The Chase (1966)

Directed by Arthur Penn

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It’s hard to keep track of all the goings on in Arthur Penn’s The Chase.  What begins as a slow burn soon erupts into pure chaos as a small Texas town loses its mind while awaiting the arrival of an escaped criminal, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford).  It doesn’t much matter who Bubber is or what he wants because the townsfolk all have their own ideas.  To them he is the coming apocalypse, and through his arrival the town unleashes an almost absurd, satirical amount of violence.  The end result is some kind of allegory, a story which touches on so many hot button issues of the 60s that it makes you feel like you’ve just lived through the entire decade.

And that’s quite something because this film was released in 1966, two years before one of the most gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, frightening years (1968) of that whole decade.  The Chase reacts to certain cultural chaos (JFK assassination and the Vietnam War) and in doing so anticipates all the pandemonium that would soon follow.

The small Texas town where the bulk of this story takes place looks placid.  You can see just how false of a construction it is, from the Back to the Future-looking city center (as if you’re right there taking the Universal lot tour yourself) to the large, austere interior sets.  The thick silver-haired men and well-put together women all call back to an older time and an older movie sensibility.  These are the sets of many a movie from the 40s and 50s, resembling staged performances and various melodramas.  The conflicts worked out in such an arena, it seems to me, were very far removed from reality or at least contemporary reality.

These are the films like Elia Kazan’s Pinky or To Kill a Mockingbird, two films that just came to mind which focus on race issues in a bygone era, commenting of course on the racism in the present day but doing it through a period piece setting which allows for some perceived distance from the issue.  To me the effect is like looking through a history book, able to regard the conflict with some sense of safety.

But then holy sh*t the rest of the movie is lathered in a more radical style of filmmaking and very, very present issues.  We spend the first half of the film, it seems, on these safe, large studio sets only to have the rug pulled out from under us.  Where this portion of the story could seem boring, the second half is riveting.

There’s a large ensemble cast in The Chase.  As the story progresses, the focus narrows in on Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando), but early on everyone gets a little bit of screen time.  One of the other important figures is Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall), an old money man whose influence reaches every corner of the little community.  It’s hard not to see this man as something like Joe Kennedy Sr., particularly as much of his attention goes to his son Jake (James Fox, perhaps a stand in for all the Kennedy children), a spoiled, egocentric handsome young man who happens to be sleeping with Bubber’s wife, Anna (Jane Fonda).

There’s a group of bloated, drunk, gun-toting racists, one of whom openly conducts an affair in front of his own wife and the husband of the woman he’s sleeping with.  They will be the biggest force of antagonism in the film, mostly directing their repressed rage towards an innocent black man and Sheriff Calder.  They are the characters with the least to fear (because of their race and class-standing) but who have nothing better to do than to get drunk and exert themselves on anyone and anything.

We periodically check in on Bubber Reeves as this is going on, but Robert Redford doesn’t get all that much screen time, at least until the end.  He is handsome and pure of spirit, implied to be innocent of any and all crimes he was once charged with, and so to him we attach some kind of hope.  He’s a character we want to see get away scot free because he’s the only character in the movie who seems to have a chance to separate entirely from this little community, which we have watched become more and more cancerous.

All Bubber wants is to be free, but soon it’s clear this isn’t an option.  He’s not the only likable character in the movie, but he’s the only one who stands outside of the ‘game’ being played by everyone else.  That includes Sheriff Calder.

At first Calder seems no different than any other character in town.  He’s under Val Rogers’ thumb, having been given the Sheriff position in exchange for expected favors down the road.  When Rogers buys a dress for Calder’s wife, Ruby (Angie Dickenson), Calder prevents her from wearing it, apparently too proud to accept gifts on behalf of someone else.  It’s at first a sign of his stubbornness, maybe even the shortcomings of his masculinity, but later on we see how this is an extension of his own moral code.  He refuses to let anyone buy him off, and he refuses to succumb to the people and pressures who would prevent him from doing his job the right way.

So Calder transcends the mess, but in doing so he becomes a target for that aforementioned repressed rage of those in town.  Rogers and his drunk, bloated, gun-toting racist henchmen will assault Calder in one of the most enraging scenes of the movie.  In this sequence Brando gets to play the same character beats as he did in On the Waterfront, complete with the audience of characters who watch flatly as he’s beaten to an inch of his life.

Calder wants to have Bubber arrested but not because of any grievance against him, instead just because that’s his duty as a man of the law.  He knows Bubber has connections (to Val Rogers through his son Jake), and so he thinks there’s a good chance money can make his problems go away.  All Calder wants is for Bubber to be safe, and that means he must protect him from the bloodlust of the rest of the town.

So back to Bubber.  He begins the movie as some kind of offscreen menace, a character whose danger is implied by the reactions of others, similar to the arrival of an escaped convict in High Noon.  It’s not the man who causes the trouble but instead the reactions of those around him.  By the end, however, the bloodlust gets so out of control that we begin to fear for Bubber’s life.  He is not a menace but a sacrificial lamb who will have to pay the price earned by the sins of others.

All of this leads to a showdown at a junkyard.  Everyone who is anyone joins in, and what follows is destructive, stomach-churning and strangely amusing.  This has less to do with the visceral violence and more to do with a subversion of our expectations.

Going in we expect, and hope for, the karmic retribution owed to the characters who assaulted Sheriff Calder.  To take a step back, we just want the good characters to win and the bad characters to get what they deserve, to face the punishment for the crimes the movie has made a point in showing us.

But that doesn’t happen.  The end is complicated and confusing, with no rhyme or reason to who gets out and who gets got.  Characters die, and others walk away with a thousand yard stare.  It doesn’t matter what class you belong to, what your race is or how good/bad your intentions were, because we’re all going down together.

That final, loud and violent showdown might as well be a depiction of the battlefields in Vietnam.  Flares are tossed into the junkyard pile starting fires that will eventually burn it all down.  As this is going on we watch both the important characters fight for their lives and a group of young, beatnik-inspired people serenade the fire with folk songs about what’s happening before their eyes, as if to them it started happening long ago.

This movie is batsh*t crazy.  It suggests the factors influencing Arthur Penn which he would further unleash in his next film, a much more radical, French New Wave-inspired Bonnie & Clyde (1967).  It’s a strange combination of 1950s cinematic sensibilities and the coming wave of counterculture fury as well as passivity.  It’s just a wild melting pot of ideas, tones and consequences, and in that way it feels like a perfect metaphor for the 1960s as a whole.

I feel like I’ve been rambling on for too long by now, but there is so much I’ve still left out.  This movie is so wild that it’s more than just a drama.  It’s also a satire, a comedy and a melodrama.  It covers so many characters who seem to be living in their own different little worlds, and the conflict then erupts as these worlds collide.

The story takes place almost entirely over the course of one night, and thanks to two separate parties (one for Val Rogers’ upper class friends and one for the working class stiffs), most of the characters are drunk for about half the movie’s runtime.  This yields one of the funnier lines in the movie as one woman, furious and delirious at the idea of her husband’s shameless affair right in front of her, yells “do you believe in the sexual revolution?  My husband does!” while wearing a black veil that suggests she’s attending a funeral, maybe symbolically her own.

These characters, it seems, are hopeless.  They are watching some part of their world fall apart but only in the background.  The next morning they will surely wake up hungover and whiplashed, unsure of what just happened or how to process it.  The rules they’ve been instructed to follow their entire life no longer apply.  Another of these characters is played by Robert Duvall, and his dissatisfaction is much quieter but his longing just as strong.  Even further in the background, somewhere in the midst of all this insanity, is an elderly woman who insists on praying for all these lost souls.  She rushes up to them with a bible and never seems to be aware of the ways in which they push her away.  All she wants to do is save them, but the movie frames her in such a way to make it clear that it’s not they who have gone astray, only her who can no longer keep up.  Their chaos is the new normal; “the times they are a changin’.”

Up Next: Dead Ringer (1964), Pay It Forward (2000), Calling All Earthlings (2018)

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