Monday, January 11, 2016

#1,974. Scarecrow (1973)

Directed By: Jerry Schatzberg

Starring: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Dorothy Tristan

Tag line: "The road leads itself to somewhere"

Trivia: Before shooting, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino both dressed as hobos and hitchhiked through California to get into their characters

Two years after Gene Hackman took home an Academy Award for his performance in The French Connection, and one year after Al Pacino’s breakout role in The Godfather, the two thespians teamed up to make Scarecrow, an offbeat road movie about a couple of losers who have a plan to turn their lives around.

Max (Gene Hackman), a drifter from the West Coast who’s recently been released from prison, is on his way to Pittsburgh, where he intends to open a car wash and go into business for himself. Shortly after setting off, he meets Francis (Pacino), who spent the last five years at sea and is now heading to Detroit to visit the child he’s never met (he doesn’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl). Though not the most trusting soul, Max takes a liking to Francis, who he nicknames “Lion”, and invites him to Pittsburgh to be his new business partner. Along the way, they make a stop in Denver to see Max’s old pal Coley (Dorothy Tristan), and while there, Max falls in love with Coley’s best friend, Frenchy (Ann Wedgeworth). But his short fuse and quick fists soon land both he and Lion in some hot water. Following a one-month stint in a labor camp, Max and Lion are back on the road, but an obstacle in Detroit may just end their business arrangement before it has a chance to begin.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Scarecrow is a sometimes funny, often poignant look at two people who, despite their differences, become fast friends. As played by Hackman, Max is an angry man who’s quick to pick a fight, while Pacino’s Lion is more laid-back, and believes that a smile is the best medicine. At a small-town bar, they’re heckled by Darlene (Eileen Brennan), a drunk with a sharp tongue. Max exchanges words with her, but before things get too ugly, Lion sets up a visual prank that soon has everyone laughing, thus defusing what might otherwise have been a very tense confrontation (instead of fighting, Max and Darlene end up in bed together). Early on, it’s clear that Max needs a calming influence in his life, while Lion, who’s facing a difficult situation of his own, will soon require some of Max’s strength to pull him through. Hackman and Pacino shine in their respective roles, making us believe that these polar opposites have found solace in one another, and in so doing prove why they’re considered two of the finest actors of their generation.

In addition to its stars, Scarecrow features the excellent work of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (who, sadly, passed away on the first of this year). In the film’s opening scene, set on a desolate country road, Zsigmond manages to simultaneously capture both the ruggedness and the quiet serenity of life on the go, ensuring that this character study about two very different personalities will be every bit as beautiful as it is dramatic.

One of the joys of this challenge of mine is that it occasionally leads me to a fascinating movie that I’ve never seen before, and Scarecrow is the best I’ve encountered in quite some time.

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