A Forgotten Film about Forgotten People

Lion (Al Pacino) and Max (Gene Hackman) have a messy friendship in the startling "Scarecrow".

Last week, I wrote about how the poor and downtrodden seem to have been forgotten by Hollywood, and referenced a wonderful and modest little movie called Scarecrow.

Scarecrow is a movie you should seek out, and seeking is something you’ll have to do if you find this review interesting. For it was released on DVD some years ago, quickly went out of print, and is available almost nowhere… except eBay, Amazon, and the like. (Video Fan has it on VHS tape, if that’s your gig.) But it’s cheap to own–I bought my copy for fifteen bucks, the price of a couple of movie tickets.

That this little film with two big-name actors (Hackman had won the Oscar for French Connection two years prior; Pacino led The Godfather just a year earlier), a movie that won the Palme d’Or, should now be relegated to cinematic history’s dustbin is intriguing to me. Why is gone from any discussions of 1970s movies and totally unavailable?

I do not know the answer to that question.

The story is simple: Max (Hackman) is fresh out of the joint, six years for assault. Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbucchi (Pacino) is a happy-go-lucky loser who spent “five years at sea” (the Merchant Marines? The Navy?) They meet, in the middle of California’s nowhere, far east of the San Francisco Bay, in what is be one of the greatest opening scenes (and shots, for that matter) I’ve ever witnessed in a movie.

YouTube doesn’t do that justice; neither will whatever television set on which you choose to watch Scarecrow. I laugh every time Hackman stumbles down that berm, with the grace of Keaton.

Max is a short-tempered motherfucker, Lion, contrary to his name, is a peace-loving doofus who believes that you can keep trouble at bay as long as you make people laugh. He makes Max laugh, as they stand on opposite sides of that lonely dirt road, waiting to be picked up. Soon, they’re complex, profound friends.

The two are hitchhiking east. Max has saved over two grand in a bank in Pittsburgh, where he hopes to open up a deluxe car wash. Lion is off for Detroit to see his child. He sent the mother money, but hasn’t heard from her and doesn’t  even know if it’s a boy or a girl. As soon as he gets that straightened out (and delivers a silly lamp to his kid), the two’ll go into business together. We know this will probably never happen.

In Denver, they make a detour to hang out with Max’s sister, Coley (Dorothy Tristan, amazing) and Frenchy (Ann Wedgeworth, who made a name for herself playing dignified floozies like this), and end up falling in love, and they choose to stay in the mile-high city and open the car wash there.

That is until Max beats the living hell out of a man while dancing with Frenchy. Lion joins in and soon they’re both in jail.

They get out eventually, but as you can imagine, nothing will go right. Except one thing: the value of their friendship increases, to become the most prized treasure between these two bums.

Director Jerry Schatzberg worked wonders with Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park, and the world must’ve thought he was on track to rival the greats: Panic is outstanding (though totally depressing) and in short order Scarecrow won the Palme d’Or. But either he was lucky to find his early scripts or was a hack in disguise because Schatzberg didn’t do shit after this one, making a slew of mediocre “message” films that pretty nearly stink.

Maybe that’s Scarecrow’s problem: the movie is a bit too sweet, a bit rambling, and without, say, the pretensions of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop to warrant a Criterion release (and if you know me you know I love Blacktop.) It was even worse for writer Garry Michael White–his follow-ups are hideous.

But Scarecrow deserves a look. Schatzberg gets every detail just right–the boredom of the hitch, dining in a restaurant when it’s your first meal in days (man, these guys eat), drinking, brawling, and caring for someone you’ve bummed across the country with, starved with, brawled with. The chemistry between the two is perfect, as it is when Max’s sister appears on the scene.

As I wrote in the prior article, Scarecrow captures all the little details that are missing in today’s films, reflections of the men’s hard times, details that I get the feeling Schatzberg and White knew about firsthand: Hackman’s worn herringbone coat, the meat and grease on hands and face from a bucket of KFC at a dining room table (lit harshly by a single bulb.) There’s spit, pig shit, dust and dirt, exhaust… but not heaped on the viewer so that it is all you think of. You don’t emerge from Scarecrow feeling dirty, like say, The Proposition, with its abundant flies (and that’s a great flick.) But you emerge feeling as though you visited Coley’s junk yard home.

Scarecrow isn’t perfect–the central metaphor, of the scarecrow making crows laugh, is beaten over your head a dozen times, when once would suffice. And the thing that throws Lion for a loop could’ve been written a bit more realistically, and Lion could be a bit less loony.

Earlier this year, Roger Ebert lamented the summer blockbuster fare, and quoted overrated screenwriter Paul Schrader as saying that there was a picture as good as The Social Network in theaters opening every weekend in the 70s. That’s total baloney, but it is true that “lesser” films of that decade–Scarecrow, Electra Glide in Blue, The Late Show–would be lionized today, if only on the art house circuit.

So if you’re feeling ambitious and want a movie off the beaten path, rich with great acting, a simple, yet powerful plot with an emotional punch, you really need to seek out Scarecrow. The major studios haven’t released such a moving film in many a year.

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One Response to A Forgotten Film about Forgotten People

  1. schlep says:

    Thanks for the recommend – interesting that they had this filed under ‘comedy’ at the Video Fan!
    Kind of gritty for a comedy. There’s a really powerful twist at the end, and a great mini-performance by Pacino/Lion’s ex.

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