Film Review: ‘Scarecrow’

Winner of the Palme d’Or prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, American photographer and filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg’s seldom-seen odd couple dramedy Scarecrow receives a welcome publicity boost this week thanks to a limited Park Circus theatrical rerelease. Starring Hollywood heavyweights Gene Hackman and Al Pacino – around the time both men first worked with Francis Ford Coppola, the former in The Conversation, the latter in The Godfather – Schatzberg’s bromance is a bittersweet ode to life on the open road, bringing together two troubled souls who manage to find solace in each other’s passing company.

Saddled together alongside a dusty side-road, the plot begins with recently-released prison con Max (Hackman) and energetic joker Lion (Pacino) vying for prime hitchhiking spots. An awkward introduction soon gives way to amiable banter and mutual respect, as the two men team up to realise Max’s great American dream – of one day opening his own profitable car wash operation in the city of Pittsburgh. Hampered by a volatile temper, Max finds himself at ease with the wise-cracking Lion, a young father currently estranged from both his wife and child. Together, the pair muddle their way through life’s peaks and troughs, before a revelation from Lion’s recent past threatens to come between these two budding entrepreneurs.

Beautifully shot throughout (Schatzberg certainly has an eye for freewheeling Americana – see his Bob Dylan album covers) and wonderfully played by both Hackman and Pacino (in the latter’s second collaboration with the director), Scarecrow is both a bona fide forgotten gem and a telling sign of its times. Outside of the Classical Hollywood boom of the 1930s-50s, only the seventies stand out as a cinematic golden decade for US cinema as a whole, with the aforementioned Hackman and Pacino pin-ups of the cause. Scarecrow shows both Schatzberg and the American road movie at the height of their powers, transcending generic trappings to deliver a heartwarming, yet also heartbreakingly humanist story of self-imposed nomadism and societal alienation – no wonder it so appealed to the European sensibilities of Cannes.

A darkly melancholic denouement may catch some unsuspecting viewers off-guard, but Schatzberg’s Scarecrow has more than enough good humour and warmth to win over the majority – whilst perhaps falling just short of the mass appeal of some of the seventies’ greatest cinematic offerings. After following up the film with Cannes-selected comedy Sweet Revenge (1976), Schatzberg never quite managed to recapture that all-important zeitgeist through his feature work. Thankfully, courtesy of Park Circus, UK audiences can now revisit his finest hour on the big screen – as intended.

Daniel Green