Monday, October 04, 2010


Arthur Penn: The Chase

By Edward Copeland
With the talent gathered for 1966's The Chase, for awhile the movie seems like a mistake. Arthur Penn directing a screenplay by Lillian Hellman adapted from a novel and play by Horton Foote with a cast that includes Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Robert Duvall. Angie Dickinson even turns up as Brando's wife. How did this talent get hooked up with what feels like, for the first hour or so, one of those Southern soap opera potboilers so prevalent in the '50s and '60s. The younger members of the cast were early in their career, so they have an excuse, but it's puzzling to see Penn and Brando attached to something that resembles one of those longish bores with too many story strands and boozy characters. Thankfully, a larger purpose develops eventually as The Chase goes along, but not enough to make it worthwhile. No wonder Penn expressed dissatisfaction with what they did to this film too.

The person holding The Chase together over its early rough patches turns out to be Brando who turns in one of his committed performances as Calder, the sheriff of the unnamed Texas town who gets little respect from its citizens who see him as little more than a puppet for the local oil tycoon Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). If Brando ever had an excuse to sleepwalk through one of his films or go bizarre just to amuse himself, this could have been it. The truth that escapes the small-minded, cliquish community who swap spouses as if they were baseball cards and treat alcohol as one of the five basic food groups, is that Calder holds a true commitment to the law and doesn't share their knee-jerk judgments about people or races.

What sets the town in motion is the news that its infamous former resident Charlie "Bubber" Reeves (Redford) has escaped from jail with another inmate and many of the citizens expect him to return to settle scores such as Edwin Stewart (Duvall) who really stole the money that got Reeves sent to his first reformatory and started the domino effect of bad luck that ruined Reeves' life. The escape hasn't made things better as the inmate he fled with murders the man whose car they planned to steal and strands Bubber on the side of the road, leaving him to take the blame for the slaying.

Complicating matters at home, Bubber's wife Anna (Fonda) has fallen in love with Val Rogers' son Jake (James Fox) (wed to someone else, of course) and has been having an affair with him, even though she's still devoted to Bubber as well. The various affairs between the upper crust can be very confusing and frankly not that interesting. When The Chase finally gets going is when you realize that Calder stands alone against a town full of armed drunks and rowdy kids (look close for a young Paul Williams) and their desire for vigilantism, be it against Bubber or a black man who dares to be seen walking in a white neighborhood.

That trio of ne'er-do-goods, with more booze flowing through their veins than blood and always packing heat presumably to compensate for other shortcomings, are led by Richard Bradford with Clifton James and Steve Ihnat on backup, and they seem to be there to harass the sheriff at every turn, including giving him a Major League asskicking to keep him from stopping Val Rogers from interrogating a black prisoner downstairs they believe knows Bubber's whereabouts.

As the film builds toward its climax, the chaotic town has transformed into a horror show that's half apocalypse, half block party. It's just a shame we have to suffer through the dull and soapy muddle of the more than first hour to get to its real point about mob violence. The Ox Bow Incident, it ain't.

Still, once we get to the final act, Penn directs with real verve and Brando's solid and laid-back performance throughout deserves thanks for keeping audiences from fleeing until we get to that point.

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Too bad Penn was never given the opportunity to do a director's cut for DVD. I got to see this theatrically around the time that Little Big Man was released.
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