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Scarecrow

Scarecrow (1973)

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teaser Scarecrow (1973)

"A mixture of Midnight Cowboy and Of Mice and Men" is how Gene Hackman described Scarecrow (1973), a meandering road movie about two misfit drifters who meet up on a stretch of country highway winding through northern California. Hackman is Max, a quick-tempered fellow just out of prison after serving six years of assault, and Al Pacino is the gentle jester Francis, a sailor back home from the sea and ready to face the girlfriend that he abandoned with their child five years before. Max renames his new pal Lion ("I have a problem with Francis") and makes him a partner in his deluxe car wash, a business he is determined to open once he gets to Pittsburg, where his saving await him. They hitchhike, ride the rails, and walk the open roads when they have to, taking detours to visit a friend in Denver and Francis' child (he doesn't know if it's a boy or a girl) in Detroit. They make an odd couple, Max pushing every slight or argument with a stranger into a fight while Francis attempts to defuse tensions with jokes and clownish antics.

Hackman and Pacino were the first choices for director Jerry Schatzberg, a successful portrait photographer (he shot the cover of Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde") who made his filmmaking in 1970 with Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Hackman was a top box office star while Pacino was a hot young talent coming off of The Godfather (1972). Schatzberg had directed Pacino in his breakout role in The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Scarecrow was his third major film for both artists. "It was the greatest script I have ever read," said Pacino years later, and he and Hackman both prepared for their roles by dressing in castoff clothes and bumming around San Francisco asking for change. But he found making the film a dispiriting experience. Pacino came out of the Actor's Studio in New York and was a proponent of method acting. To get into character as the fidgety, goofing Francis, he would pace and work himself up. Hackman, who had the more volatile role, took a more studied approach, quieting himself in concentration before the cameras rolled. "It wasn't the easiest working with Hackman, who I love as an actor," Pacino told interviewer Lawrence Grobel. "It's the old thing of not knowing who the other person is until after you've done the movie." The collision of styles made for a dynamic onscreen relationship but put a strain on the atmosphere of the set, where even Schatzberg found Hackman difficult to deal with.

In contrast to Pacino, Hackman was pleased by the experience and called Max his best role and Scarecrow one of his best films. The actor had recently won his first Academy Award for The French Connection (1971) and came to Scarecrow right after finishing the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure (1972), choosing the intimate character piece as a change of pace from the crime pictures and violent characters he has been playing. Schatzberg shot the film in sequence and the production took to the road, starting with the opening scenes in Bakersfield, California, then jumping to Reno, Denver, and Detroit. Hackman appreciated that approach: "It was the only film that I made totally in sequence. Any actor will tell you how helpful that is in understanding character development." The production also gave his brother, Richard, work as his stand-in, which led to a small role as a corrupt guard on a prison farm.

Scarecrow shared the 1973 Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, with The Hireling, but faced mixed reviews in the U.S. and was a box-office failure. Its reputation grew over the years, however, and it always had a special place in Hackman's heart. "It just worked so well," he recalled in 1986. "A lot of people come up to me and say it was one of their favorite films."

The film was digitally restored in 2013 for its 40th anniversary and screened for new audiences in film festivals and revival showings, earning rave reviews that eluded the film on its first release. Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, called the film "a masterpiece of the American new wave, a rangy, freewheeling tragicomedy in which Hackman and Pacino give effortlessly charismatic performances." As Scarecrow traveled the festival circuit, Schatzberg announced that he was developing a follow-up that takes place 30 years after the events of the film. Not that he had any commitments from the actors--Hackman had long since retired from acting and Schatzberg admited he probably couldn't even afford Pacino--nor permission from Warner Bros., who owns the rights to the film. But then that spirit of underdog ambition feels appropriate to a buddy film of down-and-out drifters sustained by big dreams, unlikely friendship, and the possibilities of the open road.

Sources:
Al Pacino in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel, Lawrence Grobel. Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006.
Gene Hackman, Michael Munn. Robert Hale, 1977.
Al Pacino: A Life on the Wire, Andrew Yule. S.P.I Books, 1992.
"Scarecrow" review, Peter Bradshaw. The Guardian, April 25, 2013.
"Modest 'Scarecrow' Preps Fresh Field in Gotham," Peter Debruge. Variety, May 14, 2013.
"Jerry Schatzberg at Work on 'Scarecrow' Sequel," Etan Vlessing. The Hollywood Reporter, July 1, 2013.

By Sean Axmaker

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