The Chase (1966)

7 Nov

‘The Chase’s’ journey to the screen was a turbulent one. This infamous misfire was supposed to be an integral part of producer Sam Spiegel’s legacy, a prestige picture to rank alongside his previous landmarks ‘The African Queen’, ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. But it ended up being a protracted battle of wits between Spiegel, its meticulous writer, highly strung director and capricious leading man; fatally compromised by the egos it strove to appease. ‘The Chase’ was a failure from which Speigel would fail to recover, his reputation for efficiently steering high-profile pictures to completion forever ruined. Hoping to rekindle Marlon Brando’s waning enthusiasm for acting, Spiegel tried to shoehorn as much material into the ever-changing screenplay that would appeal to his star’s social conscience, much to the chagrin of its screenwriter, the redoubtable Lillian Hellman.

In ‘The Chase’, a small Southern town is thrown into turmoil when one of its former inhabitants, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford), escapes from prison. In the course of fleeing, Reeves accidentally kills a man whose car he is trying to hijack. Meanwhile, the town’s embattled Sheriff, Calder (Brando), tries to prevent tensions from boiling over between sections of the town’s denizens, all of whom agree that he is nothing more than a puppet for local oil magnate, Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Bubber becomes a mythical figure amongst the town’s youth, and his return threatens to blow the lid off an affair between Roger’s son, Jake (Edward Fox), and Reeves’ wife, Anna (Jane Fonda).

It’s difficult not to compare ‘The Chase’ to a film directed by Penn a year later. By going back to the ‘30s, Penn was able to make a much more radical statement about ‘60s ferment with ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ than he ever would have been permitted to under the aegis of the tyrannical Spiegel. There are signs of this bravura in some of the set-pieces, but ‘The Chase’ feels staid by comparison. One of the few areas in which the film does excel is its cinematography; Joseph LaShelle captures a sultry Southern summer with aplomb. Away from the chaos of the shoot, the second unit was given a degree of latitude and captured some striking scenes of Reeves’ escape, injecting some excitement into the largely laborious opening act. In hindsight, many of the film’s other problems could have been ameliorated before the project was set in motion, had all the forces guiding the film been pulling in the same direction.

Redford is wholly unconvincing as the rugged con on the lam. Although his legendary screen persona had yet to be formed, he is just too inherently clean cut and suave a figure to be plausible and elicit sympathy for Bubber; there is no suffering on his face or privation in his voice. Equally, English actor Edward Fox was a strange choice to play the disillusioned scion of an oil empire, a casting blunder that was never reconciled. His on-screen relationship with Fonda is fatally stilted; the pairing come across as two actors with incompatible approaches struggling to make sense of the muddled material given to them. Fonda – whose acting here is as embarrassingly earnest as that of Bree Daniels in ‘Klute’ – gamely strives to invest her character with an inner life, but she wasn’t a gifted enough actor at this stage to overcome the script’s limitations. Brando looks tired and pudgy, his accent alternating wildly – a portent of his unintentionally hilarious, scene-sabotaging turn ten years later in ‘The Missouri Breaks’. His trademark mumble slowly winds down into a barely audible groan, as if resigned to the fact that he was participating in yet another dud. Angie Dickinson is required to do little more than look pretty and not fall over the scenery as Calder’s wife and Robert Duvall is as reliable as ever as Rogers’ henpecked VP, a man trapped between the strict conservatism and growing permissiveness of opposing generations.

‘The Chase’ is symptomatic of many films that emerged in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, articulating a deeply ingrained mistrust of the South and its culture – the South of ‘The Chase’ and countless other films through the ‘60s is a feral, retrograde place in danger of being overwhelmed by its own reactionary, inflammatory machinations. Reeves is a patsy who is playing for the town’s sins, with only Calder, a man of solid liberal principles, to protect him from the baying mob. ‘The Chase’ was a vehicle for Brando to promulgate his political beliefs – his decision to commit to the film was made on this understanding – but in setting out to encompass as many of Brando’s favoured causes as possible, the film ends up fudging its approach to each.

‘The Chase’ says nothing about race relations that wasn’t said with greater clarity in ‘The Defiant Ones’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and would be dealt with to great acclaim a year later in ‘In The Heat of the Night’. What began as the crux of the narrative is only alluded to, used as a plot device to propel the love triangle that ends up taking precedence over the film’s noble intentions. Who knows, maybe the film would have been a more effective plea for racial tolerance if Bubber Reeves had been played by a black man?

Great poster, shame about the film.

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