Directed by Sam Peckinpah. USA. 1972.

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The Getaway opens with the loud clunk and clang of a prison factory that smears its inescapable resonance over the rest of the film. The machine’s clockwork crashing has an intensity and glossy violence of its own that becomes almost sexual. Indeed, the opening visuals let you know exactly what this film’s about: sex, violence and Steve McQueen. McQueen plays Doc McCoy, an ex-con not wasting time in finding a new bank to rob and a new team to do it with, and Ali McGraw plays his patient and obliging wife who- to Doc’s displeasure- slept with a slimy (aren’t they all?) politician as a means of encouraging favourable parole for her spouse. The heist itself goes more the way of Welcome to Colinwood than it does Ocean’s 11 but, as the title may suggest, this film is all about the getaway.

Sam Peckinpah creates a wonderfully raw and visceral world where everyone is a bad guy and the only way to tell who to cheer for is if they look like Steve McQueen. Peckinpah forms his film around the same visual and narrative principles that governed the Westerns of the fifties and sixties. He uses the sweltering heat and desolate landscape to give an energy to the film that, like a lit fuse chasing dynamite, pulses with tension. Perhaps most telling of The Getaway’s Western origins however, is the final guns blazing showdown in Mexico. Once a haven for all cowboys and gringos, the El Paso border welcomes the cool hail of lead from McQueen’s guns and makes for a vibrant backdrop to one of the most exciting bullet trading scenes in the history of cinema.

Beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, The Getaway maintains an almost ethereal, fairy tale quality throughout, and in a film that races with a tenacious violence there are some very tender and heart skewering scenes, most notably McCoy’s pre-coital spew of anxiety. And it is Peckinpah’s expert maintenance of this balance of warm hearts and cold blood that makes The Getaway such a tour de force.

Of course, such a balance doesn’t rely solely on Peckinpah but on his actors as well, and if nothing else The Getaway is a showcase for screen presence and raw talent. McGraw deserves the highest kudos for her performance, left with the difficult job of creating one of the first truly believable women in film. Her character is full of human paradoxes that endear her to the audience; both smart and flawed, independent and hopelessly in love, Carol McCoy is played to perfection by McGraw, whose threatening sexuality adds an edge of ambiguity to her loyalties. It really is no wonder that McQueen left his wife for her while making the film. The supporting cast are superb, with Sally Struthers having a lot of fun with her role as the kidnapped wife. As the conscience free villain, Rudy, Al Lettieri gives a performance as equally menacing as his role as the Turk in Coppola’s The Godfather, made all the more malevolent by the ease in which he plays the character’s more sadistic idiosyncrasies. But make no mistake, this is McQueen’s film. Like a blizzard in a heat wave, McQueen pours cool all over the sun-baked lens of Peckinpah. McCoy never so much as wipes his brow if things go wrong and yet all the while McQueen hints at a hidden depth to McCoy that is as intriguing as it is endearing.

Undeniably, however, The Getaway is an action movie and it excels in being one. For what it lacks in the visual decadence of more contemporary action movies though, it more than makes up for it in the hauntingly real and abrasive manner in which it serves up the violence. Peckinpah substitutes style for reality and his action sequences are all the more powerful for it. The Getaway is truly an accomplishment in genre film-making, a rare treat that will have gunshots and revving engines echoing in your ears for days and at its centre, a heart that bleeds.

Aaron Asadi
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