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Murder Slim Review: SCARECROW

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Schatzberg may not be a name you're familiar with these days. But back in the early 70s, he was dating Faye Dunaway and was a big deal in independent movies. His first major movie, PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (which I'll review later), was nominated for the Palme D'Or. And this one, SCARECROW, won it.

Yet despite its success at Cannes, SCARECROW was a financial and critical flop. It's said that this so upset Gene Hackman (he rates this as one of his favourite roles) that Hackman subsequently focussed much more on mainstream movies.

Now, of course, some movies deserve to fail. And Cannes hardly has an unblemished record of picking great - hell, even good - movies. But they got it right where audiences didn't with SCARECROW. It's a well made, surprising, memorable 70s movie. Tone wise, there are shades of the much more successful (and even more superb) ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. SCARECROW is yet another 70s movie about successfully bucking the system until - eventually - the system bites back more savagely than before.

The movie starts with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino waiting on a windswept road, carefully watching each other. Hackman's Max is an ex-con with a temper, while Pacino's "Lion" is an ex-sailor hoping to reunite with his long-lost girlfriend and kid. You know you're in for a treat within the first 10 minutes. From the beautifully drawn out scene by the side of the road, to the interaction and banter between Max and Lion, it has that 70s' patience when developing characters.

This is an odd role for Pacino. He's a goofball for huge chunks of the movie. And he carries it off damn well... a well-meaning guy who avoids sticky situations - and his own increasing doubts - through laughter. As he explains, he's self-consciously a "scarecrow":
Lion: Hey Max, you heard the story of the scarecrow?
Max Millan: No.
Lion: You think crows are scared of a scarecrow?
Max Millan: Yeah, I think they're scared. Yeah why?
Lion: No, crows are not scared, believe me.
Max Millan: The god damn crows are scared.
Lion: No, crows are laughin'.
Max Millan: Nah, that's bullshit...
Lion: That's right, the crows are laughin'. Look, the farmer puts out a scarecrow, right, with a funny hat on it, got a funny face. The crows fly by, they see that, it strikes 'em funny, makes 'em laugh.
Max Millan: The god damn crows are laughin'?
Lion: That's right, they're laughin' their asses off. And then they say, "Well, that ol' farmer Jo down there, he's a pretty good guy. He made us laugh, so he won't bother him any more."
Max Millan: The god damn crows are laughin'...
Lion: Ohh, they laughin', woooo!
Max Millan: I gotta tell ya somethin', that's the most hare-brained idea I've ever heard.
Lion: It's true, they're laughin' their asses off.
Max Millan: The crows are laughin'... I guess the fish are reciting poetry...
Lion: I guess so!

Max is another interesting departure for Gene Hackman. He plays what is essentially a "heavy," a tough guy who's much less of a thinker than in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He's the scary half of the "scarecrow" metaphor, albeit one with a heart o' gold. Max is a guy you don't mess with because he'll kick your ass. The size difference between Hackman and Pacino works great here... with Hackman appearing all the more hulking.

This is a movie about great conversations and understated yet powerful use of location and atmosphere. But the story also flows nicely, and has a number of stand-out scenes. When the guys try to market their new carwash, there are some great drunken moments that finish with Lion in a flameproof costume is the middle of a fire. There's also some funny stuff with both Max and Lion trying to flirt with girls. Most of the stuff you'll remember from the film will be comic, but there's a tough edge to the movie too. Pacino conveys his mental descent well, and there's a rough ol' prison scene where Pacino is almost raped by another convict (played by the always creepy looking Richard Lynch).

SCARECROW racks in at almost two hours, and it'll be a little too long for some. And, yeah, maybe it is a tiny bit below some of the absolute classics of the 70s. But it's still an excellent movie and, given its current lack of any fanfare or fame, SCARECROW should prove a great discovery for you.

Review by Steve Hussy