Scarecrow: rediscovering a gem of 1970s cinema

Even after a lifetime’s viewing, there are still more film treasures to discover, as Geoff Andrew found with the unjustly neglected 1973 road movie Scarecrow, starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

Geoff Andrew

Scarecrow (1973)

Scarecrow (1973)

One of the most rewarding things about heading up the film programme at BFI Southbank – and I imagine you won’t be surprised to hear this – is the opportunity it provides for discovering wonderful movies. Actually, of course, my job involves rather more than just sitting down to watch films, but it is a significant part of what I do and I’m certainly very happy about that.

Since I first became properly aware of cinema’s potential as an art form (as opposed to the simple entertainment I expected it to offer as a child), I’ve been passionately addicted to a more-or-less daily intake of cinematic fare, and I always approach the viewing of a film new to me hoping to find something to surprise me. I was, I suppose, lucky to ‘discover’ film as an art form in the early 70s, when Hollywood was undergoing some interesting changes and was arguably rather more adventurous – artistically, at any rate – than it is today.

Trendsetting road movie: Easy Rider (1969)

Trendsetting road movie: Easy Rider (1969)

I’m far from alone, of course, in thinking that the era stretching roughly from the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Easy Rider (1969) to that of Heaven’s Gate (1980) constitutes a kind of golden age, when a whole horde of American directors, writers, producers and actors were flexing their creative muscles, looking both at their country and at its cinematic traditions in a new light.

Genre was seen as something to be stretched, critiqued, parodied or reworked. Notions of right and wrong, tradition and originality, the personal and the political were constantly interrogated. Many of the upcoming filmmakers were cinephiles, but they were often as aware and enamoured of movies from Europe, Japan and the American underground as they were of studio classics by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock. In short, audacity and ambition, ambiguity and ambivalence were all crucial to the ‘New Hollywood’ films.

Back in 2005, we mounted a substantial two-month survey of more than 50 American movies made during that period. The delights were many indeed; the regrettable omissions just as numerous. One film which didn’t make it into the final mix was Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973). Though I knew it was supposed to be terrific, I’d never actually seen it and we simply didn’t have room for all the titles I wanted to show.

Besides, the season wasn’t short of ‘road movies’ (always a fertile subgenre of the American cinema, but particularly popular following the success of Easy Rider), and the stars of the Schatzberg film – Al Pacino and Gene Hackman – were between them well represented by around half a dozen other titles. So that, sadly, was that for Scarecrow.

Fast forward eight years: the film has been digitally restored for its 40th birthday and UK distributor Park Circus is wondering whether we might be interested in a rerelease. This is where that very nice bit of my job comes into play – I take a look at the film. It could have been a stinker, but I’m knocked out.

The opening scene has me hooked from the very first long shot of a rumpled figure stumbling over a dusty field; while we’re clearly in America, this could almost be something out of a Béla Tarr movie. But then Scarecow (Hackman) – for lo, it is he! – reaches a road where, awaiting a ride, he stubbornly refuses to engage in conversation with another hitcher (an improbably fresh-faced Pacino), and there’s some droll (but entirely credible) comic business you’d never find in the aforementioned Hungarian’s films.

And so it goes on from there, refusing to play by the rules, taking unexpected detours and making surprise stops, concerned as it is primarily with remaining utterly true to the couple of characters it’s following on their meandering odyssey from California to a car wash in Pittsburgh.

The pair are not especially likeable, let alone heroic, but they are very recognisably human; hence they deserve and repay our interest and attention. Schatzberg gently underlines this aspect of the film by having his cast interact in several scenes with non-professional extras; at the same time, the wonderfully plausible naturalism of the acting throughout is completely in keeping with a style of filmmaking more concerned with showing us something truthful about people, America or whatever than with regurgitating formulaic feel-good clichés.

Is it art? Who cares? But it made me feel, made me think and made me want to find out more about the film. And so I learned that it had its international premiere in Cannes. And won the Palme d’or. It’s good to have it back.

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