Of all Sam Peckinpah’s films, the violence of The Getaway often strikes me as the most senseless. This is heightened only because the film lacks the same sensitive backing as his previous works, a reality only compounded watching multiple films of his at Locarno this past week. For all the awful massacres and heart-wrenching deaths found in his work, somehow The Getaway feels heightened by incredible anger.
In the early 1970s, Ali MacGraw was considered one of the most beautiful woman in the world. Coming off the fame of Love Story, with her sleek physique, perfectly imperfect teeth and doe eyes, she embodied an athletic youthfulness that would become emblematic of the decade. Matching her with Steve McQueen seemed natural, as he balanced suave coolness and brute force. For Peckinpah, he seemed to bring to life the ideal of what a man could and should be.
The brutality of The Getaway comes from the evolution of a troubled relationship. On the run after a failed heist, an ex-con and his loyal wife see their relationship tested. Wrought with insecurity and a mutual dependency, their lust and love for each other can do little to overcome their communication problems. They don’t know how to talk, and Doc (McQueen) communicates better with an open-handed fist than he does with words.
When Doc pulls over on the side of the road, things aren’t going their way. He steps out of the car, slams the door and walks away. Leading up to this moment, Carol (MacGraw) had gone off book — plunging them deeper into trouble (in Doc’s mind). As he steps back towards the car, Carol is now standing outside. Her hair a mess, she is already on the brink of tears. Doc raises a hand, she flinches, but he holds back — if only for a second before he begins to repeatedly hit her. We can talk about how much he intended to hurt Carol or not, however it’s not that he hits hard, but that he hits her at all. Doc is humiliating her, tearing her down to nothing, all because he can’t talk and that makes him angry. This is harder to watch than a shower of bullets.
This is where the brutality of the film lies: the violence is not a war of survival or a battle to stay alive, but it is between people in love. Some of the abuse is psychological, and while MacGraw is not the best actress, she channels dread with palpable richness. Her fear stems as much from her situation as it does from loving a man who cannot be kind. It’s not that Doc doesn’t try, but he is not equipped with the tools to be “normal.” Like the cowboys from a bygone era in Peckinpah’s previous films, this is a man on the edge of civilization who can’t quite make the jump over into normal life.
Measured against the earlier reunion after Doc leaves prison and the two make love in a lake and retire to a small room, this violence seems all the more horrifying. There is incredible tenderness in this scene with MacGraw’s small body, and the particular way that Peckinpah shoots her amplifies the character’s vulnerability. The scene where her naked back faces the screen is loaded with honesty, as she literally lays herself bare. Their mutual dependence is unhealthy, but they are people who need that enemy to move forward and to stay together. That doesn’t do anything to Doc’s brutality, but it helps to make sense of it.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.