To call "The Getaway" (1972) a heist flick is like calling "Jaws" a film about fish: technically speaking you'd be right, but you'd also be missing the point entirely. Sam Peckinpah's Steve McQueen/Ali MacGraw vehicle is a tough, mean, innovative picture in which "getting away" has to do with a lot more than not getting arrested.
The film opens with Doc McCoy (McQueen) in prison, dreaming of life outside. From the first moments, Peckinpah rejects Hollywood style for the freeze frames and brief flashes of the French New Wave, the punishing cry of mechanized looms set against glimpses of a woman's thumb grazing a man's forehead. Peckinpah is associated with orgies of violence, but he's a master at mixing the hard and the soft. In another reverie about his wife, Carol (MacGraw), Doc destroys a model bridge he's made from toothpicks, crushing it between his rough hands; later, on his first afternoon out, he jumps into a river with her, still wearing most of his dapper suit.
These are striking images, and they stick with you even as the film never again quite achieves the same balance. As Doc and Carol reel from a bank robbery gone wrong — the job was necessary to settle the score with the corrupt businessman who arranged Doc's parole — Peckinpah falls back on his old tricks. You've got the writhing bodies taking sprays of gunfire; you've got explosions and reckless driving; you've got Sally Struthers rubbing the barrel of a gun, saying she'll do anything for the man holding it. It's easy, in "The Getway," to be carried along by the narrative momentum, but the inventiveness of that first sequence slowly dries up.
Peckinpah, with the exception of "The Wild Bunch," tends to undermine his own best instincts. There's something about the diffidence of the acting, poised uncomfortably between coldness and fret. Even when Doc tells Carol that prison "does somethin' to ya," repeating it three times, it has no weight behind it. He could be reciting a grocery list.
Even with these qualms, though, "The Getaway" remains compelling for that dreamy quality it has, a hallucination of anxiety shored up by the straining, jangling score. It seems that everyone here is trying to get away from something, be it a bad marriage, a bank robbery, or the puffs of smoke receding in the rearview mirror. Whether they're successful — and credit to Peckinpah for never letting anyone off the hook too easily — is altogether another matter.
The heist-gone-wrong subgenre of action movies remains, along with political thrillers and spy capers, a favorite of the arthouse crowd. It has something to do with the fact that individual qualities are of outsized importance: a robbery is only as good as its weakest robber. So if Nicolas Winding Refn's 2011 film "Drive" (now available on DVD and VOD) reminded me of "The Getaway," and star Ryan Gosling of that sex symbol of another era, Steve McQueen, it also reminded me of films as diverse as "Breathless," "Pulp Fiction," and "Collateral." We're in familiar territory here, which makes it all the more impressive that "Drive" feels so fresh.
The wide angle camerawork evokes the creeping vertigo of driving in L.A. at night, the eeriness of finding yourself at a stoplight at 3 a.m. in a metropolis with millions of people and being utterly alone. The pulsing score, sounding like minor-key house music from 1982, calls to mind a sub-basement of the world, beneath even nightclubs and cocaine and hookers and G-men. It makes the shadow life of "The Getaway" — which takes place almost entirely in broad daylight — seem tame by comparison. Stylistically, "Drive" is a feast of sexy people, sexy cars, and sexy lighting, but it retains a sense of the consequences of violence that Peckinpah's film does not. "Drive" conveys anything but diffidence, despite its archetypal characters and narrative structure. It does somethin' to ya, as Doc McCoy might put it. Say it twice more now, with feeling.