Hot & Bothered: The Chase, by Arthur Penn and Sam Spiegel

April 9, 2011 | By

Perhaps the hottest and most bothersome elements in The Chase (1966)

From March 24 thru April 6, the folks at the TIFF Bell Lightbox [TBL] ran a retrospective of an unlikely film hero, American director Arthur Penn. It’s actually easy to forget his role as part of the wave of new directors stemming from live TV who made striking contributions to filmmaking in the U.S., during the waning days of the studio system.

His final feature films – Target (1981), Dead of Winter (1987), and Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989) – weren’t classics, and his prior works from the mid-seventies were uneven, bloated, or just plain weird, as with Night Moves (1975), Little Big Man (1970), and The Missouri Breaks (1976), respectively.

He also contributed to a pair of anthologies – Lumiere and Company (1995), and Visions of Eight (1973), the latter having utterly vanished from distribution – but his major accomplishments were transposing gritty acting styles into his live teleplays, translating William Gibson’s superb play The Miracle Worker (1962) into a moving film (with a great Laurence Rosenthal score to boot), putting slightly odd spins on the western (The Left Handed Gun), and pushing the limits of onscreen violence as Production Code was on its death bed.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) brought to the screen a heightened level of lawless behaviour, and a fiery shootout that remains one of the most violent death scenes in a major studio film. Warner Bros., who produced the film, also made Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969, and it isn’t a leap to assume that without the Code’s demise and Penn’s focus on slow, drawn-out death montages, Peckinpah wouldn’t have been able to go further with gore, dynamic editing, and slow-motion death throes.

TBL’s retrospective included most of the aforementioned films – Left Handed Gun, Bonnie and Clyde, Night Movies, and The Chase, plus Mickey One (1965), a bizarro ‘chase’ film where Warren Beatty plays an annoying comic on the run from mob elements. It’s another striking, trippy film that ain’t on DVD because it’s been forgotten, save for occasional airings on Bravo or TCM.

Pretty, isn't it?

The black & white cinematography’s stunning, and the jaunty, sleazy orchestral jazz score by Eddie Sauter features gorgeous Stan Getz solos. The album itself is worth snapping up on CD, and the LP, if you want the striking cover art.

Pity Alan Surgal never wrote another feature film, but perhaps he needed Penn to turn his peculiar concept into a kinetic film experience.

It’s hard to fathom whether the chase structure of Mickey One was the key aspect that brought Penn to direct Sam Spiegel’s production of The Chase.

The producer had reportedly wanted Brando to play the role of escaped convict Bubber Reeves in the fifties, but as time passed on, Brando got older, and he seemed better suited to play Sheriff Calder, with relative newcomer Robert Redford ideal for the young rebel Bubber.

In retrospect, given the few scenes Bubber actually has in the film, Brando would’ve been ill-served by the role – unless the original film concept was closer to the length and breadth of Horton Foote’s play.

Penn had already proven his knack with plays in TV and Miracle Worker, so producer Spiegel got what seemed to be the perfect director – someone who could handle strong subject matter, complex themes, big stars, intimate dramatic moments, and a complex array of characters in a lengthy narrative – which The Chase was, albeit bloated to 135 mins.

It is a flawed film, and my first impression maybe 15 years ago was straight boredom, but there were intriguing elements in the story, not to mention one of the most amazing casts ever assembled. Not one small role was cast with a hack; it was all quality, and they were all well directed.

The problem with the film lay in its midsection – something even the small audience at the Sunday April 3rd screening undoubtedly felt – but there was a marked difference in seeing the film on TV, and experiencing it on the big screen. The TBL’s print was fairly clean, with only the mono audio rather pinched to the mid- and high range, but it is a handsome production, and sometimes what plays as kitsch on video feels more organic on a big fat screen.

John Barry’s score had some moments of power, and even if Penn wasn’t happy with the way Spiegel supervised the film’s editing, it did move. I’d argue the first 45 mins. or so are textbook examples on how to string together disparate scenes of diverse townsfolk interacting in scenes that introduce and establish their superficial and secret relationships. The tricks are fluid, and would work in any genre, provided one constructed such an elaborate series of character intros properly.

Spiegel reportedly ‘tweaked’ Lillian Hellman’s script, but it’s obvious the play was fleshed out, characters may have multiplied, but somehow you don’t lose track of who’s who, nor who’s screwing who’s wife. Rewritten or just tweaked, that’s great story and script construction.

I’ve uploaded reviews of the film [M] (which is, incidentally, still available on DVD), as well as John Barry’s soundtrack album [M].

According to Barry biographers Geoff Leonard, Peter Walker, and Gareth Bramley, Spiegel wanted Leonard Bernstein (!) to score the film, which sounds nutty, except that Spiegel did produce Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront in 1954, which co-starred a young Brando, and featured a great original score by Bernstein with jazz elements.

Spiegel’s stature in film is significant because he was an independent producer who worked with major maverick talent; he also knew how bullish he could behave, so it made sense he could handle Kazan (On the Waterfront and The Last Tycoon), Orson Welles (The Stranger), John Huston (The African Queen), Joseph Losey (The Prowler), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Suddenly Last Summer), David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia), Anatole Litvak (The Night of the Generals), and Franklin J. Schaffner (Nicholas and Alexandra).

For a man credited with 23 productions, a third is comprised of all-time classics. Spiegel was a man who sought out great talent, and now and then, trusted newcomers, of which Penn and contemporary Schaffner came from a generation of TV wonderboys.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , ,

Category: Uncategorized

Comments are closed.