Horton Foote, Lillian Hellman and Arthur Penn’s All-Star vision of an Ugly America found few friends in 1965; now its overstated scenes of social injustice and violence are daily events. Marlon Brando leads a terrific cast — Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, Robert Duvall! — to endure the worst Saturday ever to hit one cursed Texas township.
The Chase (1966)
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date October 11, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall,
Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Miriam Hopkins, Martha Hyer, Richard Bradford,
Robert Duvall, James Fox, Diana Hyland, Henry Hull, Jocelyn Brando, Clifton James, Steve Ihnat
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Production Designer Richard Day
Art Direction Robert Luthardt
Film Editor Gene Milford
Original Music John Barry
Written by Lillian Hellman from the novel by Horton Foote
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Directed by Arthur Penn
Nobody rushes to defend Arthur Penn’s The Chase, a curse insured by the director’s own claim that it was ruined in the editing. Just the same, its tale of modern American evil has always been a stunner. Marlon Brando’s legend still had its polish, and E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson and Jane Fonda were established stars. Supporting players Robert Redford and Robert Duvall would reach top stardom as well, while the ensemble is graced with talents like Janice Rule and Richard Bradford in good roles. Sure, The Chase has problems, and it can be righteously argued that its sledgehammer criticism of crass American decadence is dealt from a loaded deck. But it’s still puts the viewer through an emotional wringer that ends in a devastatingly powerful finish. Twilight Time’s excellent disc brings this oddest of liberal outrage tragedies up to tip-top condition.
The Chase is very much like films from the HUAC period, made by directors destined for the blacklist. Major artists Abraham Polonsky, Cy Endfield, Jules Dassin and John Berry were associated with these socially critical cries for justice, that conservatives blasted as anti-American. Just before his stock doubled with the success of The African Queen, producer Sam Spiegel made Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, a picture that dared propose that an ordinary policemen might commit a murder to join the wealthy class. Fifteen years later, after two international super-productions for David Lean, Spiegel quite possibly over-produced The Chase. The film’s expansive style and ‘big’ music score belong to some twisted Texas epic — ‘Brando of Texas’ instead of Lawrence of Arabia.
The film’s key credited writer wasn’t happy with the movie either. The fiery Lillian Hellman adapted Horton Foote’s 1952 play and 1959 novel, but her work was revised by writer Michael Wilson and then original author Foote again. The finished product is an extremely violent (for 1966) soap opera about a corrupt neo-Ponderosa. Remember all those cattle baron movies, where Rock Hudson or Walter Huston or Lionel Barrymore tried to dominate a region, including the law? The Chase is a ‘hate Texas’ movie, that, in the wake of the JFK assassination and the warring presidency of LBJ, paints the Lone Star State as a land of racist bigots, that swap wives and fire guns as they try to impress the local oil boss.
Critic Pauline Kael did not go easy on many movies with liberal values. For her The Chase was a laughable soap opera of hatred and lawlessness determined to punish the state of Texas for the crime of killing President Kennedy. Lillian Hellman’s screenplay does indeed portray the Texans as bloodthirsty rednecks, or demonic alien creatures. The Chase winds itself into a tense and violent thriller about an entire community that transforms into a chaotic mob. Joseph Losey didn’t please audiences with his The Lawless, an unflattering portrait of race hatred and mass hysteria. Who likes to be preached at? The Chase is far more likely to offend. It barely has one or two characters willing to set aside their own prejudices for principles of justice and fair play. The only person we have to root for is Marlon Brando’s unfortunate Sheriff, who is almost martyred for trying to uphold the law. Perhaps all the pieces of The Chase didn’t fully cohere in 1966, but today it seems prophetic of America at its worst: intolerant, extremist, polarized and gun-happy.
The story wastes no time setting up the small Texas town of Tarl as a violent powder keg. The place goes insane when news arrives that local bad boy Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison and is heading home. His wife Anna (Jane Fonda) now lives above a bar, and has taken up with their childhood friend Jake Rogers (James Fox), son of the local land baron Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). One of Rogers’ bank VPs, Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall), fears Bubber is headed back to settle an old score. It’s a Saturday night, drunken parties are in full swing and there’s no stopping the drunken, gun-toting locals determined to ‘protect’ the town from Bubber. Only the lone sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) exhibits any restraint. Most of his constituency thinks he’s the bought dog of Val Rogers.
We can tell that this a Marlon Brando picture — the mounting crescendo of violence all seems prearranged to insure that Brando’s Sheriff Calder receives one heck of a bloody beating from the despicable good citizens of Tarl. The impromptu crucifixion-by-beating scene has been a Brando standard ever since On the Waterfront, and The Chase delivers a lulu. Uninhibited by the modern MPAA’s animosity toward crimson gore, Brando leaks hemoglobin all over the place. Blood was never sexier.
That’s just one highlight in a story determined to sell the notion that America and especially the South is Evil. From the bottom up and the top down, the citizens of this ugly place form an encyclopedia of sin. The local businessmen prepare a wild night for a dentists’ convention. Jake Rogers packs off truckloads of unhappy migrant workers with cheap used televisions instead of expected pay. Val Rogers’ lavish barbecue soaks the local rich for millions for a new college carrying his name. Val is beside himself with anxiety because his son Jake’s marriage is an unhappy sham put on for appearances’ sake.
Uninvited to the big party, Rogers’ bank employees hold their own drunken Saturday night bash. Bored businessmen Richard Bradford (The Trip to Bountiful), Clifton James (David and Lisa & Live and Let Die) and Steve Ihnat pack guns and lust after the teenage girls at the party next door. Nobody even tries to conceal the rampant adultery. Mascara runs down the face of drunken housewife Martha Hyer – her husband is carrying on with somebody else’s wife right in front of her eyes.
Meanwhile, a sullen Jane Fonda waits in sleek new motel for her rich boyfriend, while an obnoxious real estate salesman and his wife (Henry Hull and Jocelyn Brando) provide a nosy Greek chorus for all the commandment- breaking that’s going on.
Janice Rule, who makes a three-course meal of her every scene as the slutty housewife Emily Stewart. Sheriff Brando puts on his best Saturday mumble and faces up bravely to the general scorn, even when baited by Emily’s come-on:
Emily Stewart: “Hiya Sheriff. Wanna join our party? All you need is a pistol, and you surely got one.”
Sheriff Calder: “With so many pistols around here already, it don’t look like you’d have room for mine.”
Calder struggles to retain his dignity while serving as Val Rogers’ appointed sheriff. Town resentment grows when he and his wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson, in fine form) become the only working people invited to the swank party. Calder keeps telling himself that he’s just trying to earn back the farm he lost (shades of The Grapes of Wrath) and doesn’t want special favors. But like Marshall Kane in High Noon, the Sheriff becomes one man alone against the entire community. Bubber Reeves is presumed by all to be a deadly threat, when he’s actually desperate and harmless. When push comes to shove the supposedly upstanding citizens attack the Sheriff and beat information out of a defenseless black man in his holding cell (Joel Fluellen). Barely able to see or walk, Calder collapses on the jailhouse steps. His wife begs for help but the gawking townspeople offer no assistance. Penn isolates their wanton faces — they might as well be citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.
‘Big Symbols’ arrive thick and fast in the town’s vast automobile junkyard, where the American Dream has gone to die. A caravan of rowdy partygoers converges there in a mix of posse, lynch mob and midnight picnic. The illusion of a dangerous Bubber Reeves incites a storm of emotions and sexual energy. Punks throw Molotov cocktails and a teenage girl dares her boyfriend to prove his love by retrieving his ring from a fire. Editorially it comes off as a fiery chaos variation on The Battleship Potemkin, with burning tires replacing the out-of-control baby buggy. The burning garbage and car wrecks scream an all-too obvious apocalyptic message: society is boiling in its own consumer evil.
At this point it all clicks. Foote and Hellman are plumbing the same waters of collective depravity as Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Both films feature songs that celebrate the doom of a trapped individual. In The Chase the songwriter is a local brat kid played by the young Paul Williams, who sings it as the junkyard goes up in flames. Lost and confused in the middle of this is Robert Redford’s escaped convict. Not only does Redford resemble one of the Kennedy brothers, at the climax (Spoiler next Paragraph) …
… we’re given an appalling recreation of the Jack Ruby-Lee Harvey Oswald mob hit. The handcuffed victim is helpless, and the result is as bloody as all get-out. The violence in The Chase was a quantum leap beyond the accelerating madness in American culture, with its wars, riots, assassinations. Pointing an accusing finger, the movie indicts the nation and the South in particular as lawless scum unworthy of the flag. Few Americans recognized Foote and Hellman’s small-town sewer. Today it looks relatively peaceful, compared to the conflicts that regularly flare up on our streets, North and South.
But the naysayers also have a point when they scoff at The Chase as self-important and out of control. It’s rigged like a funnel, allowing only one emotional reading of all scenes. The frustration over Sheriff Calder’s situation boils so hot, that cheers erupt in screenings when he finally pays back a few of his attackers. He has to be restrained from killing a man. Our emotions are so keyed up over the outrage to justice, we wish Calder would start killing everybody, like an anti-hero in a Spaghetti western.
Most every performance is a standout. Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ’32) has a sobering turn as Bubber’s grieving, ignorant mother. The lizardlike Steve Ihnat is the worst of the white-collar vipers. With this role and his psycho killer in Don Siegel’s Madigan, Ihnat became an unsung villain of the 1960s.
I never bought Jane Fonda as a comedienne, but she’s very good here in perhaps her first truly successful dramatic performance. A young Robert Duvall gets a solid outing as Janice Rule’s gutless husband. Clifton James’ racist jewelry salesman is an excellent study of redneck excess, and nothing like the cartoonish Sheriff Pepper character he played in two James Bond movies and a Superman sequel.
Interesting faces pop up everywhere. Bruce Cabot plays Jane Fonda’s mean-spirited stepfather, a bartender. Unbilled at the Rogers barbecue are Eduardo Cianelli and W.C. Fields’ old comedy nemesis Grady Sutton. Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn is perhaps the only name actor inappropriately cast. Although only 46, she’s in weak age makeup playing at least 65.
The crisp Panavision cinematography alternates gorgeous (too gorgeous?) location scenery with town scenes shot on various Hollywood back lot sets. This turns out to be a major setback, stylistically, as much of the film seems to be playing out in the world of Leave it to Beaver. A story as gritty as The Chase needs a strong sense of reality, but the city sidewalks and suburban neighborhoods feel as artificial as a TV movie. Although it’s all well staged, this expensive picture sometimes looks cheap.
John Barry’s nervous western score gives The Chase the look and feel of an epic political downer. Audiences reacted negatively to the movie’s huge dose of negative vibes … nobody except a guilty liberal masochist likes being called an evil racist. Righteous indictment or irresponsible smear, the film is a key representative of the violent ‘sixties. It was also a major flop; Arthur Penn would do better with his glamorous period violence in Bonnie & Clyde.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Chase is a great scan and encoding of this beautifully-shot show, one that really knows how to use the landscape of Panavision. I saw it several times on the big screen at UCLA’s film school, and this is the first home video presentation that reproduces its dynamic visuals. Music fans will love hearing John Barry’s music score, which sounds suitable for a classic western. The disc doubles as a soundtrack, with an Isolated Score Track that sounds even better synchronized to the images, without dialogue or sound effects.
The very long original trailer is here too. I have this theory about trailers — if a movie can connect with the public, it usually has elements that come across well in a coming attraction promo. This trailer pushes its roster of stars, but also the violence both physical and verbal. I remember that Pauline Kael stomped on the movie by saying that Penn’s Texas felt so alien that it might as well be another planet. The trailer does make the actors seem to be aliens, fighting in some crazy Bizarro-world… it’s jolting, but we don’t feel personally involved.
The one new extra is a very good commentary with TT’s Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and their frequent guest Lem Dobbs. Kirgo and Dobbs dispense good research material, Redman helps steer the overall discussion and the three of them turn the commentary into a lively mini-debate. Arthur Penn was known as a demanding director who earned the respect of his actors. I’ll need to look up the reference to his protest that producer Spiegel, after taking control of the editing, tossed out all of Brando’s interesting acting takes and used the bland ‘chapter and verse’ takes supposedly shot only for safety. Would they have been better? Brando is awfully good as he is, playing this part straight. He was already becoming known for wreaking havoc on set and throwing movies into a spin with his eccentricities. Then again, perhaps Spiegel’s editors did leave Penn and Brando’s best work behind.
All three contributors agree that the show isn’t fully satisfying, and try to pin down the cause. The critical approach continues into Julie Kirgo’s liner notes. I guess I’m more forgiving, for The Chase has always worked for me, especially on a big screen. I can still remember Ethiopian film student and future noted filmmaker Haile Gerima attending a UCLA screening, identifying with Marlon Brando’s frustrated lawman, and becoming fired up with a genuine rage of his own. Gerima later directed a noted film documenting a gross miscarriage of justice in the Wilmington 10 case.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Score Track; Commentary with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs; Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson