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January 20, 2017

Movie Review: The Chase (1966)

Directed by Arthur Penn

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

The African Queen, The Bridge on the River Kwai, On the Waterfront ….Quite an impressive resume. Producer Sam Spiegel had an unbroken string of unquestioned cinema classics. Spiegel’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Chase is nowhere near as widely known, in spite of a star-studded cast list under the hands of the more-than-capable director Arthur Penn, just before he was to rocket to superstardom as the helmer of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Diving into the Twilight Time Blu-Ray release (limited to 3,000 copies), these reasons become ever more apparent …

Bubber (Robert Redford) breaks out of prison and hightails it back to his small-town Texas oil town. His outbreak accomplice kills a man for a getaway car, and with Bubber’s prints over the body, everyone assumes that he’s the killer. Bubber, according to the town folk who remember him, is not a bad boy, “just a little wild.” The apple doesn’t fall from the tree, as we are introduced to a singularly rotten village seldom seen outside of the movies. To begin: Bubber’s wife Ann (Jane Fonda) is engaging in a torrid affair with poor little rich boy Jake (James Fox) the son of Val Rogers (E. G. Marshall), ruthless oil tycoon and uncrowned king of the town. Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) and his long-suffering wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson) try to keep the town’s activities on the up-and-up, but fail dismally. On top of a dentist’s convention, the city is hosting a black-tie birthday fundraiser for Rogers, a drunken orgy full of cheating spouses and a teenage hootenanny across the street. The fact that the town’s least favorite son is coming back with blood on his hands only fuels the mounting excitement. In an extremely crowded storyline, we find Janice Rule and Richard Bradford adultering in front of their bemused spouses, the closeted Robert Duvall and boozing Martha Hyer, which have very little to do with the plot. It’s up to real estate tycoon Briggs (The Werewolf of London’s Henry Hull) and Mrs. Briggs (Jocelyn Brandon, Marlon’s sister) to wander through to explain things to the audience.

As the storyline becomes increasingly more complex, characters wander in to add more to an ever growing potluck. In short order, Bubber’s oedipal mom Miriam Hopkins accuses Brando of being a puppet of Marshall, the town’s sole black character is brutalized, and Fonda and Redford finally meet up to conclude that there’s too much water under the bridge. There is an apocalyptic showdown at the local junkyard, a tasteless reenactment of Jack Ruby’s assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald – look for it! – and Fonda wanders into the camera in the manner of a final girl in a slasher film. The end.

As this thumbnail synopsis proves, The Chase had a lot on its mind but wasn’t very good at articulating them. It’s not surprising that the film did lackluster at the box office. No matter how cogent, the American movie-going public is unwilling to pay to see themselves portrayed in a negative light. The yokels on display are maybe two steps removed from the bumpkins seen in Herschel Gordon Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs! (1964). In yet another tip of the hat to growing bloodshed as seen in cinema at that time, when Brando is beaten up by Marshall’s stooges later on in the film, he’s doused in blood in the manner of one of the victims in Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963)!

As the always reliable Julie Kirgo says in her liner notes, The Chase was a notoriously troubled production that went under countless rewrites. Based on a play by Horton Foote, the script was doctored by literary heavyweight Lillian Hellman and was sent back and forth among many other hands. The film certainly shows this, with many subplots and unnecessary characters. Adding insult to injury was the fact that producer Spiegel grabbed the film away from Penn, where he himself edited at least eight reels. The understandably put-out Penn expressed his disappointment, saying his best work was unjustly scissored out.

The Chase is certainly far better than a similar film of the following year, Otto Preminger’s Hurry, Sundown (1967) – which likewise features another embarrassed performance by Jane Fonda (she probably would put Barbarella on her CV over both The Chase and Sundown), but there’s little question as to why it’s little remembered today. With its condescending and simplistic view of our nation’s working classes – foisted upon moneyed leftists who proclaim they know what’s best for them, it’s enough to make someone go out and vote for Donald Trump. Well, maybe not ….

Extras on this disc include Isolated Score Track, and Audio Commentary with Film Historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman and the film’s Original Theatrical Trailer.

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