Scarecrow, USA, 1973
Dir: Jerry Schatzberg
Cast: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino
Ultimately, a film is considered a comedy or tragedy based on its conclusion. In the case of Scarecrow, it is a bittersweet tale of an unlikely friendship that stands out as one of the best buddy pictures ever. The film stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two drifters who meet by the side of a road and form a connection that takes them through a journey across the U.S. Mr. Hackman portrays Max, an ex-con with a tough attitude who decides to partner up with Lionel, a former sailor, played by Mr. Pacino. The two are an odd couple in the classic sense. Max is a hard-nosed criminal with hopes of opening up his own business, while Lionel is gullible but friendly and eager to befriend Max. The two set out to find closure and sow up old ties—Max with his sister in Denver, and Lionel with his ex-girlfriend in Detroit.
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, this was his second collaboration with Pacino. They first made The Panic in Needle Park in 1971, Pacino’s screen debut, which centered on a group of heroin addicts on the Upper West Side in New York who hung out in what was then known as Needle Park. Both men received attention after the film’s release, and Pacino was then hired to play Marlon Brando’s son in The Godfather.
Many critics dismissed the Scarecrow script as weak, but it’s the ups and downs of these two loners, the struggles that continue to derail their ultimate goal of cleaning up their act and opening up an honest business together that makes the film so interesting. It’s a movie about outsiders, so going down the straight and narrow path is not in the fortunes of these characters and first-time screenwriter Garry Michael White makes sure never to make the road to the straight life an easy one for them.
Also amazing is Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, which is simply spellbinding and captures a slice of Americana on celluloid that was common during the period. Zsigmond was a relative unknown at the time, but he'd go on to lens other classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter.
Scarecrow is a film that has not aged well, and has been overshadowed by the more high profile films of Hackman and Pacino’s careers. Hackman had just won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The French Connection the year before, and Pacino was fresh off of The Godfather and Serpico and was getting ready to do The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. It was the golden age of cinema, a time when movies didn't have the obligatory happy endings that Hollywood force feeds us today. It is also of no surprise that both lead actors give exceptional performances, and make for one of the best pairings in movie history.
Scarecrow is currently available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Don’t miss this one.