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James Caan and Alan Arkin run roughshod over San Francisco in Freebie And The Bean

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of The Heat, we assemble a lineup of buddy-cop movies.

Freebie And The Bean (1974)
If Richard Rush’s action-comedy Freebie And The Bean is remembered today, it’s likely because of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s gay-subtext doc The Celluloid Closet, which accurately cites it as a particularly nasty specimen of ’70s-style Hollywood homophobia. There actually isn’t much gay content, but there’s a sequence in which the titular cop heroes, played by James Caan and Alan Arkin, confront a cross-dressing thief in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. After the creepy, sicko tranny shoots Arkin in the shoulder, Caan gives chase, corners him in the ladies lavatory, and blows him full of holes. The way the scene is directed, shooting this deviant is an almost orgasmic experience for Caan: He ends up lying spent on the floor, his adversary half undressed and spread-eagled next to the sanitary-napkin dispenser. Hurrah, straight white men win again!


Marketed at the time as a spoof of fascist-cop hits like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, Freebie And The Bean isn’t much more than a wise-ass, jokey version of the same. It’s supposed to be a gas when Caan and Arkin beat up hippies, treat women like shit, and mow down pedestrians in their car, but they’re too smug and much too aloof to be lovable rogues. Throughout the film, they act as if the whole world were mere fodder for their unfunny, run-on banter and one-upmanship games. Like the star duos of M*A*S*H and The Sting (the movie’s other antecedents), Freebie and the Bean represent the bully-boy flip side of ’70s antiauthoritarianism, and they foreshadow the selfish, inhumanly flippant action heroes of the 1980s.

That said, the movie is worth seeking out. For starters, it’s magnificently shot by cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), who makes wildly inventive use of the San Francisco streetscape. An early sequence set atop a moving construction crane is a particular grabber, and the many neon-lit night scenes are jukebox beautiful. Visually, the movie is urban bebop: I kept imagining it as a whirling, spinning 45, the newly completed Transamerica Pyramid its still point of rotation.


But the chief reason to see Freebie And The Bean is, hands down, its vehicular mayhem. Prior to The Blues Brothers, no film featured more elaborate car chases or more ridiculous car crashes, not even Bullitt. Indeed, the movie—which was a holiday-season hit—was sold on its one big showpiece stunt: a car plowing off the (now demolished) Embarcadero Freeway into a third-story apartment, disturbing an elderly couple eating breakfast in bed. At the time, moviegoers hadn’t seen anything like it, and it still retains its goofy, shoot-the-works charm. As a side note, the movie has some pretty notable fans: According to Rush, Stanley Kubrick called it the best film of 1974, and Quentin Tarantino routinely sings its praises as a lost classic. But then, he would.

Availability: DVD but no Blu-ray, rental and purchase from the major digital providers, and disc delivery from Netflix.

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