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Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, and Robert Shaw turned star power into Cannes gold

Palme ThursdayPalme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Hireling (1973) and Scarecrow (1973)

From The Third Man to La Dolce Vita, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg to Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now to The Tree Of Life: Cannes is a bona fide classics factory, ushering films into the canon with more regularity than just about any annual cinematic event. But for all the major works whose legacy began with a win on the French Riviera, there are still plenty of times when a movie went over big at the festival, then slowly disappeared into relative obscurity. 1973, for example, found the Cannes jury splitting its highest award (then the Grand Prix) between two perfectly solid, respectable pictures that have since dropped off the radars of many cinephiles: Alan Bridges’ scathing indictment of British society The Hireling and Jerry Schatzberg’s rambling road movie Scarecrow.


On a whole, ’73 was a memorable year for the festival; more than a few of its selections were greeted with controversy—never an entirely bad reaction for an art film to elicit, especially in a buyers’ market like Cannes. Within the official lineup, Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe caused the greatest stir, upsetting delicate sensibilities (and stomachs) with its scatological story of a group of wealthy friends determined to eat themselves to death, while Jean Eustache’s 218-minute gabfest The Mother And The Whore inspired cries of both boredom and offense. But the true action occurred outside competition, where audiences were scandalized by Swastika, a widely condemned documentary about the personal life of Adolf Hitler, and The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s violent, readymade cult epic. Furthermore, many of the fest’s most high-profile selections— Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers, François Truffaut’s Day For Night, Nicholas Ray’s evolving avant-garde workshop piece We Can’t Go Home Again—were special presentations, ineligible for awards.

For pure celebrity, one looked to the official competition jury and the other famous Bergman serving as its president: Ingrid Bergman, adventurous Casablanca star and world-cinema luminary—whose likeness was used for this year’s official festival poster—drew more ink than most of the movies she was judging. Attributing Cannes victories to the big name at the top of the jury list can be awfully speculative, but it’s easy to see what might have appealed to Bergman about the two films her team—a group that included French actor Jean Delannoy and American filmmaker Sydney Pollack—apparently had trouble deciding between. Both are primarily actors’ movies, driven by their star performances more than their stories or any particular formal element (despite equally exceptional cinematography).


Class is the common thematic ground between the two films, but only The Hireling makes that blatant. It was the second L.P. Hartley adaptation to win Cannes in as many years, after Harold Pinter’s take on the British’s author’s most famous novel, The Go-Between, took home the Grand Prix in 1971. Published in ’57, not so long after The Go-Between, The Hireling spins a much simpler narrative than its acclaimed predecessor—an unbalanced romance that director Alan Bridges and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz reproduce more-or-less faithfully, despite some condensing of subplots and excising of characters.

Set in and around Bath, a short while after WWI, the film concerns the relationship that develops between a wealthy widow, Lady Franklin (Sarah Miles), and the military veteran, Mr. Ledbetter (Robert Shaw), who becomes her driver and confidante. Having recently lost her husband to some unspecified ailment, Lady Franklin is still recovering from the nervous breakdown she suffered upon his death, and the film basically begins with Ledbetter, whom she’s never met, driving her home from the sanitarium. The two will grow closer over the coming weeks, but their bond is built on misunderstanding: Ledbetter, a gruff ex-soldier who’s poured everything he has into his chauffeur business, invents a wife and children to better meet his client’s expectations of him. She, meanwhile, crosses a lot of lines, getting tongues clucking by riding up front in the passenger seat and spending unusual amounts of time with her driver. But does his emotional support really go both ways? Can two people of very different stations really meet in the middle?


Framed, musically, by the anxious whine of strings, The Hireling presents a perpetually overcast England, caught in the shadow of the war: Death has wormed its way into the homes of all the characters, and there’s no one—regardless of wealth or status—whose life hasn’t been touched in some way by loss. But this shared cultural experience hasn’t created an equilibrium, a singular Britain; for as much as the country has changed, its rigid class divisions remain. That’s the hard lesson that Ledbetter learns: Mistaking raw need for love and himself for more than a temporary wailing wall, he dares to imagine that the economic gulf separating him from his object of affection could be crossed. But the rich are vampires, the film reminds us; they take what they can from the poor and then throw them away. It’s easy to get ahead of The Hireling. Anyone who’s paged through a damning literary study of British class hierarchies will guess the ultimate fates of Ledbetter and Lady Franklin long before they do.

But like one of the scenic drives the characters take from the gentle, foggy countryside to the reception halls of the city, the film is a worthwhile journey. The actors do much of the heavy lifting. Miles, from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, begins in a nearly catatonic state of grief, before slowly opening up, scene by scene, into her old self—who, as it turns out, is a more shallow society creature than she initially appears to be. (“I always thought you were very stiff and proud and cold,” someone tells her at a fancy soiree, and the audience begins to understand that impression as the film progresses.) Shaw, likewise, seems an odd fit for the loyal, buttoned-up servant, until one realizes that his properness is a disguise and that the real Ledbetter is the tortured, angry soldier hiding beneath. It’s a film about people not always wanting to see the truth about those around them—an idea that Bridges expresses beautifully with a late shot of Ledbetter using the headlights of his car to blot out the silhouette of Lady Franklin kissing philandering politician Cantrip (Peter Egan), an ex-officer whose deeper pockets make him a more “suitable” mate.


Madness is a kind of virus in The Hireling, passing from one protagonist to another; the final scene—a wildly unhinged joy ride—plays like a transference, bringing the plot full circle. There’s an element of that in Scarecrow, too, which similarly presents a love story (in this case platonic) between two damaged people, one of whom comes unglued in the end stretch. But instead of an aristocratic Britain of the 1920s, the film takes place in the diners, bars, living rooms, jail cells, and train cars of a grungier, then-contemporary America.

The two main characters, bullish ex-convict Max Millan (Gene Hackman) and eccentric ex-seaman Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi (Al Pacino), are working-class stiffs eking out a living on the road. Yet there’s something more romantic, in a Kerouac sort of way, about their nomadic hardship. Maybe it’s that, unlike Ledbetter, who bets big on his business and slowly loses it, these two drifters spend most of the movie pursuing their similarly modest career aspirations. We see only the possibility, not the reality, and that makes Scarecrow a faintly more hopeful vision of life on the economic fringes. And the central relationship is less destructive and more balanced than the one that forms the core of The Hireling: Max and Francis may get each other into hot water, but at least they’re on basically equal footing.


Even more so than the film with which it shared the Grand Prix, Scarecrow is predominately a showcase for its performers. Both Pacino and Hackman were hot commodities at the time, having scored Best Actor nominations—and in the latter’s case, a victory—for their appearances in the previous years’ consecutive Best Picture winners, The Godfather and The French Connection. The film’s draw, then and now, is seeing these two heavyweights pair up. Hackman, who once called Scarecrow a favorite among his own performances, plays Max as an instrument of blunt-force antagonism, blithely blundering in and out of trouble, picking fights for no good reason, and letting little hints of protective affection shine through. “I’m the meanest sonofabitch alive,” he insists early on, offering to partner with his new road companion in the same breath that he warns him not to fuck up; if there’s an arc to his character, it’s in the way he slowly turns his temper into a defensive weapon, the tool he uses to try and protect his new friend. Pacino, by contrast, goes quieter and more interior, his Lionel a damaged man who hides his hurt behind an amiable, along-for-the-ride nature. It’s a reminder to current viewers what a subtle actor he could be in his youth, before he started bellowing “hoo ah” and demanding that we say hello to his little friend.

Lionel and Max want to open a carwash in Pittsburgh, where the latter keeps his life savings. After meeting on the road in California—the opening scene finds the two competing, then working together, to score a ride—they spend most of the movie hitchhiking their way east, with a stop over in Denver to crash with Max’s sister and a detour to Detroit, where Lionel hopes to reconcile with the woman he impregnated and abandoned. Shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind), Scarecrow has the unhurried pace of a ramshackle buddy picture, and its best scenes are the ones that play off the comic possibilities of this pairing. One great example: Schatzberg cuts directly from Max asking “Do you think there’s anything we can do for work around here?” to the two being thrown out the back exit of a bar after a scuffle on their first day.


If the ending of The Hireling feels like a foregone conclusion, Scarecrow’s comparably tragic upshot is more of a Hail Mary: Having puttered around in second gear for most of the runtime, Schatzberg and screenwriter Garry Michael White manufacture one of those boldly downbeat ’70s conclusions, the kind that Hollywood no longer dares concoct. That this climax feels slightly contrived—hinging as it does on a lie told by a character we’ve just been introduced to—doesn’t entirely blunt its impact, nor does it neuter the bittersweet emotion of the final scene. But Scarecrow didn’t need a cathartic punctuation. It’s the type of shaggy character piece, powered by personality instead of plot, that might have benefitted from a less… final finale. Schatzberg could have kept his characters ambling, instead of engineering an endpoint for their travels. Like The Hireling, it’s a film whose destination is less interesting than the road it takes to get there.

Scarecrow, as it turns out, couldn’t benefit much from its Cannes win: The film opened in the U.S. about a month before it hit the festival, and had already been dismissed as a critical and commercial disappointment by the time Bergman and her jury handed it (half) the Grand Prix. The Hireling, on the other hand, would go on to win three BAFTA awards, for its sumptuous art direction and costumes, as well as Egan’s “newcomer” performance. Both films feel today more like fringe favorites than consensus classics, linked by their mutual interest in the raw deals handed to working-class strivers, of British or American descent. They’re half-forgotten, half-successful products of their cinematic age, still waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. Sometimes at Cannes, two interesting minor works are as good as one masterwork.


Did they deserve to win? On the other hand, maybe a single masterwork is the way to go. Deeply divisive upon premiere, The Mother And The Whore has since climbed its way into the upper echelons of French cinema; some have called it the last great film of the New Wave, while others have simply praised its ability to sustain interest across three-and-a-half hours of nonstop chatter. Either way, it’s an obvious choice for the top prize at Cannes. Bergman and company gave it second place, but they probably would have been better off letting Scarecrow and The Hireling split that honor. Another interesting potential winner: The animated whatsit Fantastic Planet, whose heavy-handed allegory can’t diminish the strange power of its imagery or the breadth of its world-building imagination.

Next up: Palme Thursday returns in January with thoughts on Sex, Lies, And Videotape.


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