Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
112 mins. Color.
Here’s a conundrum: there’s a little movie called Scarecrow that I’m going to write about and insist you see, but it’s not easily available. Got Amazon streaming? That’s the only way I’ve found you can get it, unless of course you want to try and grab a copy used on eBay.
This is not uncommon for a number of smaller, more obscure movies, but Scarecrow, though obscure, has a pedigree that should make it easily available. First, it stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino. It stars Hackman after he won his Oscar for The French Connection. It stars Al Pacino after The Godfather. Get this: Scarecrow won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (the equivalent of today’s Palme d’Or.)
Honestly, I have no idea why Scarecrow is so damned difficult to get your hands on, but I’ll say this—it’s worth seeking out. Not just because it’s a brilliant little film from the 1970s, when even mediocre films were loaded with fascinating characters, but it’s one of those rare movies (not so rare that decade) that examines the plight of the poor. How many movies can say that today?
The plot in a nutshell: Max (Hackman) is fresh out of the joint, six years for assault. Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbucchi (Pacino) is a happy-go-lucky loser who spent “five years at sea” (the Merchant Marines? The Navy?) They meet, in the middle of California’s vast nowhere, far east of the San Francisco Bay, in what is be one of the greatest opening scenes (and shots, for that matter) I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. You can see it here :
Even if you have a monster-sized monitor, YouTube doesn’t do that scene justice; neither will whatever television set on which you choose to watch Scarecrow. I laugh every time Hackman stumbles down that berm, with the grace of Keaton. That shot comes to us courtesy of DP Vilmos Zsigmond. So beautiful.
Max is a short-tempered bastard; Lion, contrary to his name, is a peace-loving wingnut who believes that you can keep trouble at bay as long as you make people laugh. He makes Max laugh, as they stand on opposite sides of that lonely dirt road, waiting to be picked up. Soon, they’re friends. Complex, profound, combative friends.
The two are hitchhiking east. Max has saved over two grand in a bank in Pittsburgh, where he hopes to open up a deluxe car wash. Lion is off for Detroit to see his child. He sent the mother money, but hasn’t heard from her and doesn’t know if it’s a boy or a girl. As soon as he gets that straightened out (and delivers a silly lamp to his kid), the two’ll go into business together. We know from the get-go that this will probably never happen.
In Denver, they make a detour to hang out with Max’s sister, Coley (Dorothy Tristan, amazing) and Frenchy (Ann Wedgeworth, who made a name for herself playing dignified floozies like this), and end up falling in love, and they choose to stay in the mile-high city and open the car wash there.
That is until Max beats the living hell out of a man while dancing with Frenchy. Lion joins in and soon they’re both in jail.
They get out eventually, but as you can imagine, nothing will go right. Except one thing: the value of their friendship increases, to become the most prized treasure between these two bums.
Director Jerry Schatzberg worked wonders with Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park, and the world must’ve thought he was on track to rival the greats: Panic is outstanding (though totally depressing) and in short order Scarecrow won the big prize at Cannes. But either he was lucky to find his early scripts or was a hack in disguise because Schatzberg didn’t do shit after this one, making a slew of mediocre “message” films that pretty nearly stink.
Maybe that’s Scarecrow’s problem: the movie is a bit too sweet, a bit rambling, and without, say, the pretensions of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop to warrant a Criterion release (and, man, I love Blacktop.) It was even worse for writer Garry Michael White–his follow-ups are hideous.
But Scarecrow deserves a look. Schatzberg gets every detail just right–the boredom of the hitch, dining in a restaurant when it’s your first meal in days (man, these guys eat), drinking, brawling, and caring for someone you’ve bummed across the country with, starved with, brawled with. The chemistry between the two is perfect, as it is when Max’s sister appears on the scene.
Scarecrow captures all the little details that are missing in today’s films, reflections of the men’s hard times, details that I get the feeling Schatzberg and White knew about firsthand: Hackman’s worn herringbone coat, the meat and grease on hands and face from a bucket of KFC at a dining room table (lit harshly by a single bulb.) There’s spit, pig shit, dust and dirt, exhaust… but not heaped on the viewer so that it is all you think of. You don’t emerge from Scarecrow feeling dirty, like say, The Proposition, with its abundant flies (and that’s a great flick.) But you emerge feeling as though you visited Coley’s junkyard home.
And look at other notable releases. Consider Beasts of the Southern Wild or Precious. Honestly, I don’t know if those guys ever spent a day without money, but both films’ considerable poverty is excessively melodramatic and patronizing. Precious is a Disney-like fantasia of gorgeous teachers and dewy shots of holding your baby in a swimming pool; Beasts is a beautifully shot theatrical tale to rival Les Miserables. Their poverty is in your face, and unfortunately, it defines everyone in both movies. They’re Poor with a capital ‘P’.
In Scarecrow, the poverty of everyone is met with humor, fighting, frustration, and above all, empathy. If you’ve lived in poverty, you know that life is damned hard… but people generally still find time to laugh and brawl and carry on. They become resourceful in ways that are fascinating, and often people become tragic dreamers—like Max imagining he’ll be the king of the Pittsburgh car wash world.
Scarecrow is about people who happen to be poor. Modern films, like those I’ve
mentioned, are about the Poor. And if all you see is someone who’s poor, then you’re not seeing anyone.
Scarecrow isn’t perfect–the central metaphor, of the scarecrow making crows laugh, is beaten over your head a dozen times, when once would suffice. And the thing that throws Lion for a loop could’ve been written a bit more realistically, and Lion could be a bit less loony.
So if you’re feeling ambitious and want a movie off the beaten path, rich with great acting, a simple, yet powerful plot with an emotional punch, you really need to seek out Scarecrow. I’ve got a copy you can borrow. But you’d have to buy me a drink first.
Set Yoursefl Up:
I like soup with this one, especially this Hungarian Mushroom Soup. Maybe it's weird to say, but it seems somewhat like a hobo soup, and usually I have a dark bread with it, which I also like to think is something you'd get from a friendly housefrau at her back door. Ideally, the food to go with Scarecrow is a big, fat bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes, beans, and a case of cheap beer in cans (and I mean cheaper than PBR.) But my wife's a vegetarian, and I don't typically like to bring that garbage into the house, Scarecrow or not.
Hungarian Mushroom Soup
1 tbsp butter
2 cups onion, diced
1 tsp salt, to taste
1+ tbsp Hungarian paprika
1/8 tsp smoked paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne
8 oz white button mushrooms, sliced
1+ tbsp dried dill, 3 tbsp fresh
1+ tbsp soy sauce
2 cups water
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tsp pepper
2/3 cup sour cream
Sauté onion in butter until soft, sweat 5 min longer to soften considerably. Add mushrooms and salt, sauté until the broth is released and just beginning to boil at the top of the mushrooms. Add paprika and cayenne. Add dill, soy sauce, and water. Simmer for 10 minutes. (might try the trick of adding flour at this stage, might use some lemon)?
Make the bechamel mixture. Melt the butter, and flour -- cook for 2-3 min. Add some of the milk and whisk to remove lumps. Add pepper and remaining milk (use a tiny bit to thin the sour cream). Heat béchamel until thick and bubbling. Whisk in sour cream off heat.
Combine two mixtures and heat very gently– do not return to a boil. Serve with great bread, try the cheese bread and a cucumber and onion salad.
Not much here. A somewhat decent featurette called ON THE ROAD WITH SCARECROW and a trailer.
- Peter Schilling, Jr.
Guest Reviewer Peter Schilling Jr. writes about film and baseball, and is the author of the novel The End of Baseball. His work can also be read at TheBugBlog.org