Jerry Schatzberg was once a hip name to drop. These days the man responsible for snapping the famous, slightly out-of-focus portrait of Bob Dylan for the Blonde on Blonde album cover has been mostly lost to obscurity. Schatzberg began his professional career as a fashion photographer of sorts in the ‘60s and began directing pictures when, to quote Peter Bogdanovich, the best way to get into Hollywood was having zero directorial experience. His first feature, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, starred his former still-camera subject Faye Dunaway and was a critical and commercial flop. To this day the film continues to elude any form of home video. Fortunately for Schatzberg, he garnered critical acclaim with his second film, Panic in Needle Park, a harrowing street picture about the lives of junkies in NYC. It also introduced audiences to the young, unknown Al Pacino. It’s an incredible achievement, but his masterpiece was still to come.
Director: Jerry Schatzberg
Producer: Robert M. Sherman
Writer: Garry Michael White
Cinematographer: Vilmos Zsigmond
Editor: Evan A. Lottman
Cast: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Dorothy Tristan, Ann Wedgeworth, Richard Lynch, Eileen Brennan
US Theatrical Release: May 26, 1973
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
In 1973, Schatzberg won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival for his third feature, Scarecrow. It’s a quintessential picture from Hollywood’s 2nd Golden Age, and like Panic in Needle Park, it’s a gritty street picture. But instead of confining the picture’s milieu to the grimy subways and streets of NYC, Scarecrow unfolds across more than half of America. It’s the kind of film that could never be made today. Not just because it’s too downbeat and despairing but because it’s entirely character-driven, leisurely paced, and stylistically Europeanized in the tradition of the New Waves. The story is also incredibly stripped down to accommodate the performances of the film’s two leads. Essentially it’s the tale of two bedraggled drifters, their little pipe dreams, and the heartbreaking friendship they build over the course of the near-plotless narrative.
Like so many other films from the Vietnam era, (Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, California Split, Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) Scarecrow is what some critics would call a “buddy-film,” a classification I’ve always found lazy, reductive, and too damn light for how dark the above titles actually are. Perhaps most of these films defy classification, but if pressed, I’d archive Scarecrow—and about half of the above films—under the category “another-gem-from-the-70s.” As is the case with all films of this ilk, the dramatic verve is heavily reliant upon the strength of the actors, and Schatzberg couldn’t have done any better than casting Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as his drifting antiheroes. Retrospectively, he picked the two greatest method actors of the decade (perhaps only the young Robert De Niro could have given them a true run for their money).
In conception, Scarecrow is most similar to Midnight Cowboy. It’s truly the cinema of unlikely friendships. In one of the most offbeat, elliptical openings in the history of the American cinema, Gene Hackman’s Max comes stumbling down a dusty hill onto a stretch of deserted highway where he finds a friendly vagabond. From the film’s outset, Schatzberg sets a tone that changes with stunning rapidity from farcical to melancholic. Al Pacino is cast as Lion, a character that fully allows him to demonstrate his range as an actor. Scarecrow falls right between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), but the brooding thoughtfulness of Michael Corleone is nowhere to be found in this film, though the emotional depth and conviction of each performance certainly connects them on an actorly level. Otherwise, Pacino seems like a completely different actor altogether. Lion is the definition of playful; he’s constantly putting-on, cracking wise, and acting. Hackman’s Max is the diametric opposite of Lion: he’s a hardnosed, mean son-of-a-bitch. When the two first meet, it’s all horseplay with Lion as he mimics an ape and makes imaginary phone calls. His audience—Max—seems less than pleased with the performance. But a simple act of kindness brings the two together. When Max can’t light his cigar, Lion drifts across the road and offers him his last match. From here, their hapless journey on the road begins.
There’s definitely an ineffable power to Scarecrow because of its character-driven structure. The film could almost be viewed as a performance piece of sorts, since the bulk of the picture is Hackman and Pacino conversing as they drift through small towns, bars, menial jobs, and even a stint in “the joint.” In an early scene at a diner, Max explains his pipe dream of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh. Lion happily accepts Max’s offer to partner up with him. But he has a little pipe dream of his own: he wants to make a pit stop along the way in Detroit to see his child he’s never met. Both men are truly out-of-place in the world. Max has spent the last five years in jail, while Lion has been at sea in the navy. Their partnership seems full of promise, if only because each has a new found enthusiasm for life back in the real world.
Although the film is indeed completely focused on character, it doesn’t stop Schatzberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond from concocting some of the most mesmeric, sun-drenched imagery of the ‘70s. As Hollywood began to undergo a metamorphosis and renaissance in the mid-to-late ‘60s, camera technology also changed dramatically. Camera lenses became much faster, allowing for greater ease shooting outdoors, and at least three quarters of Scarecrow is set on roads, streets, and trains. Moreover lens flair, telephoto lenses, and zoom lenses became quite vogue and defined the visual look of the decade. I cannot think of another cinematographer who was more adept with a Panavision telephoto lens than Vilmos Zsigmond. A look at just a few of his credits as director of photography is enough to bowl you over (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, Obsession, Blow Out). It must’ve been incredibly difficult to choreograph many of the long-telephoto-takes in which Pacino and Hackman are squashed in the frame, giving off the impression that they are truly floating through the film with a blurred out background right on top of them. Our eyes are able to feast not only on the astonishing performances but also the equally astonishing visuals. Each composition is a veritable work of art itself.
But, in the end, it’s the transformative power of human connection that’s really at the heart of Scarecrow. In on one of the most heartfelt scenes toward the end of the picture, Max steps out of his own thick skin to reach out to Lion. Just as Max is about to start yet another brawl at a bar, Lion—fed up with Max’s predilection for fisticuffs—begins to exit the barroom. But just as he reaches the threshold, Max tributes Lion with one of his very own hoaxes. He side steps his antagonist and begins a put-on phone call in front of all the bar’s patrons, just as Lion did at the film’s outset. The tone quickly lightens, and this gives way to one of the greatest, most heartwarming stripteases in the movies. Max who’s in layers and layers of clothing begins to bombastically shed all of his clothes as clomps about the bar. The scene is all smiles, and we see (albeit in a hilarious way) just how deeply Max cares for Lion.
Like many picture from the Vietnam era, Schatzberg ultimately romanticizes defeat. But it’s not a misstep in any way. The end of the film is emotionally excruciating, much like Midnight Cowboy. Today's audiences may find it frustratingly open-ended, as much is left unresolved and the future looks rather bleak. Yet the very final shot shows Schatzberg once again in playful form. Throughout the film, we and the other characters in the film are left wondering why Max sleeps with his boots under his pillow; in a touching shot, Schatzberg reveals Max’s little secret as he gets into one last bind. A mere prop takes on an emotional resonance that’s quite unexpected. In the end, Scarecrow is obligatory viewing for anyone who loves acting.