The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, February 25, 2010


A movie released in 1973 starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman seemed like a no-brainer to me.  Pacino was coming off the mega-success of The Godfather and his Oscar-nominated performance of Michael Corleone.  Hackman was riding high after the success of The French Connection and The Poseidon Adventure.  A teaming of two of Hollywood's biggest stars was only natural, but 1973's Scarecrow is one of the worst movies I've seen in quite awhile.

In a way that's hard to explain, movies from the 1970s have a style all to themselves.  The 70s were a transition period for Hollywood in between the big studio epics of the 1950s and 60s, but before the blockbusters and special effects took over starting with movies like Jaws and Star Wars in the late 70s.  Most of the time, that's a good thing.  You can spot a movie from the early 70s sometimes just by reading a description.  So many of these stories were folksy, quirky, different from what audiences had come to expect.  'Scarecrow' just tries too hard without really having any message.

It's a road movie -- typically one of my favorite subgenres -- about two men hitchhiking across the country, trying to get to Pittsburgh.  There's Max (Hackman), an ex-con just released from jail after doing a 6-year stint, and Francis (Pacino), a lovable loser who's been working at sea for five years and now is going to Detroit to see his child he's never met.  Max has some big plans and has worked out how he'll start a business in Pittsburgh.  He's got everything figured down to the smallest details, and even offers Francis a full partnership in the business (a car wash) as long as they keep on the up and up with each other.  Francis agrees, and the two set off making their way across the country with hopes of reaching Pittsburgh.

An easygoing road movie with no rush to get where it's going usually sounds pretty good to me, and that's primarily the reason why I added this to my Netflix queue.  But this one is too easygoing with no real urgency to get anywhere.  Maybe that's the purpose, the goal of the movie, but I was bored very quickly.  Even with some great-looking western locations, the movie lacks any sense of being visually interesting.  Long, uncut shots of Max and Francis talking or walking pepper themselves throughout the movie (like THIS SCENE in a diner).  Typically this is a good thing, forcing actors to be in the moment like an actual conversation would be like.  But it doesn't work, and it feels lazy like the director just put the camera in front of them and said 'Go.'  Too much of the movie is spent like this and slows down the sluggish pace even more.

Now all that aside, the movie still would have been interesting if the characters were even somewhat likable.  We're given little information on their backgrounds, like why did Francis bail on his pregnant girlfriend and take a job on a ship out at sea?  Where do these trust issues and fits of rage come from in Max's past?  Pacino is perfect at playing live wires always ready to blow up, like Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Tony D'Amato, so it is different to see him in a more subdued role.  His Francis is a jokester, always trying to make people laugh.  Translated, that requires Pacino to ham it up in any number of scenes that are downright painful to watch.  He isn't a comedic actor, and there's nothing wrong with that but this performance doesn't hit the right notes.

As his counter, Hackman's Max character is a real mess, not in terms of bad acting but instead that his character is not an easy one to like or root for.  He has a very strong personality and has his fair share of quirks, but he's also very defensive and always ready to fight. Max is an intimidator, a bully who usually gets his way through brute strength or fear.  A key moment in the second half of the film shows that he can be loyal to a fault and protective of those he cares about, but by that point it seemed too late.  Like Pacino, Hackman's great at playing roles with personality to burn, and this is right in his wheelhouse.  It's not a bad performance, anything but that, but Max is so easy to dislike, it's hard to get into his corner.

After fast-forwarding through much of the movie, I'm not sure how or what could have been done to make the story any better.  There's a final revelation late in the movie that could have been heartbreaking in its execution, but it never produces any sort of real emotion.  After that reveal, the movie just sort of ends and the credits roll with no explanations.  I'm not one for an ending having to spell everything out, but even a little bit would have been nice here.  Instead, the movie just ends with all sorts of plates still spinning.  Big disappointment overall with not much at all to recommend.  Pass on this stinker of a road movie.

If interested in watching Scarecrow, you can watch it at Youtube, starting here with Part 1.  It's not a 'big movie' so you won't lose much watching it on your computer as opposed to watching it on the TV.

Scarecrow <-----trailer (1973): */****

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