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DVD SAVANT

The CHASE


The Chase
Columbia TriStar
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 133 min. / Street Date February 24, 2004 / 24.96
Starring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson, Janice Rule, Miriam Hopkins, Martha Hyer, Richard Bradford, Robert Duvall, James Fox, Diana Hyland, Henry Hull, Jocelyn Brando, Clifton James, Steve Ihnat
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Production Designer Richard Day
Art Direction Robert Luthardt
Film Editor Gene Milford
Original Music John Barry
Written by Lillian Hellman from the novel by Horton Foote
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Directed by Arthur Penn

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This fascinating soap opera of hatred and lawlessness seems determined to punish the state of Texas for the crime of killing John F. Kennedy. Pauline Kael was right when she said that Lillian Hellman's screenplay portrayed the bloodthirsty redneck Texans as demonic alien creatures. The story winds itself into a tense and violent thriller .... but boy, is it a rigged deck or what?

Marlon Brando heads a terrific cast in what became Arthur Penn's biggest boxoffice disappointment, just prior to his bases-loaded home run Bonnie & Clyde. Other production departments are top-notch, and this DVD will be the first opportunity many viewers have of seeing the film in its impressive Panavision dimensions.

Synopsis:

A small Texas town goes insane when news arrives that local bad boy Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison and is heading home. His wife Anna (Jane Fonda) has taken up with their childhood friend Jake Rogers (James Fox), son of the local land baron Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). One of Rogers' bank VPs, Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall), fears Bubber is headed back to settle an old score. It's a Saturday night, drunken parties are in full swing and there's no stopping the racist, lawless, gun-toting locals determined to 'protect' the town from Bubber. Only the lone sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) exhibits any restraint. Most of his constituency think he's the bought dog of Val Rogers.

You can tell it's a Marlon Brando picture - it all seems prearranged to insure that he's given one heck of a scene where the evil Texans beat the &#%! out of him. The impromptu crucifixion-by-beating scene has been a Brando standard ever since On the Waterfront, and The Chase delivers a lulu. Uninhibited by the modern MPAA's animosity toward red blood, Brando leaks hemoglobin all over the place. Blood was never sexier.

That's just one highlight in a story determined to sell the notion that America is Evil. From the bottom up and the top down, the citizens of this ugly place are an encyclopedia of sin. The local businessmen prepare a wild night for the dentists' convention. The Rogers clan packs off their unhappy migrant workers with cheap used televisions instead of expected pay. Val Rogers' lavish barbecue soaks the ugly rich for millions for a new college carrying his name. Val is beside himself with anxiety because his unhappy son Jake's marriage is a sham put on for appearances' sake.

Uninvited, Rogers' bank employees hold their own drunken Saturday night bash. Bored businessmen Richard Bradford, Clifton James (David and Lisa, Live and Let Die) and Steve Ihnat pack guns and lust after the teenage girls at the party next door. Mascara runs down the face of drunken housewife Martha Hyer - her husband's carrying on with somebody else's wife right in front of her. Nobody even tries to conceal the rampant adultery.

Meanwhile, Jane Fonda waits for her rich boyfriend over in the bad part of town, while an obnoxious real estate salesman and his wife (Henry Hull and Jocelyn Brando) provide a nosy Greek chorus to all the commandment-breaking that's going on.

Sheriff Brando puts on his best Saturday mumble and faces up bravely to the general scorn, even when baited by slut housewife Janice Rule (in a rare socko performance):

Janice Rule: "Hiya Sheriff. Wanna join our party? All you need is a pistol, and you surely got one."
Marlon Brando: "With so many pistols around here already, it don't look like you'd have room for mine."

The main conflict for Brando's Sheriff Calder is trying to hold onto his dignity while serving as Val Rogers' appointed sheriff. The resentment grows when Calder and his wife Ruby (Angie Dickinson, in fine form) are invited to the swank party. Calder keeps telling himself that he's just a man with a job trying to earn back the farm he lost (shades of The Grapes of Wrath) and doesn't want any special favors. But like Marshall Kane in High Noon, he becomes one man alone against the entire community. Bubber Reeves, actually desperate and harmless, is taken as a threat by everyone. When push comes to shove, the upstanding citizens are the ones who attack the Sheriff and beat information out of a defenseless black man in his holding cell (Joel Fluellen). The rest of the townspeople gawk idly as Calder collapses on his own jailhouse steps while his wife begs for help. Penn isolates their wanton faces.

The symbolism comes on thick and fast in an automobile junkyard, the last outpost of the American Dream. The town's three parties converge there in a mix of posse, lynch mob and midnight picnic. The illusion of a dangerous Bubber Reeves incites a storm of emotions and sexual energy - a teenage girl dares her boyfriend to prove his love by retrieving his ring from a fire, and the local brat kid (Paul Williams - that Paul Williams, I think) composes a song for Bubber on the spot. The burning garbage and car wrecks scream an all-too obvious message: Society is boiling in its own consumer evils.

At this point it all clicks. Foote and Hellman are plumbing the same waters as Billy Wilder's story about collective depravity Ace in the Hole. There are also resemblances to Try and Get Me!, the socially-conscious noir that concludes with a horrifying lynching. Not only does Robert Redford resemble a Kennedy, but there's an appalling ending scene (Spoiler! Next Paragraph! I warned you!) ...

... an appalling ending scene where a man is shot in a faithful recreation of the Lee Harvey Oswald mob hit. The handcuffed victim is helpless, and the result is as bloody as all get-out. In '65-'66 movie violence was accelerating to express the madness in the American culture (wars, riots, assassinations). The Chase is probably too quick in its judgment, indicting the nation and the South in particular as lawless scum not worthy of their own flag. Few Americans recognized Foote and Hellman's small-town sewer as an accurate representation.

The movie is rigged like a funnel - it allows only one emotional reading of all scenes. The frustration over Sheriff Calder's situation boils so hot, that in screenings I attended cheers erupted when he finally pays back a few of his attackers. Brando has to be restrained from killing someone. Our emotions are so keyed up over the injustice, we wish he'd start killing everybody. 1

Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde '32) has a sobering turn as Bubber's grieving but hateful mother; loathsome Steve Ihnat is the worst of the white-collar vipers.  2 Of the main cast, Jane Fonda is very good in perhaps her first truly successful performance; I never bought her as a comedienne. A young Robert Duvall gets a solid outing as Janice Rule's gutless lapdog husband. Clifton James' racist jewelry salesman is a lot more nuanced than the redneck Sheriff Pepper character he played in two James Bond movies and a Superman sequel.

The Panavision cinematography is dazzling and John Barry's nervous western score combines with it to give The Chase a look and feel of its own. Audiences reacted negatively to the movie's huge dose of negative vibes ... nobody except a guilty liberal likes being told they're an evil racist, and I'm given to understand the film didn't do well. Righteous indictment or irresponsible smear, the film is a top-rank Marlon Brando picture and a key representative of the violent 60s.

An assistant art director on the film worked on 1941 and told me how they modified the Warner backlot to shoot the town square scene. It's the same square seen in hundreds of pictures and TV shows, with Bye Bye Birdie coming to mind as a prime example.

Unbilled at the Rogers barbecue are Eduardo Cianelli, and W.C. Fields' old comedy nemesis Grady Sutton.


Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Chase is a fine enhanced widescreen transfer that makes the old so-so laserdisc version look bleary and smeary. The bold soundtrack appears to be mono. There aren't any extras except some promo trailers. Maybe Columbia will get with the added value concept someday, but right now even an original trailer on one of their library titles is too much to ask. I don't feel like complaining as long as they put DVDs out in such good transfers and appropriate aspect ratios.

Their liner text is terrible, however. It doesn't for a moment "get" what the movie is about and just plain misrepresents the plot. Angie Dickinson doesn't try to talk Brando out of bringing Bubber in alive. Val Rogers doesn't want to cover up his son's affair, he just wants Jake to be safe.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Chase rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: just promo trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 13, 2004


Footnotes:

1. I saw it first with a group of mostly black Air Force airmen, who were on their feet shouting for Brando to start killing people. The Chase also played well to the radicals at the UCLA film school. A hot-headed Ethiopian exchange student (who hated "the man" and liked to brandish an unloaded gun in the film department's tech office) identified with the Sheriff Calder character as a righteous loner who "should have killed 'em all."
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2. Steve Ihnat was a noted theater director as well; his movie reputation is split between his Jack Ruby clone here and a fanatical serial killer in Don Siegel's superior Madigan three years later. It would be good to see something where he played a nice character.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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