Scarecrow

SCARECROW, from 1973, was another of the era’s gritty pictures that portrayed—or in this case pretended to—‘honest’ tribulations of the “little guy”. While it features two of our best actors, unlike offerings such as Midnight Cowboy, Five Easy Pieces or Fat City, to cite a few, or the classic Of Mice And Men, which it also can’t help but suggest, the script here is pure hogwash. Situations are so unlikely as to be absurd, and the characterizations, while of interest thanks to the intensity of the actors, make little sense. Mostly ignored at the time as a pretentious acting exercise (bingo!), today it’s been ‘rediscovered’ and lavished with praise. I recall being impressed with it, many years back, but a recent revisit revealed how just hollow it really is. Some good moments from the cast, and decent cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond), but the atrocious writing (Garry Michael White) and hammer-headed direction (Jerry Schatzberg) are painful.

Two scruffy drifters hook up, make friends, and set off across country with the idea to open a car wash. ‘Max’ (Gene Hackman) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. ‘Francis’ (Al Pacino) is a gentle former Merchant mariner who has a habit of playing the fool. Other than that the script presents it as a mechanism, nothing beyond their respective nastiness and weirdness would have these two clods hang out together for more than five minutes, let alone possess any of the charm they supposedly hold for the “real people” they encounter on the way. Trying like gangbusters to showcase ‘reality’, the incidents that occur along the way are patently ridiculous. Since this is the 70s, you know things will end badly.

Hard to pin the donkey tail on which sequences are the most risible. Hackman’s impromptu striptease in a bar that has patrons hooting in delight is supposed to be hilarious–if you’re a halfwit. Pacino’s likewise “comic” jive in another bar scene, again supposedly entrancing to the patrons, is funny as a crutch. It then propels into a ‘serious’ section where the guys are sent to jail for a month. And that’s a total crock, since what put them there is Hackman not only resisting arrest but clobbering a cop. WTF? An ex-con who just got out of San Quentin, starts a brawl, slugs a policeman, and gets a month on a work farm? Crap. The shots of the ‘real folk’–the extras in these scenes, are so condescending that they cross into flat-out offensive. Plugging this into the disc player to take another look after several decades, I was looking forward to fireworks and laughter. Instead I got flatulence and indigestion.

Cogerson lists a box office gross of $13,000,000, ranking it #28 for the year: other sources indicate a worse performance, with”Variety” putting U.S. ‘rentals’ at $4,000,000–double that figure to get to a gross. Filming was done in California, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan. Apparently there was a good deal of friction during the shoot due to the differing method approaches to the work from Gene and Al.  Pacino did much better the same year as Serpico. Schatzberg did later help direct Morgan Freeman to an outstanding performance in Street Smart.

Script and direction aside, credit the cast for giving their all. In valiant support are Ann Wedgeworth (affecting as someone sweet but apparently really stupid since she falls for Hackman’s oafish lout), Richard Lynch (effectively yucky as the jailhouse wolf), Dorothy Tristan, Eileen Brennan (dangerous as a sleazy pickup), Penelope Allen (she gets to rant). 112 minutes.

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