Elusive, loose-limbed, as messy and sun-touched as the American ’70s, Jerry Schatzberg’s 1973 Scarecrow is a road picture, a buddy comedy, a woe-is-man tragedy, a lopsided competition in Method externalization pitting young Gene Hackman against an even younger Al Pacino. Neither a complete failure (it won the Palme d’Or but was stiffed stateside) nor a lost masterpiece, the film today stands as a flawed, fascinating testament to a time of discovery in Hollywood: of how stories could be told onscreen, of what great actors might find within themselves, of just what in the hell this country had become in the late-’60s crackup.
Playing train-hopping vagabonds in a U.S. of diners and hippies, lumbering Hackman and teensy Pacino are as physically mismatched as some pie-tossing duo from a silent two-reeler—Pacino could be the final doll nestled inside Hackman’s matryoshka. With vague plans of opening a car wash, the dusty pair light out east, from desert California to Pittsburgh, their manifest destiny ass-backward. Scarecrow‘s roadtrip features the usual run-ins with ladies and the law, but also much of-its-era New Hollywood rawness: a bar’s grim stag films, an attempted rape in a prison camp, Hackman hollering “Goodnight world, you motherfucker!” from a boxcar. Hackman is as outsize in performance as he is in physical presence. By the time he’s stopping a bar brawl by tearing into a comic striptease routine—an example of the good humor his Max has picked up from Pacino’s goofball naif Francis—it’s like Hackman has somehow put a leaf into himself. He just gets bigger, while Pacino, who opens the film with a full-on roadside clown routine, slowly shrinks his own performance down to the size of life. Pacino’s mannered naturalism resembles the approach of director Schatzberg and screenwriter Garry Michael White, three parts life-as-it-is to one part life-as-movies-make-it-look.
Word is Hackman’s domineering bugged Pacino, who asked, after seeing an edit, that more shots of himself be added. There’s a wary energy between the stars, one that fits the story’s hobo team-up: These guys aren’t supposed to know each other well or even particularly trust each other. Hackman’s Max is a brawling son of a bitch, Pacino’s Francis negotiates the world with a conciliatory comedy, and by the end they’ll both be stamped by each other’s approaches. In her illuminating new study Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor (Phaidon, $45), former Voice and LA Weekly critic Karina Longworth argues that Scarecrow is above all else a film about performance, the characters always acting as in playing their parts, but only rarely managing to act as in take actions that affect their world. She sees this outside the story, too, noting, “At times Scarecrow plays like an acting exercise that Schatzberg’s camera happened to capture.” (The book also boasts a serious—and persuasive—treatment of Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill.)
Approach this disjointed travelogue as the creators’ collective exploration, as variations on a theme by Bing and Bob and Hopper and Fonda, and the film opens up—like Hackman, it grows as it goes. And if it doesn’t, there’s still its gorgeousness: highways, tumbleweeds, and the sunrise through wooden slats on the back of a livestock truck.