The film industry pumps out a lot of movies every year — you could go blind trying to patch up all the blind spots in your viewing — and yet in the midst of all that chaos, there’s often an odd sort of harmonic convergence to the way certain groups of people come together on any given project. Watch enough movies — particularly ones that were made during a specific period — and you’ll be able to trace the movements of filmmakers, crew members, writers, and actors as they come together and drift apart. 1973’s Scarecrow — a movie in which a whole lot of drifting is going on — is a pretty good example of what I’m talking about, specifically with regards to Some Guy Cinema.
Scarecrow was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, who at the time was coming off The Panic in Needle Park with Al Pacino. He hired cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who’d done Some Guy Cinema classic The Long Goodbye, and cast Pacino to star opposite Some Guy favorite Gene Hackman, who was himself fresh off The French Connection. That’s a truckload of talent, including some names we’ve seen and will continue to see repeatedly in this series, and the end result is a pretty good film — one that goes a long way toward capturing the bruised cynicism of its era, even if it never fully connects its dots.
The movie’s essentially a two-hander travelogue — one of several that were released during this time period and probably among the least widely remembered, especially given its pedigree on either side of the camera. If you’ve seen Easy Rider or Midnight Cowboy or even Of Mice and Men, you’ll settle into the basic rhythm of the story pretty quickly: In Scarecrow‘s opening scene, we meet Max (Hackman) and Lionel (Pacino), two drifters who happen to be traveling along the same stretch of California road at the same time. Max is an ex-con who’s headed to Pittsburgh, where he’s got a couple grand socked away in a bank and dreams of starting a car wash; Lionel has been away at sea, and he’s on his way to Detroit, where he intends to reconnect with his estranged wife and see the child he’s never met. In spite of Max’s stubborn efforts to ditch Lionel, the two eventually end up bonding: Lionel agrees to be a partner in Max’s car wash, and Max — who nicknames Lionel “Lion” — agrees to make a stop in Detroit along the way. These are two losers with dreams, in other words, and ones willing to cast their lot with a fellow traveler in spite of the risk.
As I mentioned previously, Scarecrow boasts the involvement of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, whose future output includes classics such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter. Even when he worked on middling stuff like Maverick or Sliver, Zsigmond always displayed a keen eye for a beautiful, distinctive shot, and Scarecrow is loaded with them — numerous scenes are composed so strikingly that they might as well be paintings. At the time, this was actually a bone of contention for some critics, who felt that the film’s beauty was oppressive enough to be distracting, and distracting enough to undermine what’s supposed to be a grimy journey through some of the grimier and more desperate corners of early ’70s America.
These critics had a point. Although it tells a definite story, Scarecrow can also be seen as a series of minor-key vignettes, and although Zsigmond did a stellar job of making the road feel just as cold and dirty as it should, it’s also true that the characters’ straits feel a little less dire when a still from any given scene could be printed up as a postcard. I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw, but it is indicative of the way this movie is generally, albeit gently, at odds with itself throughout. As familiar as the outline of the story is, screenwriter Garry Michael White never really fills it in with a coherent message or themes that are distinctive enough to make it a picture truly worthy of a pair of leading men who were operating near peak form.
That being said, Hackman and Pacino are more than enough to make Scarecrow a poignant and absorbing journey for most of the duration. Plenty has been written about how the stars clashed during production, apparently partly because Hackman had little patience for Pacino’s Method acting, and it’s interesting watching them share the screen with that in mind. As I’ve written before, I think Hackman is a top-shelf Some Guy Cinema lead in spite of his imposing physical presence, because he had a wonderful way of conveying tenderness beneath a rough exterior, and his performance in this movie distills that blend perfectly. Max is a pugnacious prick who’s always spoiling for a fight, convinced he’ll win — but he’s also a lost, lonely soul whose knack for violence belies a desperate, overwhelming fear. White’s script doesn’t do a very good job of showing off those layers, but Hackman shows them all.
Pacino, meanwhile, was given the gift of playing the more sensitive character, as well as the character who experiences the showiest range of incident and emotion, and he sensibly delivered by making Lion a sort of spinning wire brush whose bristling energy is always put toward making people laugh. He’s your classic sad clown, and it isn’t spoiling anything to say that his essential purpose in the story is showing Max that it’s okay to trust and even need other people. If his performance isn’t as finely layered as Hackman’s, well, that stands to reason; his character wears his heart on his sleeve, and his journey is more visible than internal.
Like numerous films of its era and/or ilk, Scarecrow gets a pretty good distance on little more than some local color, a handful of incident, and the chemistry between its leads, but all stories must come to an end eventually, and coasting along can turn into crashing if you aren’t careful. I feel like this era in particular produced a number of movies that seem to try and compensate for a lack of a genuine ending by suddenly raising the emotional pitch for one reason or another, and that sums up Scarecrow‘s final moments fairly well. Without spoiling much of anything, I’ll just say that if you were to stop the movie immediately after Lion finally reaches Detroit and places a phone call to his wife, you’ll probably be more satisfied than you will be if you let the whole thing unspool as Schatzberg intended. There’s a lot of stuff in here about masculinity and responsibility and even religion, but aside from offering glancing (and admittedly often insightful) commentary, White doesn’t know what to really do with it when he’s finished, so he just sort of upends the board and leaves the viewer to sort out the pieces.
Still, even if those last few minutes are a mess and everything else is a tad familiar and thin, there’s a lot to like about Scarecrow anyway. The movie’s relaxed pace allows for numerous colorful if shallow detours, which in turn leave plenty of room for Hackman and Pacino to supply the movie with its big, beating heart. These scenes are loaded with small moments that will linger with you — like Max’s increasingly voracious and absurd breakfast order at a diner, or the teetering tension between laughter and the threat of violence when he breaks into a mock, drunken striptease at a dive bar. It all adds up to a movie that has something to say about its time and place, as well as the human condition — even if it doesn’t know what that something is. I give it four out of five Scheiders.