Pacino and Hackman Hit the Road in 70s Gem Scarecrow, Screening Tonight

02/24/2011 8:58 AM |

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Film Forum‘s weeklong salute to Al Pacino’s indelible 70s performances ends tonight with two screenings of the 1973 road flick Scarecrow, the earlier of which will be introduced by director Jerry Schatzberg.

“I’m gonna have that carwash, and a deep freezer full of steaks, and ass!” declares Gene Hackman’s Max. The film’s ambitions are just as uncomplicated. His plan is to open up a carwash in Pittsburgh, where he’s been sending money to a savings account, with newfound friend Francis (Al Pacino), whom he meets while both are trying to hitchhike the same backwater California road. Max takes his scheme seriously, proven by his pages of notes and readiness with details about the plastic pipes and soft brushes they’ll be using. Francis, a former sailor who is more ambiguously adrift, is content to make Max laugh and cocoon himself in a dominant personality, though he insists they stop off in Detroit so he can deliver a lamp to a son or daughter he’s never met, and maybe reconcile with the woman he abandoned.

The plot is a thin frame, but what matters is the down-and-out duet between two of cinema’s finest actors, novice screenwriter Garry Michael White’s cozy, funny little moments, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s lambent, Tiffen-filtered photography. Following his first turn as Michael Corleone, Pacino is a clown here, adorably bouncy and eager to please with verbal goofery (“Eat cantaloupe, you bellyaching rhinoceros!”) and slapstick jollity. The young Pacino is always freshly startling for those raised on his gruff, bellowing 90s persona; he was so vulnerable, with a high, boyish delivery several registers removed from his current growl. His character’s youthful cruelties (the wife abandoning) obviously muddle his lovability, but when he’s the victim of serious emotional and physical violence, it’s horrifying, like seeing Chaplin’s Tramp being uncomedically beaten. Max, who wears seven or eight shirts at a time because he’s a “cold-blooded bastard,” appreciates Francis’s qualities. Max is a gassy, ornery boor who talks while chewing and is rude to waitresses, but he realizes the value of a friend who’s the opposite.

Until its dramatically overreaching final act (climaxing in Detroit’s James Scott Memorial Fountain), Scarecrow is a welcome relief from Pacino and director Schatzberg’s previous collaboration, The Panic in Needle Park, a loud, almost annoyingly intense study of heroin addicts. This is an easygoing buddy/road picture with the same tossed-off 70s appeal as Mike Nichols’ The Fortune or Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time. White repeats the title reference too often (Francis contends that scarecrows are effective because they make grateful crows laugh), but it’s more than compensated for by interludes like a stay with Max’s sister (Dorothy Tristan) and her friend (Ann Wedgeworth), a sweet ditz. When the chesty, flirtatious friend asks Max what he missed most while in prison, he looks at her, pauses, and says, “home cooking.”