SCARECROW is the textbook example of a film that was overshadowed even before it was released by the projects its cast were working on either side of it. Al Pacino had just come off THE GODFATHER (1972) and would launch straight into the awesome triptych of SERPICO (1973), THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). For Gene Hackman the role was sandwiched between THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE CONVERSATION (1974). As a result it has the status of either a lost classic or a minor curio for New Hollywood enthusiasts depending on who you ask. Obviously I’m firmly in the former category.
Two drifters meet for the first time by the side of a dusty road. One, Max Millan (Hackman), is a prickly ex-con just released from six years in San Quentin, the other, Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi (Pacino), returned from five years at sea and yet to meet his own child who was unborn when he set sail. Lion doesn’t even know the baby’s sex: under his arm he carries a table lamp in a white box tied with a smart red ribbon as a gift for the boy or girl since “I figure a lamp would do fine either way, you know what I mean?”. The survival or otherwise of the pristine lamp (“Don’t bust my lamp, that’s all”) becomes the Chekhov’s gun of the story as the pair hop freights through Steinbeck landscapes and bum their way from California to Pittsburgh where Max has grand ambitions to open a car wash business.
The success or otherwise of the film rests firmly on the shoulders of the two leads: notwithstanding the tragic denouement it is a bit of a Beckettian shaggy dog story with the focus on the interaction of the two characters. Initially the volatile and aggressive Max is no stranger to a bar fight: he wears all the clothes he owns because, as he claims, he’s “cold-blooded” but more likely to stop anyone from stealing them. “Just remember – up theirs! And that’s anybody’s!”. Whilst Max learns to loosen up and trust other people the childlike, comical Lion has to face up to the responsibilities he has been running from. The relationship is reflected in Lion’s strange theory about scarecrows:
Lion: You think crows are scared of a scarecrow? No. Crows are laughing.
Max: The goddamn crows are laughing?
Lion: That’s right. They’re laughing their asses off. Then they say: “That old farmer Jones down there, he’s a pretty good guy. He made us laugh. So we won’t bother him anymore.”
As the pair ramble on through forgotten, dust-bowl America, certain scenes remind me of Laurel and Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST (1937): when Hackman runs out of matches in the opening scene I half expect Pacino to light the cigar with his thumb. Max and Lion are classic outsiders, downtrodden and forgotten, their dreams as unattainable as their destinations. In a funny way this mirrors the reputation of the film and its director. SCARECROW won the 1973 Grand Prix at Cannes, the predecessor to the Palme d’Or. That it almost immediately vanished into obscurity and has since been eclipsed by Easy Riders and Raging Bulls only shows that something extraordinary was happening in American cinema at the time. Though Schatzberg had also previously directed Pacino in the actor’s first leading role in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), he never went on to develop the reputation of a Coppola, Scorsese or even a Rafelson. Apparently he’s now trying to get a sequel off the ground, forty years later and despite the fact that Gene Hackman has retired from acting. Good luck with that one.