Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Chase (1966)

Dir. Arthur Penn

Viewed from the couch, via Netflix streaming

Sean:

If you’re like me, you may have been living under the impression that The Chase, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (among many others), was something else entirely. Maybe you saw the cover on an old VHS or DVD many years ago and imagined a movie much closer to The Getaway, with Redford and Fonda desperately trying to stay one step ahead of Brando’s tough but fair sheriff. Certainly, that’s the vibe that the promotional images were giving off.

I’ll admit it, this was my relationship with The Chase. Or rather, I actually thought I’d watched this movie some ten or twenty years ago, but when I started watching it again the other night, I knew during the credits that I’d been fooling myself. The first big sign was the words: Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, Based on the play by Horton Foote. I knew that Hellman, the controversial, blacklisted writer who wrote The Children’s Hour and aided the French resistance during World War II, wasn’t going to be the writer of the glorified B-movie I had in my head. What’s more, it certainly wasn’t based on a play by the writer of Tender Mercies.

Sure enough, as the movie gets going, we spend little time following Redford’s convict character, Bubber Reeves, and more time exploring the townsfolk of Tarl, Texas. This is presented at first as a very quaint and ideal American town, and it’s the movie’s primary business to then take this image into the alley behind the bar and beat it to a bloody pulp.

Why this movie is called The Chase is a mystery perhaps only known to Horton Foote, as a better name would be The Wait, or perhaps The Despair. What we have is a story about a town being shaken up when word reaches that Bubber Reeves has escaped from jail. We bounce from one person to another, picking up on clues about everyone's relationship to Bubber and how they may have done him wrong. Indeed, Bubber doesn’t seem so much of a criminal as an unfortunate patsy who ended up getting a raw deal. For starters, Robert Duvall’s sad sack banker quickly comes clean to Brando's Sheriff Calder about committing the crime that Bubber went to jail for. Naturally, Duvall is a bit worried that Bubber might carry a grudge and want to seek some revenge.

Before we go any further, it must be said that listening to Marlon Brando circa 1966 say “Bubber” is about as wonderful as you can imagine. It was perhaps the very thing he was put on Earth to do. Every one of Brando’s movies should’ve had a Bubber in it. Imagine Don Corleone saying, “My son had to flee the country because of this Bubber business!” Or Colonel Kurtz asking, “Well, Bubber, do you find my methods unsound?”

Marlon Brando, being thoroughly fed up with the jackasses in The Chase.

That’s not to say Brando isn’t fantastic in The Chase. This is, in fact, prime Marlon -- albeit a Marlon who isn’t all that interested in enunciation. There are a handful of moments when you can hear the ADR work Brando had to do in order to make his words a touch less mumbly. If you want to see the original version of the casually intense and borderline incoherent murmur that Tom Hardy has been taking to the bank, look no further than Marlon Brando as Sheriff Calder.

The Chase casts Brando as one of the few decent people in Tarl, Texas. As the rest of the citizenship decides to spend the day getting drunk and working up a violent fervor in preparation for Bubber’s inevitable arrival, Brando patrols the streets and tries in vain to keep the peace. But as the night goes on, the good sheriff’s job is made more difficult when a few of the drunk men start venting their violence on the black men in town.

In some ways, The Chase could be seen as a kind of horror movie, with drunk white men as this creeping force of evil with an unquenchable thirst for violence and desire to exercise their supremacy. In a film with more depth and subtlety, you might be able to cast these staggering, boozy monsters in a sympathetic light. After all, they’re likely acting this way because they’re being eaten away by guilt and fear. Interestingly enough, the movie factors in the growing sexual revolution, women’s lib and civil rights. These are all things that a weak white man would see as a threat to their power. So as much as Bubber might represent their past misdeeds, which they’d like nothing more than to shoot and bury, they’re also eager for any excuse to beat down the black man and demonstrate their alpha superiority.


I mentioned that Robert Duvall plays a sad sack, but that’s a bit of an understatement. He’s also the town cuckold as his wife (Janice Rule) is constantly taunting him and rubbing her affair with his coworker in his face. That coworker also has a wife, played by Diana Hyland, whose performance as a pitiful drunk so closely resembled Shelly Winters in Lolita that I had a hard time believing it wasn’t Ms. Winters.

The one woman who doesn’t come across as grotesque is Sheriff Calder’s wife, played by Angie Dickinson with terrific poise. She really makes her scenes with Brando feel natural and lived-in. It’s one of those roles that could have easily been overshadowed to the point of nonexistence, but Dickinson makes it clear that she’s the one keeping Calder sane amidst this town of deplorables who don’t deserve his help.

Dickinson is also a big reason why the Big Scene in The Chase stings as much as it does. When Bubber does find his way home and tries to reach out to his wife (Jane Fonda), all hell does break loose and Brando gets pounded into meatloaf. This scene was remarkable for a number of reasons. As the monsters descend upon the sheriff’s station, Arthur Penn is able to generate some great suspense, which he then turns into a scene of such violence that it might as well be a scene out of Funny Games.

Digging into The Chase’s history, it’s significant to realize that Arthur Penn would follow this one up with Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that would use violence in a far more thrilling manner. But it’s not hard to imagine that audiences in 1966 were horrifically repulsed by the extreme brutality of this scene in the sheriff’s station. Had there been anything like this in a mainstream movie? Wikipedia has a citation-less comment that Brando had referred to this scene as an example of method acting, and it certainly looks like he got at least one or two very real bruises.

Jane Fonda, commiserating over drinks, with Bubber's best friend.

The history of The Chase is full of unhappy remarks by Arthur Penn, but I feel like time may have improved this ugly little movie. It’s not perfect by any means. It’s yet another movie where Robert Redford is woefully miscast. The man has zero menace and he looks like he just stepped off a surfboard, not out of a Texas prison. So you have an entire town scared about this wanted fugitive coming to town like he’s the boogeyman, and you cut to Redford who can be covered in dirt and still look like a cuddly golden retriever.

But despite the fact that both Redford and Fonda are about as far from being Texans as can be, what you do have are two bleeding liberal hearts that are fully devoted to the story at hand. These are two actors who were at the forefront of Hollywood’s protests against war, racism and corruption in the 60s and 70s. So when everything goes up in smoke at the end, you do get the sense that a good portion of idealism was being set ablaze as well.

All right, Paddy. I’ve gone on long enough. What did you think of The Chase? Were you familiar at all with this one?

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Padraic:

Great call on this one Sean. While not exactly a lost classic, there is an extraordinarily good movie in here, occluded only a bit by the decision to market it as a tense "chase" film when it should really be a Williamsesque, or Lettsian, pot-boiler about the serious oppression in small towns. Not since The Lottery can I recall a story where the town's underlying violence is so well exposed.

Not having read the novel, I have to imagine that Bubber is just a device, but that by casting Redford it was required to add "action-packed" sequences to the film. I actually think Redford acquits himself pretty well here given the material and the obvious issue of Mr. Handsome playing a rough-and-tumble Texan con named Bubber, but there's just no action to the action sequences that interrupt the first half of the film. Redford might as well be practicing for his All is Lost scenes here, as we just see him by himself for long stretches, doing not much of anything. It's a major relief every time we get back to the hothouse of a town, and all its lecherousness, racism, and insanity.

What makes the film work I think is just how the moral failings of the town never seem to arrive in the way you think they will. In particular, the robber barons of the town, Val and Jake Rodgers, are both intricately more in depth and sophisticated than you might imagine in a Redford/Fonda movie. James Fox as the son Jake is particularly good as he looks like central casting of a spoiled brat, but turns out to have a deep sense of caring and friendship; watching him you can believe that it isn't a lot of fun to grow up a spoiled rich kid. Even more amazing is that his father is redeemed as well; maybe he does have a great sense of noblesse oblige and is going to build a great college!

These well-rounded figures play off what is also a carefully wrought social dynamic, where the depiction of oppression of African-Americans and Hispanics is (I think) pretty novel for 1966. We don't get a feel-good liberal account or a classic Hollywood ignorance, but care and attention to the lives of black people. Joe Fluellen's Lester is well-drawn for his limited role, and the film departs the main narrative in many instances to see how everyday black and hispanic folks live. It's not integrated by any means, but the film makes a good case for this. With all the craziness going on in Tarl, black people would likely do well to simply stay out of it. As we hear in the opening scene, when a young black child wants to intervene after a murder, his mother offers sage advice: "Let the white men take care of white men's troubles."

All of which brings us to Brando's Calder, the great enigma of the film, who should be the white man to take care of the white man's troubles. He is neither really hero nor anti-hero, but a man who pays a serious price for what might seem to be a limited sin. While the opening scenes sets up Calder as a potentially corrupt cop, he subtly undercuts this as the town's drama intensifies. Even in moments where he could play hero, Calder says things like "I'm not patrolin', I'm just looking for an ice cream cone," a line that sounds kinda cool until you realize he should be patrolin'. Calder's failure to commit to being a good guy sherif - even when he is a good guy - is what ultimately leads to problems. He becomes known as a corrupt cop not because of explicit actions but because he's too apathetic to combat the charges. It's his protection of Luther that gets him in immediate trouble, but it's the longstanding rumors that really do him in.

As strong as his character is, the film benefits as you mention from a number of great supporting roles. The scene where Duvall's Stewart learns that Bubber has been released is about as expertly shot as can be imagined. Penn makes a great cut to Janice Rule just as she's about to deliver the line, and there is a great take of Duvall's reaction when she tells him. It's a simple conversation, but it's loaded with drama.


This stupid grin is kinda the stupid grin of the whole town in The Chase. In what is a great sendup of the 1960s "what's wrong with the kids" vibe, it's the drunken adulterous adults who are living the decadent life, with their heads held high only because they have blacks and hispanics to look down upon. Damn if this thing doesn't feel true today.

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Sean:

Well stated, Padraic. You're right about how The Chase often goes the extra mile with characters most other movies would be content to make a one-dimensional plot point. Val and Jake Rodgers are more complex than the usual small town big-wig, and whether or not this really comes across, or why it's of any interest, is perhaps getting to the point of why Arthur Penn didn't think the movie worked. 

The audience is given the chance to see the Rodgers beyond their public personas, while at the same time seeing what the Rodgers name means to the local white collar folk. To Joe Lunchpail, Val Rodgers is the town Boss, and he's got Brando's Sherif Calder squarely under his thumb. This chaffs Calder to no end and, along with the fact that the town is full of Grade A Morons, it's a big reason he'd rather be anywhere else than Tarl, Texas. The fact that Calder, and the audience, knows that Val Johnson is a good citizen at heart just adds another very human layer to the theater being played out in The Chase. Is this all laid out in an engaging way? Is too much for the average viewer to track? 

As for Calder's work ethic, I think you may have misread his line about the ice cream cone. I think he was patrolin' his ass off that night and that line was just a bit of sass being thrown at a wiseass drunk guy he'd like to lock up for public intoxication. (It also sounds like it could have been one of those lines Brando himself came up with.) But I do think he was constantly patrolling the town lunatics that night because on more than one occasion he comes flying into the frame out of nowhere just in the nick of time, like some erstwhile superhero. I believe his line was to say, Naw, I'm not keeping a close eye on you -- go ahead and do what you want, it's not like I'm gonna continue to watch you until you pass out and I can stop worrying.

Marlon Brando's Sherif Calder, being followed by some Grade A Morons.

I see Calder as the guy that's undone by his pride. He's far too good for this town, excellent at his job, but stuck not being able to be as good as he'd like to be. Bubber's jail break is all of Calder's chickens coming home to roost. I'm not sure if we find out exactly why he's so indebted to Val Rodgers, but every guy in town knows the story and it's practically neutered him. Calder's ruin is that he still wanted to take care of this situation himself, either out of pride, stubbornness or perhaps genuine concern for Bubber and the belief that he could help him out. There may have been a version where Calder's plan worked out, but come on... doomed! 

As you said, this movie hasn't lost much of its relevance, and it may even hold up better than most movies from its time. It may even be a capital-I important movie. It certainly did a number on me as I felt a bit of the old rotten despair after watching this one to the bitter end. But while it's ultimately effective, it's also too ambitious for its own good. Part of the reason we like it is due to the complex web it weaves, but there's a reason plays and books do this so well and very few movies do. It's not hard to imagine that Penn went to Bonnie and Clyde after this movie because here was a thrilling story that delivered a helluva message without juggling a dozen different characters and back-stories and all that literary bullshit. Cinema isn't the best place for The Chase, despite having a title that makes you think it's the best place. 

You mentioned those early scenes with Bubber jumping a train and stealing a bit of food. You get the feeling that those scenes, and the badly paced fire storm at the ending, were the only ones that couldn't be perfectly captured on a theater stage. Is that reason enough to transport this story to a movie screen? Certainly it still deserves to be seen by a wide audience, but I feel like there's another version of the movie that trimmed away some of the story and was a real pot-boiler.

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