The Getaway is a slick bit of neo-noir exploitation.
Steve McQueen stars as Doc McCoy, an incarcerated bank robber. The opening credit sequence—cut to the staccato rhythm of an industrial loom—hammers home the hellish, regimented existence of prison life.
Doc finds himself near breaking after his expected parole is denied. When his wife Carol (Ali McGraw) visits him in jail, Doc cuts the visit short, telling her to contact a man named Beynon and tell him “I’m for sale. His price.”
Beynon (Ben Johnson) is a greasy operator who sits on the parole board. He pulls some strings and Doc is paroled.
Doc’s reunion with Carol is a touch of genuine sweetness that transcends the film’s exploitative nature. The near-wordless scenes convey the sudden change in their lives. Reunited, the two experience a brief respite before Doc meets with Beynon to repay his debt.
The job is a local bank. Beynon has already picked the crew. Doc would rather use his own guys, but Beynon won’t budge. With no leverage, Doc agrees.
The robbery, of course, goes wrong. One of Beynon’s guys panics. Things get bloody. In his trademark fashion, director Sam Peckinpah renders each fatality in graphic slow motion.
Thirty minutes into the film, the real story begins. Doc and Carol head for Mexico with the loot. The law and Beynon’s gang pursue.
I love how the film avoids painting Doc as a hero. He kills without hesitation. There’s even a rough scene where smacks Carol. And yet, McQueen’s performance engenders sympathy. You sense Doc’s desire to be a better man but fear he’ll lose the battle.
It’s part of the film’s overall sense of dread. In pursuit of Doc, one of Beynon’s gang takes a husband and wife hostage. The wife falls for their captor, degrading herself and humiliating her husband. As Doc and Carol flee, you’re sure they won’t make it. Even when they escape, you’re certain the next close-call will be their last. Chalk that up to Peckinpah’s commitment to grounding the film in a plausible reality.
The sets look worn and dusty. The characters glisten with a perpetual sheen of sweat from the oppressive Texas heat. They eat greasy cheeseburgers, hole up in dingy motels, and travel in oversized cars.
And those cars make for gripping chase scenes. As characters panic, oversteer, fishtail, and crash, you appreciate the challenge of controlling such large vehicles at high speeds.
But the film’s highlight belongs to an on-foot chase. After a con-man switches locker keys with Carol and snags the loot, Doc engages in a desperate pursuit through a crowded train station. The dialogue-free sequence crackles with tension and echoes vintage Hitchcock.
Scenes like this, along with McQueen’s charisma and Peckinpah’s stylish editing help gloss over the clunky plot. The Getaway may be little more than pulp, but it’s damn entertaining.