The Chase, a small-town Texas melodrama from 1966, opens with Robert Redford escaping from prison.
Redford is playing Bubber Reeves. Bubber, we’re told, has spent the last few years in a tough Texas prison, convicted of a murder that he didn’t commit. Now, he’s on the run and he’s probably returning to his hometown. His wife, Anna (Jane Fonda), still lives there, though Anna is now having an affair with Jake Rogers (James Fox). Jake is the son of the most powerful man in town, Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Jake also used to be Bubber’s best friend but now, he’s wracked with guilt about his affair with Anna.
Meanwhile, the townspeople are all worried that Bubber is going to seek revenge on the people who were responsible for him going to prison. Some of them know that he was actually innocent and some of them think that he’s actually the killer that he’s been made out to be but what they all have in common is that they’re worried about what Bubber’s gong to do when he shows up. Maybe they should have thought about the possibility of him getting mad and vengeful before they gave him a nickname like Bubber.
Anyway, Sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) is convinced that Bubber is innocent but the townspeople still want him to allow them to gun Bubber down as soon as they see him. Sheriff Calder, however, is determined to keep the peace and make sure that the law prevails. He’s a man of unimpeachable integrity, working in a town full of people who are too cowardly to concern themselves with doing the right thing.
As everyone waits for Bubber to arrive. tempers come to the surface, a good deal of alcohol is consumed, and secrets are revealed. It all ends in tragedy, of course. One of the final scenes clumsily recreates the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Chase wouldn’t be an achingly self-serious film from 1966 if it didn’t.
There’s a few obvious problems with The Chase, the main one being that Robert Redford, who was 30 years-old when The Chase was released, looks surprisingly good for someone who has spent the last few years locked away in a tough Texas prison. Redford manage to escape from prison and run through a swamp without getting one single hair out of place. There’s nothing particularly dangerous about Redford in this film, which is surprising when you consider that The Chase was made just three years before Redford’s convincing turn as a laconic (if charming) killer in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. For The Chase to work, Bubber Reeves would have to be a force of nature but, whenever Redford’s on screen, you just find yourself wondering how someone who looks that good got stuck with a nickname like Bubber. The townspeople talk about Bubber like he’s a wild outlaw but Redford is just too laid back to pull it off. He comes across less like a wanted criminal and more like a California surfer who has somehow found himself in rural Texas.
As for the rest of the cast — well, there’s a lot of them. It’s a big ensemble film and good luck to anyone trying to keep track of who is related to who. Surprisingly enough, Marlon Brando is very convincing as a Texas sheriff, never allowing Sheriff Calder to turn into a stereotype. Less surprising is the fact that Robert Duvall, playing an frustrated husband, is also convincing in his role. Brando and Duvall, of course, would both go on to co-star in The Godfather. (Supposedly, when shooting of The Godfather began, Duvall was the only member of the cast with no fear of joking around with Brando, largely because they had bonded while working on The Chase.) Unfortunately, as good as Brando and Duvall are, they’re both let down in the hair department. Brando gets stuck with a hairpiece while Duvall is forced to go with a comb-over.
Some of the other performers are good and some of them are bad but none of them are particularly convincing as the residents of a small Texas town. James Fox, for instance, is very British. Jane Fonda and Angie Dickinson (cast as Calder’s wife) seem to be bored. E.G. Marshall is believably rich but never believably Southern. The other performers all tend to overact, especially once the people in town start drinking, shooting, hitting, and, in some cases, dancing. Somehow, Shelley Winters is not in the film, even though it seems like she should be.
The Chase was directed by Arthur Penn and written by Lillian Hellman. (The screenplay was based on a play and novel by Horton Foote.) Penn would follow up The Chase with Bonnie and Clyde and Alice’s Restaurant, two films that also dealt, for more successfully, with The Chase‘s themes of violence, community hypocrisy, and outlaw romanticism. Jane Fonda would go on to play Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film, Julia. For Julia, Fonda was nominated for an Oscar. For The Chase, she was not.
The Chase is one of those films that wants to say something important but doesn’t seem to be quite sure what. It’s a long and dramatic movie that doesn’t really add up to much. In the end, I think the main lesson to be learned here is not to allow your children to get a nickname like Bubber. There’s just no escape from a bad nickname.