Monday, July 28, 2008
Scarecrow Tribute Week: Far Out Films of the Seventies
Bronx born director Jerry Schatzberg came to fame in the sixties as a photographer whose work graced the pages of Vogue, Esquire and many other of the period’s most respected and famed publications. He also found time to photograph some of the decade’s greatest album covers including the legendary Blonde on Blonde sleeve for Bob Dylan.
In the late sixties he began dating up and coming Hollywood legend Faye Dunaway and it would indeed be the Bonnie and Clyde star who would be the leading lady of Schatzberg’s first film, 1970’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child. The film would generate quite a bit of controversy and received a vastly mixed critical reaction when it was released, although many agreed that Schatzberg was a talent to watch.
Schatzberg would follow up Puzzle of a Downfall Child with the acclaimed junkie drama Panic in Needle Park, a film which starred a young actor named Al Pacino. The harrowing film would lead to Scarecrow, a picture that would see the director and the future Oscar winning actor collaborating for the second and final time.
Schatzberg has never received the credit he has deserved as being one of the key American directors of the early seventies. Scarecrow remains arguably the greatest achievement of an often overlooked career behind the camera.
Schatzberg’s film would mark the first screen credit for award winning and revered playwright Garry Michael White. Pacino would call White’s original script as the best he had ever read and Scarecrow does indeed stand as one of the most challenging and moving scripts of the seventies, a poignant work that would work as an entirely personal project while securing itself as an insightful look at an America that was becoming more and more distrustful of authority. Is there a more knowing and chilling acknowledgement of what was happening to America in the midst of Vietnam and Watergate than when Hackman’s Max says towards the end of the film, “Who Can I trust now”?
Gene Hackman has called Scarecrow the favorite of all of the films he worked on in his career, impressive considering the number of classics that have appeared among the 100 or so titles he has starred in. Hackman had just won the Oscar for William Friedkin’s searing The French Connection when he shot Scarecrow, and his performance as Max for Schatzberg is the equal of his work as the famed Popeye Doyle that had won him so much acclaim. Incredibly neither Hackman nor Pacino were nominated for Oscars for Scarecrow.
The film would become a sensation in Europe when it was initially released in 1973 and it won the coveted Golden Palm at that year’s Cannes Festival. Schatzberg and his film would also win several other top European prizes, a fact that makes the initial relative failure of the film in America all the more surprising. The film would open to poor box office and mixed reviews in the Spring of 1973 causing a disillusioned Hackman to announce he would only work on commercial projects afterwards, a promise thankfully he didn’t keep. It would take years for the film to really find its audience in America, even though it is still not held perhaps in the esteem that it should be.
There was some reported tension between Hackman and Pacino on the set as the two had vastly different ways of approaching the material. The two would have the up most respect for each other though and have spoken highly of the experience since. Hackman would recall on Larry King that he loved and admired Pacino, a factor that went into him naming Scarecrow as his favorite film. Scarecrow marks the only time these two giants would work together.
Behind the scenes players included legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and his work combined with Scatzbergs marks Scarecrow as a photography lover’s dream and one of the most striking looking features of the seventies. The film’s intriguing editing which melds some surprising jump cuts into Schatzberg’s celebrated long takes is courtesy of none other than Evan A. Lottman, the man who would cut The Exorcist in the same year as Scarecrow. The film’s off kilter but effective score is credited to Fred Myrow, an interesting composer who would later provide the very effective music for the influential shocker Phantasm in 1979.
Scarecrow came out just a month before I was born in 1973. I first saw it when I was around 15 courtesy of a censored TV print and I immediately fell in love with it. I consider it one of the key American films of the seventies and more than a dozen viewings of it over the years have only increased my admiration and love for the film.