Please note: This review contains significant spoilers, including the ending
By the late fifties and early sixties, race relations was among the decade’s the hot topics, and several veteran filmmakers figured it made sense to investigate facets of social ills that ran deep through multiple generations in the United States.
The more intelligent stories either simplified a drama to lure audiences into theatres for what ended up being a modest moral lesson – a white man is chained to a black man after a prison escape (The Defiant Ones) – or by dramatizing an event that appeared to have broader ramifications, such as the dependence of poor blacks on white land owners when the primary drama dealt with a stubborn woman unwilling to move in spite of severe flooding once a dam project is completed (Wild River).
Racism could also be an element in a broader drama about the torment from decades old persecution (The Pawnbroker), or a non-issue that only comes to the forefront when it’s picked up by a lone individual, such as a black man’s friendship with a blind girl desperate to flee her abusive family (A Patch of Blue).
By the mid- to late-sixties, most Important Statements had been done, and few films could match the raw emotions seen on TV news, where people clashed in towns and cities.
The only areas left for filmmakers – and this is an arguable point – were comedies, wry social dramas, or sleaze, and sometimes filmmakers were too busy putting together a steamy drama with a star-studded cast to realize their script, in whatever form it lay, was a dud, and nothing could save it.
That seemed to be the initial critical consensus when The Chase was released, and the film’s sort of gone through reassessments largely because director Arthur Penn was responsible for a string of modern classics that outlived their original detractors. The weirdness of the dreamy Mickey One (1965) is now an avant garde classic, and the once-vilified Bonnie and Clyde (1967) lay bare America’s violent tendencies using splendid and influential filmmaking techniques.
Penn’s later efforts were never as good, but they were generally interesting, including the bizarre The Missouri Breaks (1976), where Marlon Brando wandered through the movie in contempt of the filmmaking process and audiences expecting a drama (and at one point doing so in a housemaid’s dress).
But when Brando made The Chase, he was still waffling between hating his profession and occasionally finding something of worth in a commercial property. He was oddly well-suited in Bernard Wicki’s grim boat drama Morituri (1965), a film he’d just completed, and claimed as about as fun to make as pushing a prune up a mountain with one’s nose; and after The Chase, he would find refuge by rebelliously giving a one-note performance as the brooding Mexican in the overdrawn drama The Appaloosa (1966), where director Sidney J. Furey placed the camera in ludicrously pretentious positions, including the P.O.V. of a scorpion under an arm wrestling duel, and a horse’s ass.
The Chase was a project that could’ve offered Brando an intriguing character trapped in a swirling drama about seething racism, but in the end he did bits of business to keep himself interested while the film just seemed to revel in sleaze, and issues of seething hatred were kept restrained until the film’s middle.
Then there’s Brando’s use of ‘Bubber,’ which is incessant. Apparently it’s a part of the actor’s slurry, southern mumble-speak, and a Brandodization of ‘Bubba,’ which everyone else uses except Brando because his Method dictated the speech patterns otherwise.
Horton Foote’s play – ostensibly about a felon (Robert Redford) on the run, and whose return home one hot night exposes every ugly conflict and dark secret in town - was adapted by former blacklisted writer Lillian Hellman, and her script was reportedly rewritten, although whether the film was always intended to run 2 hours and 15 mins. isn’t known.
It’s still about seething rage that virtually destroys a prosperous small community in what critic Robin Wood somewhat aptly described as ‘the first American apocalypse movie’ but it’s also a bloated, overlong potboiler that should’ve been shorn down to 115 mins., particularly in the midsection where it settles into a groove of sleaze, focusing on a series of partygoers far longer than necessary. Worse, the film’s central figure – Charlie ‘Bubber’ Reeves (Robert Redford) – is still on the run an hour into the film, and doesn’t reach town limits until the 100 min. mark.
There are moments of quality plotting, however. The first hour is a beautifully constructed glimpse into the private lives of citizens whose lives and fates are tightly intermingled. Small town characters wander or bump into another, setting off other rounds of small scenes designed to set up divisions and jealousies, and more importantly, several cuckolded men surrounded by virile bullies.
It’s as though Hellman enhanced the sexual drives and impotence of the warring factions, which director Penn furthered by casting macho, beautiful actors with muscles (Brando, Robert Redford), sleek tans (James Fox), past-prime actresses as worn out wives (Martha Hyer), and up-and-comers as sexpots, such as Janice Rule, whose salmon summer skirt seems always ready to slide off because the cleavage line runs perilously deep; and the drunken screeching from a financier’s bimbo wife which ruins his stature as an important financial benefactor for the town’s planned university – a project marshaled by town rich man Val Rogers to stop the local brain drain to big cities.
Penn also breaks up the scenes by periodically cutting to Redford’s struggle to reach his wife, although that device becomes an obvious editorial tactic to make it appear the film isn’t meandering.
The real problem is the character of escaped convict Bubber (Redford): wanted for the murder of a man his fellow escapee committed. even when he finally reaches town and confronts his wife Anna (Jane Fonda) who’s been sleeping with their best friend Jason ‘Jake’ Rogers (Fox), Bubber remains a flat, banal character, and the film’s finale lacks any resonance, although even if Bubber had been a better character, his demise is a terrible attempt to feign social meaning by staging a virtual copycat of the Lee Harvey Oswald killing; the only correlation that works is the shock of a stranger who simply decides to kill because he’s enraged.
In the case of Bubber’s killer, he’s Archie (Steve Ihnat), a slick racist whose dialogue was either pruned down to a sparse sentence or two, or was designed to be a physical representation of angry white rage in a southern suburban setting; he’s the product of economic progress without any moral guidance or progressiveness.
There are many traces of grave drama in The Chase, but they’re all weakened by overall overwroughtness: Bubber’s mother (Miriam Hopkins) screams too much, and her decision to sell the family house to the scoundrel realtor (Henry Hull, in his final film) for Bubber’s defense fund is part of the rash decisions made by townsfolk; cuckolded bank geek Edwin (Robert Duvall, with hair!) cackles when he tells wealthy boss Val Rogers (silver-painted E.G. Marshall) that his son his sleeping with Bubber’s whore wife Anna (Fonda); and Edwin’s wife (Rule) dances, drinks, and taunts her husband by flirting with co-worker Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford), who ridicules his own wife Mary (Martha Hyer), a chubby has-been who pickles herself in booze by the end of the picture.
Realtor Briggs (Hull) wanders through town with his wife (played by Brando’s older sister Jocelyn) reminding unfortunate people that when they get desperate, he’s the only one willing to give them below-market cash; and Anna’s stepfather Sol (King Kong’s Bruce Cabot) would clearly love to screw his stepdaughter the way he’s screwing her out of an inheritance, but he settles for hunting down a black man, local junk dealer Lester Johnson (Joel Fluellen) with a drunken posse made up of Damon, Archie, and gun-toting Lem (Clifton Brewster).
When Lester’s arrested by Sheriff Calder (Brando), ostensibly one of Val Rogers’ paid guns, Sol and his posse break into the jail, and while Val beats the location of Bubber out of Lester, Sol & Co. beat Calder to a pulp for being uppity. The quartet then quickly regroup and head for Lester’s junkyard, where they attempt to use fire to scare out Bubber like a hunted animal.
There’s a lot of heavy-handed material in The Chase, and the symbolism gets gargantuan once the drunken town refocuses their Saturday night fun from inside of town to the hunt for Bubber. Their apathy is dragged out by Penn in a scene where a bloodied Calder stumbles out from the police station, and attempts to redress himself in his uniform and side arm while the townsfolk stare blankly, some sucking on their pop-sickles with indifference.
Robin Wood’s ‘apocalyptic finale’ is a great sequence: trapped among wrecked cars representing the crushed American Dream (what else could it be?) are Bubber, Anna, and Jake, while fire-lit gasoline trickles around them, and stupid teens (including a ridiculously young Paul Williams) fling Molotov cocktails and lit tires into the yard.
With Lester, the town’s token black man, still in jail, Bubber and his friends are now surrogate negroes, caught in mindless mob violence, and when Bubber is shot on the steps of Calder’s station, he’s becomes Christ figure – a good boy with too much rebel in him who just wanted a chance to fight for his life before getting mowed down by an ambiguous figure (Archie) whose own latent sadism was unleashed by the mob’s energy (and booze) rather than any designs for moral justice.
The Chase is convoluted but not incomprehensible, but it’s just a headache trying to dissect and detail the various characters whose lives bump, bruise, coalesce and shatter during the film’s overlong running time. What’s striking is how composer John Barry (making his American film debut) wrote so little music; most of what’s on the soundtrack album is all he wrote, which is essentially the same theme beaten to death, except for the assassination finale.
Amid the film’s sleazy characters, there are some striking, affecting moments: Calder’s quiet anger eventually makes wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson) her change from a dress bought by Val into a cheaper outfit bought by Calder; it’s a quiet, simple scene, and expresses the friction Val seems to exert on every town citizen. There’s also Calder’s confrontation with Bubber’s mother (Hopkins) in the station, which is a fascination explosion of two acting styles: the former steeped in the Method, the latter emerging from an actress known for her grandiose histrionics (such as Becky Sharp). Lastly, there’s Calder’s severe beating by Damon in the sheriff’s office, while Ruby bangs on the door outside for Archie to unlock the door.
Among the cast, British actor Fox seems like the oddest choice, but it doesn’t take long to acclimatize to his southern accent, and the actor has some nice scenes with Marshall and actress Diana Hyland, the latter playing the wife in a marriage of bad timing, and a woman indifferent to his weekly Saturday night rendezvous with Anna Reeves in hotel rooms. There’s also the small scene where Jake seduces Anna in the hotel before telling her Bubber’s not only broken out, but headed for town.
Penn was blessed with an extraordinary cast (Eduardo Ciannelli, and cartoon voice actor & comedian Billy Bletcher have unbilled tiny roles), and as weak as Redford is as the underwritten Bubber, he looks the part, and was daring enough to perform some stunts, including an elaborate escape from a freezer car, jumping from one train car to another in one long beautiful wide shot.
The ‘scope cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Hangover Square, The Apartment, Barefoot in the Park) is stunning, and his compositions are truly artful. Producer Spiegel seemed to spare no expense, hiring not only James Bond composer Barry for the score, but Bond title designer Maurice Binder for the title sequence.
The Chase has aged surprisingly well, only because its director was part of a new wave of filmmakers whose sense of pacing and drama not only dominated the early seventies, but influenced younger filmmakers, who themselves focused on small minutia instead of smash-cutting to action to maintain a classical fast pacing.
It’s also a fascinating sampling of veteran and new talent packed into a drama that isn’t some Grand Hotel rip-off, and whether the filmmakers intended it or not, the sleazy elements make whole sections ridiculously entertaining. Brando also has some hysterical choice insults he deadpans to Damon and his assholes – teasing that probably kept Damon focused on figuring out some eventual, bare knuckle payback
Penn would move on to Bonnie and Clyde the following year, whereas producer Spiegel never managed to top his biggest critical and commercial successes – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). His following ventures included the flat war drama The Night of the Generals (1967), the un-hip youth drama The Happening (1967), Franklin Schaffner’s elegant flop Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Elia Kazan’s directorial swan song The Last Tycoon (1976), and one final production - Betrayal (1983).
Janice Rule would appear in Frank Perry’s cult film The Swimmer (1968), and Fonda and Redford would reunite in Barefoot in the Park (1967), whereas Fox made a few more American productions before stepping away from films in 1970 for eight years. Veteran actress Hopkins would appear in the grand old crazy dame thriller Savage Intruder (1970), and retire form film, passing away in 1972.
This was Hellman’s final screenplay, whereas actor Duvall would appear in Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies (1983). Foote also wrote the racial drama Hurry Sundown (1967) for director Otto Preminger, which also starred Fonda, and marked another attempt by a maverick filmmaker to curry the interest of audiences with a steamy, sleazy story set in the deep south. Veteran William Wyler would similarly take a crack at the genre with The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), as would Richard Fleischer with Mandingo (1975), neither of which moved audiences with their budgets, and sweaty interracial sex. Perhaps the best film on race relations from this period remains the multi-Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967).
The Chase may be the last serious attempt by an aging generation of filmmakers like Spiegel to address racial issues before sleaze and the blaxploitation genre took over in the seventies, substituting drive-in hysterics in place of earnest social commentary.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan