The following is excerpted from the forthcoming essay "What Is This Thing Called
Noir?" by Alain Silver and Linda Brookover. Part III stands alone, but if you are a film noir fanatic or would just like to read parts I and II first, click HERE:
III. The Ones Who Got Away
You'd do the same for me, Doc, wouldn't you? I mean if I got caught, wouldn't you?
Both film versions of The Getaway (1972 and 1994) star actors who are real-life married couples with established screen personas. Jim Thompson's laconic bank robber, Doc McCoy, is portrayed by Steve McQueen and Alec Baldwin, actors who share strong teeth and gritty expressions, and usually evoke expectations of heroic actions in the viewer. Both versions are adapted from Thompson's novel by Walter Hill, whose other neo-noir work, such as Hickey and Boggs and The Driver, also features hard-bitten professionals living on the fringes of society in the noir underworld. As directed by Sam Peckinpah, the earlier version with McQueen has a harder edge. The supporting players are nasty, garrulous, and otherwise unattractive in line with Peckinpah's naturalist bent and, of course, given to offhanded and extreme violence. The Baldwin Doc is on the one hand beefier and sports flashier dental work, but on the other hand has a more romantic regard for his lifestyle and his wife. In the various adapters' hands, the novelist's usual assumptions about the sordidness of crime and its corrupting influence on the criminal's will, became instead a story of betrayal and redemption, of self-righteous violence and paranoiac romance. Still as a narrative of amour fou and the fugitive couple, the two versions of The Getaway provide an expressive link to the films of the classic period of film noir. In a sense, just as You Only Live Once anticipated much of what would befall the fugitive couples of the 1940s and 50s, The Getaway films put a 70s and 90s spin on the plot with the most obvious difference being, as the title indicates, that these couples are the guilty ones who get away.
One of the supporting heavies in The Getaway (1994) remarks to Doc: "You got a smart little woman there... you taught her real well. She figures we do most of the work and you get most of the cash." One of the consistent aspects of both versions, which is certainly retrograde given the societal conditions of the 1990s despite being co-scripted by a woman, is that Carol's position as the film opens is subservient to Doc. Obviously couples portrayed in the classic period of film noir reflected the patriarchal prejudices of American society. Still, from You Only Live Once to Tomorrow Is Another Day, the outlook and fictional experiences of the couples injected a more egalitarian tone. In The Getaways, both Carols use their sexuality to control their husbands' fates. Ironically, the liberating power of the women's sexuality, which literally gets Doc out of jail, is psychologically imprisoning for Doc. His reaction when he learns of Carol's infidelity is understandable in a patriarchal context and certainly in terms of amour fou.
As with the male actors, the screen personas of the respective Carols, Ali MacGraw in 1972 and Kim Bassinger in 1994, "glamorize" the character. The title sequence of the latter version exemplifies this. Compared to the introduction of the MacGraw Carol as she visits Doc/McQueen in prison, the Bassinger Carol is first seen at target practice. A slow motion, extreme close-up of a finger pulling a trigger injects a note of genre awareness that verges on parody. The actors' names are superimposed as the frame widens via a zoom back to reveal the muzzle flash and recoil of the shots and a cutaway reveals tin cans jumping as they are hit. Doc and Carol are first seen in a two shot. She wears a sleeveless turtle neck under a black halter top, the lines of which mirror his shoulder holster. The first shot of her alone is as she fires a smaller caliber handgun. She wants the .45, but a smiling Doc asserts that "It's mine." Her answer--"but I want it"--effectively summarizes the dynamics of their relationship. The associations of gunplay and sexplay develop naturally from the staging and statements ("We go together...like guns and ammunition...") of more than forty years earlier in Gun Crazy. Not only does the 90s Doc have the big gun that Carol wants, but he struts around displaying it tucked into his waistband.
In contrast, the opening of the 1972 version focuses on Doc already in prison. Carol is first seen in the form of two snapshots taped to the wall of his cell. Moreover Peckinpah unabashedly puts forth his typical naturalistic metaphors. The first shot is of a kneeling doe, followed by a stag. From this, there is a pan up to reveal a prison watch tower. Finally a long shot of sheep zooms back to reveal rows of cell blocks. Over this noise from the prison textile mill fades in. The isolated male and female animals prefigure Doc's overwhelming sense of sexual repression. The machine noise; Doc upsetting chess pieces and his opponent's remark, "Oh, man, it's just a game"; the destruction of the match stick bridge--all this overt symbolism establishes a deterministic undertow; and even though the machine noise stops with marked abruptness when Doc is released, this undertow will grip Peckinpah's fugitive couple unrelentingly. Throughout the film, other elements from Lucien Ballard's flat lighting scheme to the clipped dialogue delivery reinforce the realism. In the escape from the bank robbery, a crossing guard stops Doc and Carol's car. The red, hand-held "Stop" sign which she holds up for them to see is a typical expression of noir fatalism always threatening to capsize a scheme that goes back to the grind of the starter motor in Double Indemnity. For Wilder and Chandler adapting Cain, the engine finally starts. For Peckinpah and Hill interpreting Thompson, the delay creates a moment of chaos and violence which the characters must stoically endure.
While the narrative events of both The Getaways are closely aligned, the tone of Peckinpah's violence is markedly different. His car chases are full of odd angles and cut points. The sound effects complement the lighting, they are muted and hollow. For Peckinpah, violent action is a transcendent activity. The slow motion and other stylistic manipulations create a distorted perspective for the viewer that is meant to be roughly equivalent to the temporal and sensory distortions which real violence imposes on its participants. Roger Donaldson, the director of the 1994 The Getaway, stages and edits the same action sequence in a more standard way, which, although the viewer/camera rides in the careening vehicles with the fugitive couple, has a depersonalizing effect.
Both films have the parallel plot line of the two-timing accomplice, Rudy, who kidnaps a veterinarian and his wife to help him track the couple. Rudy's seduction of the wife and the cuckolded vet's suicide also provide an ironic counterpoint to Doc's sense of betrayal because Carol bought his freedom with sexual favors. The 1994 Carol is slightly more emphatic when she asks "You'd do the same for me, wouldn't you, Doc? You'd humiliate yourself for me?" As a "90's woman," Bassinger's Carol not only wants the biggest gun, she wants to control her own destiny. MacGraw's Carol winces when she shoots people; but she does shoot them. When Bassinger expertly plays the dumb decoy or runs interference for her husband's scam from the driver's seat, it belies her ability to drive, shoot, and even throw a punch like a man. In this sense, she is closer to Annie Laurie Starr.
Outside the darker context of the classic period, both The Getaways offer a detached perspective on the questions of the fugitive couple, amour fou, and what is this thing called noir. If the moral issues at stake--trust, fidelity, family values, and self-esteem--are subsumed within the action, then why are the McCoys the ones who get away? Perhaps it is precisely because moral values are at stake. In the 50s, neither the deadliness of the female, which the original title of Gun Crazy proclaimed, nor the overpowering impulse of amour fou could permit Bart and Annie to run off together without pointedly getting married. Unlike most of the fugitive couples of the classic period, the McCoys are already married and already criminals when the films begin. No matter that they rob and kill, the film McCoys are faithful to each other in the truest sense. The Carols "expiate" their infidelity by killing Benyon. Doc accepts the overriding loyalty betokened by her "betrayal" and finally realizes that he would do the same for her. The graphically overt sex scenes, iconically reinforced in both versions because the viewer knows that the actors are actually married to each other, make the McCoys more real and less noir.
Is it still that same amour fou which so discomfits society? In the films' last sequences, the couples ride off to safety in Mexico in a dilapidated pick-up truck with an old geezer/guru of morality. In the 1972 version, that figure sums it up as, "Thats the trouble with this Goddamned world, no morals! Kids figure if they ain't living together, they ain't living." The 1994 old philosopher is a widower but he knows that if his wife were alive today he would be going "nowhere but home. Its a tough haul sometimes, but well worth it. I think the most important thing in life is something you've got to give to each other." In the 90s, that's amour fou and the pop version is the end-title song lyric: "Now and Forever, I will be your man."
Even if it were not in the aftermath of Wild at Heart and True Romance or in the same year as Natural Born Killers, this sentiment might seem old-fashioned; and, to the extent that the noir outlook and/or mad love are the conceits of past times, it is old-fashioned. The emotions of the fugitive couples may be extreme, perhaps even unreasonable, but not irrational. They understand the perils of obsessive love, but cling to each other anyway. Some might say they are too violent in their amour fou, too imbalanced. Others might agree with Luis Buñuel that "the realmonsters are those men and women incapable of loving too much."
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