While the 1970’s has now been recognised as a golden age for American cinema, there is still the occasional minor gem that has slipped through the cracks. Scarecrow is one such gem, a shambling character study of two drifters that fits right in with peers such as Two Lane Backtop, Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy and countless other works. What is intriguing about Scarecrow‘s disappearance from public view is that it was triumphant at the Cannes film festival on its release and had two star names in Al Pacino and Gene Hackman. Sometimes there is no rationale for which films will linger and which will fade away.
The story is pretty straightforward; two listless drifters cross each others paths while hitch hiking across America’s fairytale backroads and quietly begin to form a bond with each other. While elder traveller Max (Hackman) works best as a lone wolf, he is won over by the young Lionel’s (Pacino) winning goofiness. We later learn that Max has just come out of prison, Lionel the Navy- and they both have the scars to bare. Max enlists Lionel to help him achieve his dream of opening up a car wash business in Pittsburgh, but first they have to visit Max’s sister and see Lionel’s child in Detroit.
Scarecrow is a film that follows in the footsteps of a great American tradition, the Road Movie, but it feels fresh and engaging rather than predictable. Garry Michael White’s fine, nuanced screenplay is laced with mischievous humour and dramatic pathos, chronicling each characters journey without resorting to histrionics. There is little sentimentality here, or if there is, it is hemmed in until the third act. Vilmos Zsigmond captures both the open road and the characters who walk it with gentle observation, never making any flashy movements. The bittersweet sun hued vistas that Max and Lionel traverse are , like for many road movie characters, a reflection of their characters. Two outsiders struggling to adapt back into society and the responsibilities it asks of them.
Gene Hackman has stated that it his favourite performance, and it is difficult to argue. Max is deeply flawed, prone to violence and infuriatingly stubborn…and yet, Hackman imbues him with a charm and vulnerability that means the audience will never turn on him. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Max begs, “I need someone I can trust”. Pacino is a revelation as Lionel- so often we see him playing the macho, streetwise characters, yet here he is almost childish. Lionel is immediately likable, a confused young man with a penchant for pranks. Pacino shows a little seen lighter comic touch, while exuding effortless charisma.
Jerry Schatzberg’s film was made in a different time and culture for American cinema, one which was fuelled by a free wheeling optimism and verve, when film makers could take risks. Like many of the films made in that era, Scarecrow seems to hark back to the great American literature written by Steinbeck and Kerouac, but paints it in pictures. This is a film that deserves to be more widely seen, however, just for the two superb central performances by two great actors just starting their careers.