Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in 1973's "Scarecrow."

Scarecrow January 31, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Jerry Schatzberg

STARRING

Gene Hackman
Al Pacino
Eileen Brennan
Richard Lynch

 

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1973

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 52 Mins.

I

t’s only natural that the very good Scarecrow (1973) be seen, with time, as a hidden gem outgleamed by many other brighter ones. It’s sandwiched, after all, between some of the best movies its leads, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, ever starred in — The French Connection (1971), The Conversation (1974), and the first couple of Godfather movies are among

them. 

 

I probably don’t need to tell you that Scarecrow, a minor-key road movie, isn’t as good as any of those films because few are. But it can still be very affecting, sometimes even powerful. In the film Hackman and Pacino are Max and Lion, drifters who literally meet on the road somewhere in California. (They’re both attempting to hitch rides on the edges of a patch of desolate highway.) Lion has supposedly been away at sea for the last five years, now heading for Detroit. Gift under one arm, he’s returning to his wife and the child he’s never met. Max has just completed a six-year stint at San Quentin. He has his sights set on Pittsburgh, where he’d like to open a car wash. 
 

A friendship announces itself quickly (the men don’t really have anyone else to rely on), and in this freewheeling-until-it-isn’t-anymore travelogue we watch as they float amiably together from destination to destination. The most memorable “episodes” are a visit paid to Max’s sister (Dorothy Tristan) in Denver and an unexpected extended obstacle in a prison farm. 
 

Scarecrow strives pointedly from time to time for real profundity. It doesn’t always work out. Screenwriter Garry Michael White can’t help himself from awkwardly having the main characters discuss in detail the meaning of the film’s title. And the nonetheless devastating tragic ending feels too engineered to say something about the anguish the American Dream’s untenability can bring to those doomed to never get anywhere near it. I’d say Scarecrow is most impactful not when it’s obviously trying to be but when it’s dwelling appreciatively in the contours of Max and Lion’s friendship, paying attention to the subtle but meaningful ways they look out for each other. In one of the film’s best scenes, Max pacifies a bar fight by spontaneously doing a sassy striptease. To patrons the move shows off a stranger’s unself-conscious humor and quick-thinking. But to Max it's more than anything about getting Lion to laugh amid a bout of immobilizing depression.
 

Favoring long shots and lots of listless scenes where nothing really happens, photographer turned filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg’s unpolished, expansive direction complements his characters’ dawdling, their ever-changing relationship, and the wide-open possibilities of the road. The predictably great performances from Pacino and Hackman are the real reason to see Scarecrow, though. The former gives you the sense that you’re watching someone’s optimism and innocence fragment in real time, and when they finally shatter it’s hard not to be crushed. And the latter is excellent as a man for whom postured toughness and a short temper are so habitual that in his softer moments he can disarm you. In Scarecrow, the small details are the ones that can tell us the most. B+