“Just remember, all right, that you’re a person. You’re a person, right? And you were a kid before, and you’ve made mistakes… so you ran. That’s all.”
The opening shot of Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow is so beautiful, so wide-open and haunting, it’s reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World” without the house to look towards or “Winter 1946” made a bit darker with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s vast dramatic sky and evocatively framed tree. You hear an oncoming storm and see a man walking down a hill, you have no idea who he is yet, he’s a small figure amidst the expanse, making his way down a pale, straw-colored mound set against a dark blue sky turning grey – he’s merely traveling, at peace, or in danger, or dangerous himself, we don’t know yet.
We see him struggle through barbed wire as he attempts to head towards his destination, the open road, and he’s snagged and rolling through the stuff – it’s not easy. He thinks (and we think) he’s alone until another man is shown looking at him from a tree, curious and amused by the other’s struggle with the fence. Once the man from the hill gets through the wire and slips onto the pavement, he’s greeted by the other with a “How you doing? You okay?” The man from the hill has no interest in making new friends and doesn’t answer. He moves along grumpily, even after the same man cheerfully jumps out in front of him and introduces himself: “Hi. I’m Francis.” The Andrew Wyeth tableau then turns to these two wanderers waiting for cars – a pair of strangers barely speaking to one another with a California two-lane blacktop between them, each one enacting their outer shields to make it through life – one, tough and distrusting, the other clowning and inviting. They will become friends. They’ll ramble along together. They’ll plan. Life will happen. For one, life will fall apart.
Scarecrow is a movie about two American vagabonds, men returning from cramped spaces (a boat, a prison) that were full of other men, wandering through a big world both lonely and crowded – hungry and horny and hopeful, sometimes furious, and just eager that everything may work out alright, somehow. The bigger and older one, more prone to anger but insistent on planning a new life is Max (Gene Hackman), who has recently served six years in San Quentin. He wears extra layers of clothes and a ratty Letterman sweater because he’s frequently cold. He claims to be “the meanest son of a bitch alive” and continues this declaration with, “I don’t trust anybody. I don’t love anybody. And l can tear the ass out of a goddamn elephant, too.” The younger and smaller one is Francis Lionel (Al Pacino) whom Max names “Lion” (he can’t call him Francis, likely this seems too formal), a good-natured, almost baby-faced man who at times acts, not like a dumb child, he’s not dumb at all, but mysteriously innocent, as if he’s hiding something darker, something he wishes not to face. You don’t see it immediately, whatever you’re sensing, but you wonder. Lion would rather smile and make others laugh; just get on through life without incident. Wouldn’t a lot of us?
He has returned from five years at sea, which sounds so vague and romantic that it almost seems metaphorical but presumably life happened to him out there. Before that, he left behind a wife pregnant with his child in Detroit. He’s sent them money and his goal is to see them again, particularly his kid, but he has no idea of the kid’s sex, so he’s bought the now 5-year-old a little lamp that he carries in a white gift box with a red bow. He carries this thing no matter what. It’s present so much in the film, you keep your eye out for it – did he lose it? Nope. Still there. You really don’t want him to lose that box. You feel as if something terrible will happen to him if he does. Why is that box making everything seem so precarious?
You wonder about these two men – when they were out there wandering alone. How long were they out there? Were they just fine on their own? Maybe they felt free and good, at first, but given how quickly they take to each other, it’s hard to imagine one without the other, not because they needed just anyone, but because they needed this particular person, this kind of chemistry. Max feels it strongly enough that, for a guy who trusts and loves no one, he quickly asks Lion to help him with the car wash business he wishes to set up in Pittsburgh. Max has plans and tabulates numbers in a little notebook – that notebook gives him some kind of importance; he’s not just an anyone even if his kind sister doesn’t think he’s got good sense. Max’s plan wasn’t to meet Lion, but the serendipitous way in which we can meet a stranger, in this case, in that wide-open Wyeth-like landscape begins to feel exactly a part of Max’s plan – but not for what he thinks. Lion just seemed to show up – from where and for why . . . who knows?
There are a lot of questions as we follow these guys around, ones that need not be answered, as they fall in love with each other (platonically) while we fall in love with them. The movie knows we’ll fall for them, but doesn’t force this on us – Schatzberg (and his screenwriter, Garry Michael White) are so clearly fond of Max and Lion, and the actors inhabit their roles so brilliantly, that you trail along with them. You move along to the groove and disruptions of their journey through diners and dive bars and freight trains and visits to family and a prison farm and cities that feel unwelcome and sad. And you feel protective of them too. Especially Lion. It’s a gentle movie punctuated by violence, and one moment of brutality that’s quite devastating, and then a phone call, just one damn phone call, that wrecks a character. That phone call was suggested earlier as a way to plan better – maybe planning’s not always the best idea.
Before that phone call, these men get to know each other, hitching, meeting women (only Max feels the itch to get laid – Lion is so disinterested it’s genuinely curious as to why . . . he can’t be that pure and it’s not because he doesn’t like women. This only makes him more intriguing) and, in a rough spot, winding up on a prison farm. Max is so upset at Lion for getting them there (it’s entirely Lion’s fault) that he leaves the kid to his own devices, and ever-eager to make friends, Lion gets chummy with an inmate (a superb Richard Lynch) who beats him senseless after Lion refuses to give him fellatio. The way Lion attempts to defuse the situation before it gets brutal is tremendously touching – he’s playing it off, at first, casually, a kind of goofy no big deal, just so the guy will leave him alone, but it doesn’t work. Lion’s charm probably pisses him off even more (“I’m not making fun of you” says Lion). Max could have helped him prepare for such a thing, taught him about these matters, after all he’s been to prison (in an earlier scene Lion says to Max, “In the joint, no women, right?” Max answers, “No.” Lion asks, “So how’d you get laid?” Max pauses a bit and says nothing. Read that however you read it . . .), but he angrily abandons his friend. He returns after Lion’s been brutalized, but once out, they change a bit, with the traumatized Lion still trying hard to be amiable, but clearly haunted, while Max exhibits extra sensitivity towards Lion – he wants to make him laugh and even does a joking strip tease, taking off those layers of clothes he wears because he’s always so inexplicably cold.
As Lion becomes more and more obviously troubled, you wonder just why he’s been so innocent and pleasant towards people. How did he survive out there at sea? I look at him and I wonder – what happened before what’s about to happen to him? Lion has set up his own moving philosophy based on scarecrows. He figures the straw men are put up by farmers, not to scare crows, but to make the birds laugh. I’ve read some criticism of Lion’s (and the movie’s) commitment to this idea – that it’s too obvious – but I don’t agree. I think this is exactly something a young guy might tell himself to get through life – why wouldn’t it be allegorically obvious and who cares if it is? He’s a man on the road – he observes his surroundings, he’s noticed scarecrows and doesn’t see their sinister qualities, he sees their humor. But it’s not just a bright-side-of-life philosophy; it’s a tweaked observation. It’s even a bit desperate – something acquired based on the survival to stave off demons and darkness. Lion says, “People can’t stay mad at you if you make them laugh.” Actually, in his case, they can and they do, and in such brutal ways that one telephone conversation (with his wife) debilitates him, so much that he loses mind and he’s off to . . . another kind of prison. He tried the scarecrow on himself – brushing off his heartbreak with humor and even a lie to Max. Every time Lion attempts to repress his pain with a smile, you feel a crack of recognition, because, who hasn’t done the same?
Scarecrow was Schatzberg’s third movie after the excellent and stylish character studies, in very different ways – Puzzle of a Downfall Child and The Panic in Needle Park – and the picture won the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival (sharing the honor with The Hireling directed by Alan Bridges). It didn’t fare so well in the U.S., critics here were not quite as enamored with it as the French were (though some did admire it and reviewed it well), but through time, it became a relatively unheralded picture from the 1970s (in the last few years that’s changed, thankfully). I have no idea why this gorgeous, potent picture wasn’t as well regarded and can only think – perhaps it’s too gentle? Schatzberg (a brilliant photographer himself, you can see how much he loves a face, particularly Pacino’s) and Zsigmond really showcase America with its rolling natural beauty, the hills and the sky and the long stretches of lonely asphalt. They also show an America full of sweet people or terrible people or just average people not paying any mind; a place of charming junk or lowdown waste, a place to roam, a place to become imprisoned. Confinement seems a constant threat in Scarecrow and it looms over the movie as a danger while loneliness nips at the heels of these close, freewheeling friends.
Very few people choose total solitude, and as tough as Max plays it, his life is a lot fuller with his smiling, sensitive buddy around. And Hackman grows to that depth of feeling naturally – never a trace of insincerity in his performance, he moves from brash to outbursts of laughter to rage to tremulous caring exquisitely. It all sounds so simple, but the purity of how much these two wind up caring for one another is extraordinarily moving, largely because the actors are so nuanced, both delicate and powerful. As Francis/Lion, I’ve never seen Al Pacino so endearing and young as he is here, not just in age but in his face and movements – his large, expressive eyes, laughing one second, peaceful and kind the next, the way he walks, the way he helps Max with his sweater, and just his disarmingly lovable demeanor without being silly or overacting sweetness to the point of sugar shock. He’s nice. (Why does that feel so radical and / or strange in moments?) You’ll see some comparisons to Steinback’s Of Mice and Men, with the gruff wiser guy protecting the simpler, innocent one, but Pacino isn’t touched, and he’s not entirely green either, he’s more mysterious than that.
He taps into what makes Scarecrow so effective and why it lingers with you long after watching Max bang his boot on that ticket counter in the picture’s final scene. You wonder why people are the way they are. You hope Max will come back to Lion. He bought a round trip ticket. Will he get caught up in something else? Of course you don’t know. There’s an enormous world out there, mysterious and unpredictable, a world in which, no matter how much you plan, you cannot control. And you can’t always meet it with a smile. That’s both beautiful and terrifying and . . . you have to laugh.