With the 2021 Cannes Film Festival underway in France, I thought this would be a good opportunity to spend the next few days looking at some of the films that have won the Palme d’Or in the past. As of this writing, 100 films have won either the Palme d’Or or an earlier version of the award like the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. Some of those films — like Parasite, The Tree of Life, The Piano, Pulp Fiction — went on to huge box office success and Oscar renown. Others, like 1973’s Scarecrow, did not.
Scarecrow is an example of a type of film that was very popular in the 70s. It’s a road film, one in which two or more people take a journey across the country and discover something about themselves and, depending upon how ambitious the film was, perhaps something about America as well. Scarecrow centers on two drifters, who just happen to meet on a dusty road while they’re trying to hitch a ride. Max (Gene Hackman, fresh off of winning an Oscar for The French Connection) is an ex-convict with a bad temper and a huge chip on his shoulder. Lion (a young Al Pacino, fresh off of The Godfather) is an ex-sailor who views the world with optimism and who appears to be sweet-natured but simple-minded. To be honest, it’s a little bit hard to believe that the perpetually resentful Max and the always hopeful Lion would ever become friends but they do. They travel around the country, talking about their dreams of opening a car wash together. They meet up with ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. Eventually, they even end up in a prison farm together, where Lion, temporarily estranged from Max, is taken advantage of by a sadistic prisoner named Riley (Richard Lynch).
Scarecrow is an episodic film, one that moves at its own deliberate pace. (If that sounds like a polite way of saying that the film is slow-moving …. well, it is.) Director Jerry Schatzberg was a photographer-turned-director and, as a result, there’s several striking shots of Max and Lion standing against the countryside, waiting for someone to pick them up and give them a ride. Whenever Max and Lion end up in a bar, the scene is always lit perfectly. At the same time, Schatzberg also attempts to give the film a spontaneous, naturalistic feel by letting scenes run longer than one would normally expect. There’s several scenes of Hackman and Pacino just talking while walking down a country road or a city street. On the one hand, you have to appreciate Schatzberg’s attempt to convince us that Max and Lion are just two guys with big dreams, as opposed to two Oscar-nominated actors pretending to be societal drop-outs. On the other hand, Schatzberg’s approach also leads to an interminably long scene of Gene Hackman eating a piece of chicken and if you think that Gene Hackman was the type of actor who wasn’t going to act the Hell out of gnawing on and gesturing with a chicken bone, you obviously haven’t seen many Gene Hackman films.
The main appeal of the film, for most people, will probably be to see Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, two of the top actors of the 70s, acting opposite of each other. Reportedly, both Hackman and Pacino went full method for the film and spent their prep time on the streets of San Francisco, begging for spare change. The end result is a mixed bag. There are a few scenes — like when they first meet or when they’re in prison — in which Hackman and Pacino are believable in their roles and you buy them as two lost souls who were lucky enough to find each other. There are other scenes where they both seem to be competing to see who can chew up the most scenery. Sometimes, Pacino and Hackman are compelling acting opposite each other. Other times, it feels like we’re just watching an Actors’ Studio improv class that someone happened to film. Too often, Hackman and Pacino seem to be so occupied with showing off their technique that the film’s reality seems to get lost under all of the method showiness. In the end, neither one of the film’s stars makes as much of an impression as Richard Lynch, who is genuinely frightening in his small but key role.
Scarecrow is an uneven film, one that is occasionally effective but also a bit too studied for its own good. It wears it influences — Of Mice and Men, Midnight Cowboy, Five Easy Pieces — on its sleeve but it also fails to exceed or match any of those previous works. That said, the film does have its fans. (Schatzberg has been working on a sequel for a while.) Certainly, the 1973 Cannes Jury (headed by none other than Ingrid Bergman) liked it enough to give it the Palme.