The Chase August 16, 2017
2 Hrs., 12 Mins.
ith too many massive egos packed onto the same Columbia set, chances are you’ll come up with a movie that underwhelms when compared to the names involved. Unless, say, Robert Altman or Stanley Kramer is at the helm. Because the recurring reality is that you can never really live up to the promises of anticipation if the material doesn’t complement the bigness of the actors involved. Such is why there are so many more star-studded misfires than masterstrokes.
Arthur Penn’s The Chase (1966) suffers from these aforementioned drawbacks. Its cast is a spectacle as is (it includes Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall, Janis Rule, and Miriam Hopkins), but its ambitions are so momentous all become slaves to the script. Like other misinformed ensemble pieces — think Crash (2005) or Bobby (2006) — it is obsessed with being an Important Movie™, only dealing with its thematic elements in capital letters and fleshing out its dramas with Douglas Sirk muchness.
But the movie works on us against the odds. We’re aware of its being unfathomably overblown, and yet it is effective in its cumulative momentum and its performative intensity. Perhaps it doesn’t affect as Penn (and especially the film’s screenwriter, Lillian Hellman, whose script was gutted by Sam Spiegel) would have hoped. We react more to the melodrama than to the commentary. But it is compulsively watchable, best to experience with an understanding that in store is not much more than Peyton Place (1957) with a lot on its mind.
The Chase covers the 24-hour period after the prison break of Charlie “Bubber" Reeves (Robert Redford), a handsome youth wrongfully jailed for murder. Traveling to his small Texas hometown without a plan in mind, word travels fast that he’s escaped — and such is enough to send several lives in the area into a tizzy.
The town already a victim to widespread racism and the sexual revolution, Reeves’ reappearance leads to vigilantism and general chaos. Many individuals get lost in the anarchy that is his attempted recapture, with others reevaluating what it means to be moral, to be “good.” We’re most concerned with the city’s sheriff, the rigidly ethical Calder (Brando), and with Reeves’ wife Anna (Jane Fonda), whom in turn has been having an affair with the former’s best friend (James Fox).
When in Reeves’ presence, the film sometimes becomes the suspenseful action movie the title promises. Newcomer Redford is so startlingly charismatic we immediately believe his innocence, and such ensures that any moment he crubs danger, we feel his terror, too.
But when we travel back and forth from the various dramas of the townsfolk, The Chase transforms into a potboiler, befit with soapy exchanges and general behavior meant to get us riled up. We leave the film angry, and that’s exactly what Penn wants. He wants us to think about the thoughtlessness of getting caught up in the mob mentality, about the repercussions of the ultimately male-dominated sexual revolution, and of the ignorance of racism and sexism.
Of course, such provocations are dealt with rather ham-fistedly, to a point that diminishes the power The Chase could have. Everyone is either good or bad, beautiful or ugly, conservative or liberal, with no intricacies between the categorizations. In effect are some of the characters rendered too cartoonish to have an impact — Richard Bradford’s Damon Fuller, a piggish racist cum “stand up guy,” is not the multifaceted character as who, he was clearly supposed to be written, and even Brando’s part is one-notedly virtuous.
But there is some interest to be uncovered in The Chase, and most of it has to do with the performances. Redford makes an impression in his first major role as the kid who never outgrew his mean streak, despite not actually being that bad in the first place. Fonda is as sexy as she is susceptible to the evils of her community;.Fox is effective as the lover who will never conquer. It’s Rule, though, who makes the utmost impression — as a sexed-up tigress who struts like Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), she is everything the movie tries to be and isn’t: modern, dangerous, bracing, engaging.
Because it’s so aware of its desire to be timely, The Chase never quite comes alive, always stilted because of its crippling self-awareness. It can agitate sometimes, but only because its actors are too luminous to be anything other than radiant. But leave the material without the performative polish and you have a labored social drama. B-