Town without pity

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Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)

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None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —

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Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.

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Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~

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The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.

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However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.

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6 Responses to “Town without pity”

  1. revelator60 Says:

    You and Fiona aren’t the only ones with crushes on Janice Rule–here’s an excerpt from a radio program by Clive James:

    “…occasionally an icon could act. There was an actress called Janice Rule who was so lovely that she overwhelmed any part she was playing, but in a western called ‘Invitation To A Gunfighter’, which only a few people have ever seen, she is the plausible reason why Yul Brynner goes mad to possess her, shooting up the whole town. A woman who could drive Yul Brynner to achieve acting must really have had something.

    “For a while I collected Janice Rule movies. She was in The Chase, with Marlon Brando and the young Robert Redford, but for me there was nobody on the screen except her. I feel the same way about Natalie Portman now, as long as she isn’t dressed up as Amidala, Queen of Naboo, the bad-hair planet.”

  2. After Three Women Janice Rule left acting and became a psychiatrist.

    No, I am not making this up.

    What’s so weird about The Chase is that it’s an epic film with an all-star cast shot entirely on the backlot.

    The Kennedy assassination hovers over it allegorically. That’s why Redford was cast. He has little to do but die.

    Fabulous overacting from Miriam Hopkins.

  3. Yeah, Janice Rule even attains cool in her Matt Helm movie, and those things are horribly square. Must see Invitation to a Gunfighter now!

    So, Janice and Pamela Stephenson — which other actors have gone into therapy from an unexpected angle?

  4. I think I first became aware of Rule the David Jannsen series, The Fugitive. Here she is in GUN FOR A COWARD.

  5. That’s David JANSSEN, of course. Rule gets the sexy buildup in this clip from another tv show, BURKE’S LAW

  6. God that guy’s VOICE. He sounds like the computer from Alphaville. Like a man belching into a well.

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