This tale of thieves falling out is lifted out of the ordinary by Thompson’s uncanny ability to create chillingly credible portraits of criminals, misfits, felons and psychopaths at the extremes of human behaviour. He then caps it all with a hellish finale that goes where no pulp paperback had gone before, which was predictably excised from both movie versions .. but which unexpectedly surfaced in a George Clooney movie written by Quentin Tarantino …
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme; and (in hope, and admiration) Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.
“Got him right through the heart,” Doc told Carol. “One of those very rare instances where a man actually dies laughing.”
“Just so he died,” Carol grimaced.
At the heart of story is the relationship between Carter “Doc” McCoy, a career criminal, and his much younger wife Carol, an ex-librarian. Unusually for hardboiled crime fiction such as this, they are neither a faithless husband nor a scheming and castrating femme fatale. Doc spent several years in the slammer and she has had to do a lot to get him out, offering herself to Benyon, the head of the parole board, along with money off the top from the proceeds of the bank job they will pull as soon as Doc gets out. The bank robbery goes according to plan but their partner Rudy Torrento tries a double cross (no surprise, Doc was planning the same) and fails. But unfortunately for Doc and Carol, Rudy doesn’t die despite being shot in the chest and soon he is chasing his ex-confederates to get his hands on a quarter of a million dollars. Ultimately the McCoys head to Mexico to ‘El Rey’, a refuge for criminals that proves anything but a sanctuary. In fact, it is utterly terrifying …
“Doc,” she raised her eyes. “I’ve changed a lot, haven’t I? You think I have.”
What makes this book so memorable is the way it takes take a well-worn scenario (it is worth comparing with another notable paperback original of the time, Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin) and turn it inside out, with characters we should hate but instead are transfixed by. Rudy is a psychopath who giggles away while doing truly terrible things and the McCoys are unrepentant about the murders they commit to keep themselves going – and yet, we follow them regardless, all the way to hell on earth, and beyond … On top of this are suspense set-pieces as dark and gripping as anything created by Cornell Woolrich, including a sequences set in caves that should not be read by anyone who suffers even a little from claustrophobia. And this brings us to the finale set in El Rey, which is utterly brilliant in its glacial and horrible irony and which it would be wrong to discuss in a spoiler-free forum such as this. It may just be the best thing about the book but it being so extreme and nihilistic meant that of course it got cut from both the movie versions, though it does get alluded to in Quentin Tarantino’s horror thriller, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy: “Punch it, Baby!” (1972 film version)
Walter Hill’s screenplay (used in both films) may omit Thompson’s original finale and soften the ending in general, but is otherwise pretty faithful to the novel, with Steve McQueen brilliantly cast as the unsparing Doc. Ali McGraw however gets a bit of a raw deal as Carol, which is very thinly written. Sam Peckinpah handles the plentiful slow-mo action with his usual mastery, while Al Lettieri steals the show as the loathsome Rudy. The film was a really big hit in its day, so it was no big surprise when it got remade, though it was interesting that they kept the bulk of the original screenplay rather than start again. This may, on reflection, not have been such a great idea though, because star cinema had moved on a lot in the intervening decades …
The 1994 remake, tailored for another off-screen actor couple, this time Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, had Hill’s script updated by Amy Holden Jones, who also beefed up Carol’s part, which is just as well because the first film is more than a tad chauvinistic. In fact, it is downright Cro-Magnon-like in its depiction of relations between the sexes! The remake gives Basinger much more to play with as Carol, while Michael Madsen can’t hope to match Lettieri in the original, but does OK in a typical role for him. The same goes for Baldwin, who is good casting but is in fact too convincing as an ice-cold criminal and so doesn’t really give you enough reason to root for such a nasty piece of work. More honest then, but is that really what we want in a thriller such as this? Needless to say, James Woods mops the floor with all of them in the small role of Benyon. Roger Donaldson, who directed the superb No Way Out, does a fair if rather mechanical job of orchestrating the action but … one wishes that perhaps Hill could have been invited to direct it as he would have made it look much more distinctive and would certainly have delivered a much grittier movie overall. Frankly, as good as they are, Basinger and Baldwin always look much too beautifully coiffed and attired to be believable given the situations in which they find themselves.
The Getaway (1972)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: David Foster
Screenplay: Walter Hill
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: Ted Haworth and Angelo Graham
Music: Quincy Jones (after Jerry Fielding)
Cast: Steve McQueen (Doc), Ali MacGraw (Carol), Ben Johnson (Benyon), Al Lettieri (Rudy), Sally Struthers (Fran), Jack Dodson (Clinton), Richard Bright (the thief), Bo Hopkins (Frank), Slim Pickens (Cowboy)
The Getaway (1994)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Producer: David Foster, Lawrence Turman
Screenplay: Walter Hill and Amy Holden Jones
Cinematography: Peter Menzies Jr
Art Direction: Joseph Nemec III
Music: Mark Isham
Cast: Alec Baldwin (Doc), Kim Basinger (Carol), James Woods (Benyon), Michael Madsen Rudy), Jennifer Tilly (Fran), James Stephens (Harold [Clinton]) Scott McKenna (Red Shirt [the thief]), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Frank), Richard Farnsworth (Slim [Cowboy])
I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘car’ category: