Thursday, 19 September 2013

A film of two halves… The Chase (1966)

What starts out as Peyton Place ends up as Straw DogsThe Chase feels like so many southern neo-soaps with a cast of dozens each with multiple relationships and a small-town backstory as long as the pauses between Brando’s dialogue…

Directed with aplomb by Arthur Penn, it’s undeniably fascinating to see his marshaling of so many sixties big hitters with Marlon Brando and Angie Dickinson the most established stars paired with the up-and-coming Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and many others, but the story opens out in a subdued way over the first hour or so.

Robert Redford
Things kick off with a jail break which sees Charlie "Bubber" Reeves (Redford) landed in deep water when his fellow convict-on-the-run, kills a man and drives off in the car they were supposed to share. Bubber is not a killer but now, as he cradles the dead man in his hands, knows that life has just become a lot more complex…

Back home, the news spreads of Bubber’s escape – it’s initially quite difficult to imagine Redford as a man who instils fear in his townsfolk, his background is never clearly explained but with a domineering mother of poor judgement and some bad breaks he doesn’t appear to have been dealt an even hand.

Jane Fonda
One by one we encounter the good people of his home town only their not good at all, by and large, mostly selfish and guilty about something or other and in some cases Bubber… as if they’ve been complicit in his bad luck.

James Fox
There’s Jason "Jake" Rogers (James Fox, with a pretty good accent for a limey of his period), gifted son of the local dominant business man, Val Rogers (E. G. Marshall) who pretty much runs the town.

Janice Rule's cruel smile entices Richard Bradford
At his bank works the meek Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) who has somehow ended up married to the local fireball Emily Stewart (Janice Rule) who, bored stiff of her husband, seeks action elsewhere. Outspoken and over-sexed she is carrying on with Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford) whose wife, Mary (Martha Hyer) is drinking to forget the fact.

Emily appraises long-suffering Edwin
It soon transpires that pretty much the while town is drinking and, as with Emily, they struggle to control their urge to irresponsibility…

There’s Mr Briggs (Henry Hull) nosey and misanthropic who along with his wife (Jocelyn Brando) drifts through events adding spiteful spin as they go. Bubba’s mother (Miriam Hopkins), dominates her husband (Malcolm Atterbury), with her narrow-minded paranoia and has she left it far too late to help her son…

A Fox and a Fonda
Bubba’s wife Anna (Jane Fonda) has been seeing his best friend Jake, for most of the three years he has been in jail and lives above her wicked step-father’s bar when she’s not staying in motels with Jake… himself another victim of a love-less marriage.

Angie and Marlon
At the heart of all this is the Brando’s Sheriff Calder, married to Ruby (Angie Dickinson) and with some strong but un-specified sponsorship from Val Rogers. They are the film’s moral core and the closest to heroic: with so much naked self-interest and absolute corruption around them the viewer is going to rely on them to hold steady.

And, indeed, The Chase turns fully on these two, as Bubba’s approach to his home town is concerned and the various rats get nervous in their traps.

The Birthday Party
Val’s birthday party is a swinging affair with the locals getting ever drunker and wilder; they head into town to continue their bacchanal lead by Fuller and two chums.

Mary looks on as Emily and Damon cavort
Bubba make sit to a junkyard belonging to his friend Lem (Clifton James) who he instructs to go get Anna, but Lem is spotted by Fuller and the boys and almost lynched for being in a white girl’s apartment before Calder’s intervention.

He locks Lem in a cell for his own protection but once it is learned that he may know where Bubba is, the local drunks try to force their way in. Then Val arrives, desperate to keep Bubba from Jake after being told of his son’s long-standing affair: he orders the good ol’ drunks to “restrain” the Sheriff and there follows one of the most shocking scenes of assault you’ll see from this period.

Method beating...
The men beat Calder to a pulp and all in a strangely calm way that makes the violence seem even more extreme. It signals a step change in tone and makes you feel as frustrated and helpless as any in the confused audience of early 1966… Brando called it “method acting” and he performs the scene remarkably. It’s really quite unsettling.

Calder having already enlisted Anna and Jake to go and persuade Bubba to give himself up, they are now pursued by Val who has extracted his location by torturing Lem. The drunks from all over town converge to follow… an all-ages, inebriated posse/party.

Bubba and Anna reunited but for how long?
The films climax is – literally – explosive, as there is one mighty conflagration at the junkyard with tragedy affecting all… and there’s more to come as the final scenes escalate the pointless destruction a final shocking notch.

The Chase proved far more harrowing than I expected and is a far more impressive film than I expected, even given the cast. You don't really know where it's going to go and it dares itself to greater heights of violence with every passing sequence in the last half.

Fonda and Redford are excellent, powerful screen presences on the verge of top billing. James Fox does well and it’s surprising that he didn’t move on to more Hollywood work whilst Angie Dickinson is a sublime force of nature even holding her own alongside Mr Brando.

As for the esteemed method man, Marlon is incisiveness personified for much of the film only being occasionally let down by his famous diction. He’s near his best here especially in the fraught second half as if he needed a really extreme situation to act against.

The music is by John Barry and shows what a versatile composer he was above and beyond the lounge-core reputation. He supports the action with subtle under-statement and helps maintain a mood that could all too easily run away with itself.

Dusty verdict: The pot-boiler boils over and the stellar cast push themselves to one of the most relentlessly dark cinematic climaxes of the period.  The DVD is available from Amazons and a Blu-ray will surely follow for this good-looking film with a dark heart…

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