BR: Chase, The (1966)

April 8, 2011 | By

Chase1966_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Released: October 11, 2016

Genre: Drama

Synopsis: The imminent arrival of as escaped con inflames a town, and exposes long-seething rage.

Special Features: Audio Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 

 

Review:

Note: This review contains significant spoilers, including the ending

 

By the late fifties and early sixties, racial strife was among the decade’s the hot topics, and several filmmakers – up-and coming and a few veterans – figured it made sense to investigate facets of social ills that ran generations deep in the United States.

Some stories simplified a drama to lure audiences into theatres for what ended up being a modest moral lesson – a white man is chained to a black man after a prison escape, as in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) – or by dramatizing an event that appeared to have broader ramifications, such as the dependence of poor blacks on white land owners when the primary drama dealt with a stubborn white woman unwilling to move before a dam project is completed, as chronicled in Elia Kazan’s slow-burning Wild River (1960).

Racism could also be an element in a broader drama about the torment from decades-old persecution – Sidney Lumet’s emotionally brutal The Pawnbroker (1964), which folds together inner-city issues with a Holocaust survivor being overwhelmed by suppressed PTSD – or an issue that only comes to the forefront when it’s picked up by a lone individual, such as a black man’s friendship with a blind girl desperate to flee her abusive family in Guy Green’s heartbreaking A Patch of Blue (1965).

Comedies, wry social dramas, and exploitation vehicles thrived in the early seventies, but near the end of the sixties came star-studded soap operas masquerading as the Great Message Picture, but more than a few ended up being deeply flawed blunders.

That seemed to be the initial critical consensus when The Chase was released, and the film’s sort of gone through reassessments largely because director Arthur Penn was responsible for a string of modern classics that outlived their original detractors. The weirdness of the dreamy Mickey One (1965) is now an avant garde mini-masterpiece, and the once-vilified Bonnie and Clyde (1967) lay bare America’s violent tendencies using splendid and influential editing and slo-motion techniques.

Penn’s later efforts were never as good, but they were generally interesting, including the bizarre The Missouri Breaks (1976), where Marlon Brando wanders through the movie in contempt of the filmmaking process, arguably cheating audiences from a tense drama with weird improvisations (and at one point doing so in a housemaid’s dress).

But when Brando made The Chase, he was still waffling between hating his profession and occasionally finding something of worth in a commercial property. He was oddly well-suited in Bernard Wicki’s grim boat drama Morituri (1965), a film he’d just completed and claimed was as much fun to make as pushing a prune up a mountain with one’s nose; and after The Chase, he would find refuge by rebelliously giving a one-note performance as the brooding Mexican in the overdrawn drama The Appaloosa (1966), where director Sidney J. Furey placed the camera in ludicrously pretentious positions, including the P.O.V. of a scorpion under an arm wrestling duel, and a horse’s ass.

The Chase was a project that may have offered Brando an intriguing character trapped in a swirling drama about seething racism, but according to Twilight Time’s trio of commentators, because Penn was scheduled to direct a play soon after filming wrapped, producer Sam Spiegel (The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia) supervised the editing, and Penn claimed takes with intriguing improvised bits were left on the cutting room floor.

Sheriff Calder isn’t a high point for Brando, but there are residual gestures which show the actor trying to convey a man chosen by the town’s industrialist as its head lawman and being regarded as a joke among townsfolk. Where Brando erred is in developing an accent that sometimes renders dialogue slurred, if not wholly unintelligible, and the overuse of the name ‘Bubber.’

The Chase began as a play by Horton Foote, which he later expanded into a novel that Spiegel optioned and had wanted to film for several years. Ostensibly about a felon (Robert Redford) on the run and whose return home one hot night exposes every ugly conflict and dark secret in town, Foote’s drama was adapted by former blacklisted playwright / screenwriter Lillian Hellman (The Little Foxes, Toys in the Attic), and her script was reportedly rewritten, although whether the film was always intended to run 2 hours and 15 mins. isn’t known.

The shooting script is still about seething rage that tears up a relatively prosperous small community in what critic Robin Wood somewhat aptly described as ‘the first American apocalypse movie’ but it’s also a bloated, overlong potboiler that should’ve been trimmed down to 115 mins., particularly in parts of the opening where the central character of Charlie ‘Bubber’ Reeves (Redford) is seen in teasing shots of running from a prison dragnet, hopping a train, and eventually reaching his home town at the film’s 100 min. mark; and in some areas in the midsection that lag and dwell too long on party scenes and repeated moments of simmering tempers and near-fisticuffs.

Even with the slow opening, the first hour is a beautifully constructed glimpse into the private lives of citizens whose fates are tightly intertwined. Small town characters wander or bump into another, setting off other rounds of small scenes designed to set up divisions and jealousies, and more importantly, reveal a wellspring of cuckolded men, seductive temptresses, and virile bullies. It’s a textbook example on how to introduce every major and minor characters in a complex story within the first half hour.

Hellman apparently enhanced the sexual drives and impotence of the warring factions, which director Penn furthered by casting macho, beautiful actors with muscles (Brando, Robert Redford), sleek tans (James Fox), veteran actresses as drunks (Some Came Running‘s Martha Hyer), and up-and-comers as sexpots (Janice Rule, whose salmon summer skirt seems always ready to slide off due to impossibly low cleavage).

To the opposite end of hot & bothered characters is Calder and his homey wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson, who’s quite good in a minimal role), and the town’s chief employer, industrialist Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall, with silver-painted hair), who steers away from his son’s marital infidelity by focusing on pure business activities, like the bank he owns, and plans for a new university designed to stop the local brain drain to big cities.

The real problem is the character of escaped convict Bubber (Redford), who’s quickly blamed for the murder of a motorist committed by a fellow escapee. Even when Bubber finally reaches town and confronts his wife Anna (Jane Fonda), who’s been sleeping with their best friend Jason ‘Jake’ Rogers (Fox), Bubber remains a flat character. When he’s killed in a scene patterned after Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, his demise is a wan attempt to cap the film with one more heavy-handed tragedy.

Bubber’s killer comes in the form of Archie (Steve Ihnat), a slick racist whose dialogue was either pruned down to a sparse sentence or two, or a character designed to be a physical representation of angry white rage in a southern suburban setting.

There are many traces of grave drama in The Chase, but they’re sometimes weakened by directorial and editorial approaches that overstate performance nuances as Deeply Meaningful and Very Important. In the overwrought department, Bubber’s mother (Miriam Hopkins) screams too much, and her decision to sell the family house to the scoundrel realtor (Henry Hull, in his final film) for Bubber’s defense fund is one of many rash decisions made by townsfolk; cuckolded bank geek Edwin (Robert Duvall, with hair!) cackles when he tells wealthy boss Val Rogers that his son his sleeping with Bubber’s whore wife Anna (Fonda); and Edwin’s wife (Rule) dances, drinks, and taunts her husband by flirting with co-worker Damon Fuller (slimy Richard Bradford), who ridicules his own wife Mary (Hyer), a withering beauty who pickles herself in booze by the end of the picture.

Realtor Briggs (Hull) wanders through town with his wife (played by Brando’s older sister Jocelyn) reminding unfortunate people that when they get desperate, he’s the only one willing to give them cash for a quick below-market sale; and Anna’s stepfather Sol (King Kong’s Bruce Cabot) would clearly love to screw his stepdaughter the way he’s screwing her out of an inheritance, but he settles for hunting down a black man, local junk dealer Lester Johnson (Joel Fluellen), with a drunken posse made up of Damon, Archie, and gun-toting Lem (Clifton Brewster).

When Lester’s arrested by Calder, Sol and his posse break into the jail, and while Val beats Bubber’s hiding spot out of Lester, Sol & Co. then beat Calder to a pulp for being uppity. The quartet then quickly regroup and head for Lester’s junkyard, where they attempt to use fire to scare out / incinerate Bubber like a hunted animal.

There’s a lot of leadened material in The Chase, and the symbolism gets gargantuan once the drunken town refocuses their Saturday night fun towards the hunt for Bubber. Their apathy for any wounded character is dragged out by Penn in a scene where a bloodied Calder stumbles out from the police station and attempts to redress himself in his uniform and side arm while the townsfolk stare blankly, some sucking on their pop-sickles with indifference.

Robin Wood’s ‘apocalyptic finale’ is a great sequence: trapped among wrecked cars representing the crushed American Dream (what else could it be?) are Bubber, Anna, and Jake, while fire-lit gasoline trickles around them, and teens (including a ridiculously young Paul Williams) gleefully fling Molotov cocktails and blazing tires into the yard. When Bubber is shot on the steps of the police station, he becomes Christ figure – a good boy with too much rebel in him, mowed down by silent yet smirking Archie.

The Chase is convoluted but not incomprehensible, but on first viewing it’s a dizzying effort to dissect and detail the various characters whose lives bump & grind, bruise & bloody, coalesce and shatter during the film’s running time. What’s striking is how composer John Barry (making his American film debut) wrote so little music; most of what’s on the soundtrack album represents the full score, which is essentially the same theme beaten to death, except for the assassination finale.

Amid the film’s sleazy characters, there are some striking, affecting moments. Calder’s quiet anger eventually makes wife Ruby change from a dress bought by Val into a cheaper outfit bought by Calder; it’s a quiet, simple scene, and expresses the friction Val seems to exert on every town citizen after doing them a favour.

There’s also Calder’s confrontation with Bubber’s mother (Hopkins) in the station, which is a fascinating explosion of two acting styles: the former steeped in the Method, the latter from a stage actress known for her grandiose histrionics (such as Becky Sharp). Lastly, there’s Calder’s severe and truly epic beating by Damon in the sheriff’s office that’s cross-cut with Ruby banging on the door outside.

British actor Fox seems like an odd choice to play Val’s privileged son Jake, but it doesn’t take long to acclimatize to his southern accent, and the actor has some understated scenes with Marshall and largely silent actress Diana Hyland, the latter playing Jake’s long-suffering wife who remains inert towards his weekly Saturday night hotel rendezvous with Anna.

TT’s commentators are correct in labeling The Chase as one of the most extraordinarily cast films: besides the headliners, many veterans pepper small and even minuscule roles, including prolific Malcolm Atterbury as Bubber’s silent father, Brando’s elder sister Jocelyn (The Big Heat), Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise) in his film debut, and unbilled Eduardo Ciannelli and cartoon voice actor-comedian Billy Bletcher as Val’s birthday guests. In spite of his underwritten part, Redford manages to make Bubber relatively sympathetic, and the actor was daring enough to perform some stunts including an elaborate escape from a freezer car, and jumping from one train car to another in one long beautiful wide shot.

Redman feels the glaring flaws in The Chase make it both great and terrible, if not deeply compelling:  there’s Foote’s original concept struggling to remain coherent in a bloated running time; the Spiegel-authorized rewrites of Hellman’s script which may be responsible for the film’s sagging spots; Penn’s direction that consisted of ‘finding’ the film while directing; Brando’s neutered performance from Spiegel’s supervised editing; and the odd pacing. In opening up the play and novel, more details may have been drawn out, but the repeated insertions of ‘Bubber on the run’ feels like Spiegel’s efforts to reassure audiences that the film will deliver the titular ‘chase’ and live up to the trailer’s inflammatory images and sounds.

The ‘scope cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Hangover Square, The Apartment, Barefoot in the Park) is stunning, and his compositions are truly artful. Producer Spiegel seemed to spare no expense, hiring not only James Bond composer Barry for the score, but Bond title designer Maurice Binder for the title sequence (which director Penn reportedly detested).

Penn would move on to Bonnie and Clyde the following year, whereas producer Spiegel never managed to top his biggest critical and commercial successes – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). His following ventures included the flat war drama The Night of the Generals (1967), the un-hip youth drama The Happening (1967), Franklin Schaffner’s elegant flop Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Elia Kazan’s directorial swan song The Last Tycoon (1976), and one final production – Betrayal (1983).

Janice Rule would appear in Frank Perry’s cult film The Swimmer (1968), and Fonda and Redford would reunite in Barefoot in the Park (1967). Fox made a few more American productions before stepping away from films in 1970 after Performance. He returned to acting several years later, often excelling in portraying arrogant, aristocratic shits (with Gandhi being a high point). Veteran actress Hopkins would appear in the grand old crazy dame thriller Savage Intruder (1970), and retire from film, passing away in 1972.

This was Hellman’s final screenplay, whereas actor Duvall would appear in Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies (1983). Foote also wrote the racial drama Hurry Sundown (1967) for producer-director Otto Preminger, which also starred Fonda, and marked another attempt by a maverick filmmaker to curry the interest of audiences with a steamy, sleazy story set in the deep south.

Veteran William Wyler would similarly take a crack at the genre with The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), as would Richard Fleischer with Mandingo (1975), neither of which moved audiences with their budgets and sweaty sex. Perhaps the best film on race relations from this period remains the multi-Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), a police procedural that peels away layers of hate and contempt yet remains an intimate character-based drama. What Penn choreographed in a fiery junkyard sequence was simplified by Norman Jewison to a pair of face slaps.

Sony’s HD transfer is a real stunner, filled with fine colours, shades, and detail denied by their 2004 DVD. Twilight Time’s presentation includes a stereo isolated music track of Barry’s score, but the real gem among the extras is the commentary track with Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman, and Julie Kirgo. There are two types of films that compel historians and fans to mine production minutia and opine with passion: films they love, and films they acknowledge are grand failures that nevertheless retain a special allure. The Chase is a prime example of a deeply flawed production that still holds its own in spite of its compelling failings.

 

 

 

© 2011 & revised 2016 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  — Soundtrack Album — Soundtrack CD ReviewComposer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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