this, Struthers still ends up wanting to be with Lettieri.
This is the world created by Thompson and Hill and cinematically realized by Peckinpah. In Thompson’s novels women are secondary. They live in a “man’s world” and must follow the rules therein or they will not survive.While films and screenplays of this nature aren’t produced much in this sheepish Hollywood climate, one should not be morally repulsed by the actions of characters who don’t exist. Of course, it is great to see female characters who kick-ass in female-driven action films, but there was an era when Crime novels and films were ruled by a macho sensibility that worked for their time. This sheepishness and Hollywood’s desire to kowtow to social climates are big problems these days that stifle proper Action films. It is why few, if any, modern action films truly “have a pair.” Everyone is offended about something these days so even our Action movies take thematic hits and find themselves walking a fine line.
The Getaway does not walk the line and, in 1972, it certainly didn’t need to! The film draws its own line and dares you to cross it and audiences devoured it, giving Sam Peckinpah the biggest hit of his career. An absolute financial smash, the film was one of the top three box office hits of its year.
Its inherent toughness comes through hard in a punch, a slap to the face, or a shotgun blast. This is a tough film set in a brutal world and Peckinpah was never afraid to show “men’s men” being hard core macho, although the filmmaker was not without a soul. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is one of the most poetic films about love of its day and its inherent sweetness pleasantly surprised critics, but The Getaway was a Crime film. While Doc and his wife were in true love (and are allowed a sweet moment near the end of the film), this was a time for being tough and Sam Peckinpah was always up for the call.
Exciting, extremely well-written, tightly acted, and ever-so-sharply directed, The Getaway is an exciting and superior action film with power that still stands above many that followed and continues to reign supreme as one of the best of them all.
I miss Steve McQueen, I miss Sam Peckinpah, and I miss this type of balls-out, gritty, Action film that didn’t insult its audience, but entertained on a grand scale.
About The Author: A long-time film connoisseur and son to a father who ran a movie theater, Anthony Francis rightfully grew up to be a journalist, filmmaker, writer, and film reviewer. His latest reviews/interviews/articles can be found at screencomment.com