If you live in a major city and have no entertainment budget, it is easy to get free passes to advance screenings of major films. Things worked somewhat differently in the sixties, when a “major studio preview” sometimes replaced the 7 o’clock screening of the current feature. You could buy a ticket for the 5 o’clock show and stay for the preview, or buy a ticket for the preview and stay for the 9 o’clock feature. Either way you were getting two “A” pictures for the price of one, as opposed to the standard double feature package of an “A” picture paired with a “B” picture. Of course, you could wait until the second run, when suburban theatres traditionally offered a double feature of two “A” pictures a week or so after they exhausted their first run engagements downtown. But there was nothing like seeing a “major studio preview” before the picture was released.
That’s how I saw Arthur Penn’s “The Chase” at Seattle’s Coliseum Theater in the winter of 1966. I had no expectations, but when it was over, I walked out of that theater feeling I had just seen America torched and left to burn. Although I was ignorant of religion and its terminology, I had received my first impressions of an apocalypse.
Having grown up in the fifties, I was no stranger to the “no down payment” shell game that the banks played with American families, many of which broke apart through adultery and alcoholism and all the other degenerate games people play in order to forget that they are trapped in a life of debt and desperation. I had seen enough sexy housewives of traumatized WWII vets slither around other women’s husbands at drunken barbeques to know that suburban America was a hellhole of sexual frustration and jealousy that found its expression through manly violence, sometimes against each other but usually against their women.
“The Chase” opened to bad reviews, and I wondered what the hell was wrong with me that I thought such a crappy movie was so god damned good. So I saw it again and it was even better than the first time. It had the most exciting cast of any movie since “On the Waterfront,” and the script never let up. It laid out one smashing scene after another, each of them building to that ultimate moment when Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) and his wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson) get in their car and drive away from from this burning junkyard where the fire that was soon to consume the country had begun.
And Anna Reeves (Jane Fonda) just stands there on the road, surrounded by death, preparing to take those first few steps that were sure to lead to a psychotic break (in the incarnation of Bonnie Barrow) and a precarious rehabilitation in middle age (Alice Brock). These three movies, “The Chase,” Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Alice’s Restaurant”, form a trilogy of apocalypse that, in part, chronicles the pre-feminist transformation of the American woman as she tries to escape a country of indolence, idiocy, and depravity that threatens to eat her alive.
But these movies are not only about the women, but “the countless, confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse / and every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,” as Bob Dylan described them in “Chimes of Freedom.”
In “The Chase,” adapted for the screen by Lillian Hellman from a play by Horton Foote,” we begin with two men escaping from a literal prison and end with two women escaping from a figurative one. Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) is just a poor dumb kid who has stupidly broken out of prison just a couple of months before his release date. His partner is a psychotic killer who pointless murders a man and leaves Bubber to take the rap. Anna is Bubber’s wife, having an affair with Jake (James Fox) the son of millionaire Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall), who owns the town and everybody in it, including the dispossessed Sheriff Calder and his wife Ruby, who maintain their decency and optimism in this town where nobody sleeps because they would not know which bed to go to.
Their moral opposites are Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) and his wife Emily (Janice Rule). Edwin is a simpering, sarcastic cuckold, awkwardly dressed in an ill-fitting suit, a sweating underling who would swallow his own puke to keep from offending Boss Rogers. Emily rates high on the list of cinema’s most brazen sluts. She will come on to any one in any place, whether or not her husband is present. Rule’s performance is spectacularly physical. She stretches her body like a jaguar standing on two legs, thrusting her pelvis in the direction of any sexual stench, her lascivious mouth following the lead of her crotch.
The film’s middle section, following the introduction of the characters, intercuts the events at three parties that leave the orgies of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” in the dust. Val Rogers celebrates his birthday with society’s finest racists, swindlers, and charity donors. Those lacking invitations to the Rogers’ soiree get their fill of sex and booze at the Stewart hovel. meanwhile, the teenagers run amok, half-dressed and steaming with lust, glimpses of their imagined indiscretions feeding the jaded imaginations of drooling adults.
Penn nails everything that was wrong with America in the post-Kennedy years, and builds mercilessly to its final scenes that should open the eyes of its zombified audience, itself embroiled in the same kinds of nastiness they have just witnessed on screen, and leave them muttering, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” But, as one of Penn’s later heroines, from the 1976 western, “The Missouri Breaks,” asks…”How do we escape the Wild West?”
We will answer that question in Part Two, when we take a fresh look at Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde.”