THE GETAWAY (1972)
Despite JUNIOR BONNER being a low-performer at the box office, Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen had profited greatly from working together. Peckinpah described the actor as: “ A beautiful guy to work with, a dedicated actor…a very creative man”. The respect was mutual so they were keen to aim for more success immediately after with THE GETAWAY, a tough crime heist thriller based on the novel by Jim Thompson. McQueen had read a paperback of the novel at the urging of his publicist cum producer David Foster and liked it enough to have a screenplay commisioned by the brilliant Walter Hill.
THE GETAWAY is an action thriller about a newly-freed convict ‘Doc’ McCoy, whose wife Carol barters with her favours to gain him parole with a shady businessman Benyon (Ben Johnson). Doc then has to pull of a bank robbery as part of his end of the deal. Double-crosses abound, with Carol shooting Benyon when Doc discovers her sexual favour part in the deal, and Doc almost being killed by his treacherous partner Rudy (Al Lettieri) before they go on the run with the money. Rudy pursues them, hijacking the car (and lives) temporarily of a vet and his wife Harold and Fran (Jack Dodson and Sally Struthers), who treat him in more ways than one; Struthers willingly cuckolds Dodson with the dangerously attractive Rudy till Harold hangs himself. Meanwhile, Carol is the victim of a key-switching con-man at the train station, forcing Doc to go after him and retrieve the money. The climax is a shoot-out in a hotel featuring Doc and Carol versus Rudy and a group of Benyon’s hoods. McQueen and McGraw get away in a pickup truck driven by kindly Slim Pickens whose kindness is rewarded with $30,000 in return for his truck. The couple head off safely.
The original choice for director had actually been Peter Bogdanovich, who had wanted to cast his then girlfriend Cybill Shepherd as Carol. When Bogdanovich dropped out, allowing Peckinpah in, he wanted Stella Stevens who had been so alluring in his THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE. Foster then suggested Ali McGrw, who had become known after the huge success of LOVE STORY and was then married to producer Robert Evans. The chemistry between McQueen and McGraw was more potent than anyone could have known; they began an affair during filming and McGraw left Evans to be with him.
The character of Doc McCoy fit McQueen’s yearning for a character that was both good and bad. “ I sort of fashioned what I play here after Bogart. I guess it was a tribute”, he said, referencing Bogart’s performance in HIGH SIERRA as an inspiration. Peckinpah and McGraw were also Bogart fans. As part of his method preparation for THE GETAWAY’s opening prison scenes, McQueen spent ten days living (but not sleeping) at the facility they filmed at, the guards under instruction to treat him like any other prisoner, running him between activities while he got to know a little of the men’s lives under incarceration.
Ali McGraw was unhapy with her own work in the film, citing her lack of training or enough experience for the role. She had the self-awareness in a radio interview to understand that she needed guidance from a strong director and leading man. She was equally perceptive about Carol’s motivations; that she was prepared to follow her husband, to get to know each other again, that being involved in crime "turns her on”, though there may have been some mingling of her part with her real-life relationship in this re-awakening. Peckinpah acknowledged that “In a strange way, it’s a love story”.
THE GETAWAY is also greatly misogynistic, it has to be said. Carol is smart and loyal to her man and bargains using her body with Benyon solely to get Doc freed at an emotional cost that reverberates later between them, but since a heist was part of the deal anyway, must she give herself as well as part of the plot? More degradingly, Struthers’ Fran is seen as all to ready to throw herself at the gangster on the run and flaunt it in front of her husband. She’s also portrayed as a dumb floozy. McCoy slaps his wife about several times (brandishing a closed fist) when the tension between them becomes all too much for him and later punches out FRAN when she’s on the verge of hysteria in the siege.
The only time the women of THE GETAWAY are attributed any real value or self-worth is an excellent pivotal scene between Doc and Carol where she tells him straight that their marrage is over unless he can get beyond his jealousy and understand the awful self-sacrifice she made for him. McQueen is cowed at the realisation of his selfishness and they go on with greater closeness. The violence is handled with great restraint for a Peckinpah film, and enables the married couple’s fractious relationship to come to the fore, in many ways the most satisfying part of the film. Doc and Carol grow in honesty as the plot unfolds, from a cautious beginning sensitively directed, where it takes them some time and nervousness to make love after four years of being apart, to being a solid and devoted pair. They just happen to be doing it against the law
THE GETAWAY made $36m at the box-office, one of Peckinpah’s greatest successes and vindicated his talent after a run of problems and failures. Walter Hill, also proud of his screenplay was happy for the director: “…he took a fair amount of money out too. After all the disappointment and heartbreak of all these films he had never gotten any reward or been well paid, meant a lot to him.”.