Arthur Penn’s shoulda-been masterpiece.
A small Texas town boils over when the news breaks that Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford), a small-time con with deep roots, has escaped prison and set his sights on home. Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando), tries to keep order as drunken socialites rip at the town’s seams, but when it’s discovered that Bubber’s wife (Jane Fonda) is hiding him from the law, the situation erupts, Calder is beaten, and a lynch mob descends on Bubber’s location. Calder rescues Bubber, but the con is shot on the courthouse steps. Distraught Calder decides that he’s had just about enough of this fucking town, and abandons it to its own whims.
By the time Arthur Penn was hired for The Chase, the project was already troubled. The story had failed twice as a play and a novel, but Hollywood mega-producer Sam Spiegel (Lawrence of Arabia, On the Waterfront) believed the story was a surefire blockbuster that could blow the doors off a litany of injustices in American society. In other words, fuuuuuuck. Penn got the job because of his friendship with Chase screenwriter Lillian Hellman. There’s irony in this, because The Chase permanently soured their relationship.
The Chase’s struggles are usually blamed on Brando, big surprise. Brando had wanted the role of the wealthy Jake Rogers, but by the time production began, he was too old for the part. Brando switched to the role of Calder, but found that he hated the character. Making matters worse, Spiegel demanded steady, frustrating script changes, eradicating Brando’s desire to give a shit (see also). Without him, even Brando’s co-stars felt lost. Nobody seemed to have an idea of what the film was about anymore, not even Penn. Worse, Spiegel relentlessly edited the footage without the director’s involvement, further destroying Hellman’s script. She chose to blame Penn.
With names like Spiegel, Penn, Brando, and Hellman on the marquee, The Chase arrived with huge expectations, but critics eviscerated the picture, with NY Times critic Bosley Crowther famously declaring it “intensely overheated” and comparing it negatively to Peyton Place. The film flopped hard, but the last laugh would go to Penn. His masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde premiered just one year later, and Crowther’s pan of that film would scandalize him into irrelevancy.
For an awesome account of The Chase’s woes, I highly recommend James Robert Parish’s Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops, from which I learned much of the above.
The Chase doesn’t have a single issue; it wants them all. This is a big, giant message picture with a capital M. Rather than stick to a single theme, The Chase points wildly at any number of injustices such as racism, classism, and the hypocrisy of “wholesome” small town society. For his part, Penn believed the film was about “the system,” and how accepting favors can assassinate a person’s integrity. The film also stumbles around a broader theme about the Kennedy assassination, a wound still very fresh in 1966. The film takes place in Texas, and the hunted Robert Redford bears a passing resemblance to Kennedy. The film’s finale even depicts a Jack Ruby-esque assassination of Bubber after he’s caught.
For all his faults as a leading man, Marlon Brando was never afraid to sully his movie star image. In an incredible scene that I linked below, easily the film’s highlight, Brando takes the beating of his life from a group of crazed men intent on finding Bubber’s location. The assault is shocking, and predicts the frank, disturbing violence Penn would feature in Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man.
When watching films for a Project, I go in blind. No reviews, no IMDB, no YouTube. I want to know how I feel about the movie before somebody else tells me how I should feel. I’ll say this: I watched it, I researched it, and I think that the world was totally wrong about The Chase.
People have warmed to The Chase in recent years, but critics at the time hated it. Audiences hated it. It was an epic flop that caused Arthur Penn to declare that he’d never direct a true “Hollywood” production again. For years Penn barely spoke about The Chase, and when he did, he was quick to disown it. When one interviewer told Penn that his film had been called an unquestionable masterpiece, Penn responded: “I’d say it’s a “questionable” masterpiece.”
But that’s the weird part. For a huge chunk of its running time, The Chase is very, very good. Overheated? Sure, but that’s melodrama, and incidentally it’s kind of the point. The Chase takes place on a single, steamy Texas evening when a very specific recipe of entitlement, money, and prejudice leads a group of people to think that they can get away with justified murder. The law can’t stop them because they own the law. The story is bleak, terrifying, and extremely compelling because the structures we rely on to maintain society turn to ash before ours and Calder’s eyes. The film is overheated because the story is made of kindling.
The Chase is Spiegel’s movie more than Penn’s. Penn had hoped to make a subtle point about integrity, but Spiegel wanted a pot-stirring liberal epic about a town full of redneck straw men. Spiegel won, but that The Chase is good is a testament to Penn and his talent with actors and compositions The Chase is a film suited for Penn’s live-TV background. The sets are stagey, but atmospheric. The characters are one-dimensional, but they’re playing to a theme. This is a movie in which thematic power trumps verisimilitude. Do I believe The Chase? Not at all, but I feel it. That’s insanely important in melodrama, and that’s Penn’s influence.
Then why is The Chase such a notorious failure? The third act has some serious problems—the climactic bonfire at Bubber’s hiding place is silly, and Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Bubber’s mom is shrill to the point of self-parody—but it’s deeper than that.
The Chase hasn’t changed, we have. America is in a different mood today, one that makes the film seem prescient and familiar where it once seemed creaky and laughable. The America of 1966 was caught between moments. On the one side was the unity and shared grief that bloomed in the wake of Kennedy’s death; on the other, the vicious divide that accompanied the escalation of war in Vietnam. I’m not surprised that cooler heads rolled their eyes at the histrionics of The Chase. They hoped to keep the discourse civil, when it would soon be anything but.
Today, however, we can find The Chase’s knee-jerk politics on the nightly news, with multiple channels to choose from. We’re a country that has lost the middle, and good men and women searching for reason are clutched and clawed by both sides. Is it that hard to imagine the world of The Chase in our environment of xenophobic immigration laws, Texan secession, parking lot assassinations, and “where’s the birth certificate?”
In 1967, one year after The Chase’s undeserved failure, In the Heat of the Night premiered and muscled The Chase forever into obscurity. Night won the Oscars that Spiegel had been hoping for, covering the same territory more successfully than Penn’s film, although far less artistically. The ghost of The Chase even had one last joke to play on poor Arthur Penn. Of the films Night defeated to for the Best Picture Oscar, one was a small gangster movie Penn had directed—Bonnie and Clyde.
The Arthur Penn Project
14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)
13. Four Friends (1981)
12. Target (1985)
11. Dead of Winter (1987)
10. The Missouri Breaks (1976)
7. The Chase (1966)