The road movie genre and the vast geographical and often turbulent social landscape of the United States of America have, over the years, proved endlessly fertile territory for filmmakers, writers and actors alike. Counter-culture dropouts, anti-heroes (and heroines), warring families, dispossessed loners and happy-go-lucky friends have travelled the length and breadth of the US on journeys always as emotionally affecting as they are literal, whatever the destinations or eventual narrative resolutions. The late 1960s and early 1970s in particular saw a spate of such movies, an entirely understandable outcome given the radical social upheavals of the era, with the likes of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson,1970) rubbing contemporaneous shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), Vanishing Point (Richard Sarafian, 1971) and Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973).
Amid these releases, Jerry Schatzberg, fresh from directing a young Al Pacino as Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park (1971), gave audiences his own take on the genre in the shape of the Palme d’Or winning Scarecrow. Again featuring Pacino, this time as Francis Lionel ‘Lion’ Delbuchi, a good natured but emotionally immature ex-sailor, alongside Gene Hackman as volatile ex-convict Max Millan, Scarecrow ‘s narrative journey follows the path of those on the margins of society. Working-class drifters rather than counter-culture rebels, Lion and Max, one a bundle of naïvety, energy and humour, the other ill-tempered, uptight and world weary, are both searching for something, anything, to give their lives direction. Hoboing their way from California to Pittsburgh, where Max dreams of opening a car wash, the apposite personalities (exemplified by Pacino and Hackman’s contrasting acting styles) come to have a profound effect on each other during their sometimes comedic, other times brutal, experiences. Lion and Max’s adult coming-of-age journeys become inextricably linked as their buddy-movie partnership is tested both by outside forces and their own, very recognizable, human foibles.
Dust bowl landscapes, railroad sidings, flea-pit bars, roadside diners, correctional facilities and industrial wastelands on the outskirts of cities are the environments inhabited by Lion and Max, aptly mirroring their outsider status. The spaces and places traversed and visited are peopled by non-professional extras and stunningly captured in widescreen by Vilmos Zsigmond, who would later shoot Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) and Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981) among many others. Issues surrounding the American Dream, adult responsibilities, social status and masculinity are filtered through Lion and Max’s changing relationship, with Garry Michael White’s impressive debut screenplay giving Pacino and Hackman plenty of scope for impassioned monologues and quick-fire, semi-improvised dialogue interplay. Schatzberg directs in a loose-limbed fashion that fits the unsettled, scatter-shot lifestyles of his central protagonists. Short snappy vignettes flow into longer, sprawling sequences with overt comedy interrupted by outbursts of violence, reflective melancholy, casual cruelty and genuine tenderness.
Now forty years after its original release, Schatzberg’s sprawling drama has been fully digitally restored and plays for two weeks at the BFI during April and May. With its two peerless leads delivering riveting performances, this snapshot of the landscape of early 1970s America – external and internal – is a fine entry into the road movie canon.
Watch the trailer: