Sam Peckinpah might well have featured in the top 10 list of directors most likely to successfully bring Jim Thompson’s dark misanthropic world view to celluloid - if he hadn’t made The Getaway. Thompson’s 1959 novel was filmed in 1972 as a Steve McQueen star-vehicle, and thus not only is the violence softened, but McQueen’s Doc McCoy - a bank robber who is paroled from prison with the assistance of crime lord Jack Beynon (Ben Johnson) only to escape with the loot - is certainly a more sympathetic character than his literary equivalent. Thompson’s mean-spirited slobbish lowlife (perfectly captured by Philippe Noiret in Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon) becomes that Hollywood stereotype - the charming professional criminal with his own strong moral code. There is no doubting McQueen’s presence and star quality, but he is just too cool and likeable to play a Thompson anti-hero. Peckinpah, who was something of a hired hand at McQueen’s request (in recompense for the brilliant elegiac neo-Western Junior Bonner, a commercial failure but a happy collaboration for Peckinpah and McQueen), might have done better to cast his favourite actor - Warren Oates.
But a McQueen film it is and Jim Thompson’s influence is thus diminished. That is not to say that The Getaway is a bad film, it’s just very different from the book. With Peckinpah at the height of his directorial powers, it’s certainly a cut above the hollow voguish-ness of Bullitt. An incredible wordless title sequence portrays the inhuman mechanistic prison system as Doc is refused parole. The daring non-chronological cutting shows Doc’s dreams of freedom become a reality in the memorable swimming sequence. Making use of his stars’ burgeoning real-life romance (MacGraw left her husband, producer Robert Evans, and married McQueen shortly after), The Getaway becomes an odd blend of matrimonial drama and heist film. McQueen is almost convincing as a cuckolded husband torn apart by his wife’s indiscretion (even she did it to ensure his release from prison). But marriage guidance Sam Peckinpah-style (yes, he even slaps her at one point, despite McQueen’s complaints to his director) proves to be as much a trial as the getaway itself. And what in other hands (Peter Yates take note) could have become a stylish but mindless action thriller becomes a complex drama about relationships and trust issues, complete with narrow escapes and explosive shoot-outs.
The long running time allows for an almost episodic structure with some great set-pieces as various police, gangsters and petty criminals attempt to help themselves to the half a million dollars. The minimal script by Walter Hill (who went on to direct The Driver and The Warriors) is enhanced by some colourful performances by the supporting cast. Al Lettieri’s kidnapping of Sally Struthers and her husband is as disturbing as it is funny and Peckinpah regular Ben Johnson is excellent as the scheming Beynon. Even Ali MacGraw, not always the most skilled actor, does some good work here.
This being a Hollywood movie, the hellish ending of Jim Thompson’s novel has been dropped, but even Peckinpah films never end as bleakly as that. And although the studio system of the 1970s is perhaps what prevented The Getaway from being a more faithful adaptation it seems we are even further away from such a possibility now. That said, maybe Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer inside Me will prove me wrong - after all, in A Cock and Bull Story (2005) he remains true to what was perhaps the most un-filmable of literary voices, that of Lawrence Sterne.