Just a glance at the roll call of names attached to this film ought to perk up the eyes of virtually any classic film enthusiast. It's one of those cases in which some bonafide stars happened to be paired with others who were up and coming and who would find more fame later, resulting in a staggering (unweildy, to be truthful!) assortment of performers. Unfortunately, the end result was one that disappointed many people, from the moviegoers expecting to see a chase film to the director, who was denied final cut. The Chase is a 1966 movie that, while it remains a bit of a mess, is more than a little fascinating to behold.
The genesis of the film began with a 1952 Broadway production (which only ran for 31 performances), written by Horton Foote and directed by Jose Ferrer. (In fact, though the movie bears precious little resemblance to the stage play, and Ferrer had nothing to do with the film rendition fourteen years later, he and his original direction are noted in the credits!) The story concerned a small town, Texas sheriff (John Hodiak) who is longing to retire with his patient wife (Kim Hunter.) One of the prisoners he sent up – for life – has escaped and wants to kill him in revenge. The prisoner (Murray Hamilton) comes to town where his wife still resides (played by Theatre World winner Kim Stanley.) In this photo block are Hodiak and Hunter on top and Hamilton and Stanley on the bottom.
Maverick producer Sam Spiegel (who'd produced On the Waterfront) wanted to mount a movie version that would cast Marlon Brando as a fifth character, a wealthy cad in love with the convict's wife but, by the time the project finally saw the light of day in 1966, Brando was too old to play him, so he took the role of the sheriff. Spiegel, who produced the film for Columbia Pictures, also wanted Steve McQueen to take on the role of the thug, but it ultimately went to Robert Redford. (A less degenerate actor could not be found! Clean-cut, refined, blonde Redford is never once believable as a small-town delinquent!)
For the men's wives, Angie Dickinson was cast as Brando's other half while Jane Fonda took on the role of Redford's spouse. That other key role originally intended for Brando, of Redford and Fonda's childhood friend, a man not from their side of the tracks, but the wealthy scion of an empire run by his father (E.G. Marshall) was now open. For this part, Spiegel wanted to use Peter O'Toole, who he had under personal contract, but O'Toole flatly refused to do it, miffed at having been prevented from starring in Doctor Zhivago, resulting in British actor James Fox inheriting the part instead. His blonde locks were darkened in order to contrast with the golden tresses of Redford and Fonda.
Though the play only had about a dozen actors, total, in it, the movie script was filled out with multitudinous characters, mostly all played by someone who had been, was or would be a name brand actor or actress. Apart from the already stellar line-up of Brando, Fonda, Redford, Dickinson, Marshall and Fox, there were also Robert Duvall and Janice Rule as an unhappy couple. He, a meek banker must watch her carouse around the town looking for action, even from his own co-worker Richard Bradford. Bradford's wife, Martha Hyer, is a desperate drunk.
Then there are Redford's dejected parents, Malcolm Atterbury and Miss Miriam Hopkins, busybody couple Henry Hull and Jocelyn Brando, hard-partying teens Lori Martin and Paul Williams, racist, redneck businessmen Steve Inhat and Clifton James, Fonda's step-dad and bar owner Bruce Cabot and Fox's neglected wife Diana Hyland. If you think for one minute that The Underworld's favorite extra Leoda Richards is somehow absent from this movie, think again! She shows up multiple times at a glamorous BBQ and, in what may be a first, even showed up on one of the film's lobby cards! (She's in the bottom right corner of the one shown below.)
With Arthur Penn slated to direct and the script by Lillian Hellman, the project had “success” written all over it. The title designer for the James Bond films was hired to do them for The Chase and even Bond composer John Barry was enlisted to create his first American score. (There is a surprising lack of music in the lengthy movie, but what there is is often captivating.) Problems began right at the outset, however. Hellman's script, though she retained sole screen credit, was rewritten heavily during filming, losing its focus and, in some ways, softened, much to her dismay. Famed cinematographer Robert Surtees fell ill and was replaced (though the finished film is still quite glorious to look at when shown in its widescreen format.) Brando became disenchanted with his role, which he perceived as just a man wandering constantly about town. Then, when it was all in the can, the studio assembled the film without Penn's participation.
What made this last move so egregious is that Penn was known for filming scenes a few times in differing ways. He would do one take, sticking closely to the script. Then he'd do another with the actor allowed more leeway and some improvisation as a means towards creating more texture and spontaneity. The film was put together using, almost exclusively, the more standard, less-inspired takes, resulting in what he considered a hamstrung film that didn't properly represent him and his work. They even pointlessly flip-flopped the ending, hoping that no one would notice that Jane Fonda suddenly teleports from one place to the next since she is barely visible in the second to last scene of the final cut anyway, but, you know, precious little gets past me! She's sitting on the bench of the statue, in a moment which was supposed take place after the scene that is pasted in next.
To examine the finished work for a while, the film kicks off with two escaped convicts, Redford and a pal, tearing through the woods in their white uniforms. They use the guise of helplessness to lure a driver to stop and check on them, then swiftly thank him by attacking him for his clothing. Unfortunately, Redford's pal takes the matter at hand a bit too roughly and the man is killed, making Redford, who was almost free through time served before breaking out, a much-wanted felon!
The class and race-conscious setting is revealed straightaway when a passing car containing a black woman and her son comes upon the fleeing Redford. The young boy recognizes the distinctive prison garb and wants to become involved, but his mother stoically looks forever forward and tells him to do the same, remarking something along the lines that white men need to tend to white men's problems.
Redford hops a train that he believes is headed for Mexico only to find that he's actually headed straight for his home, a small Texas county town which is practically owned by fat cat Marshall. Marshall, who runs an empire borne on the back of badly-paid immigrant workers, is throwing a massive celebration to mark the plans of a university bearing his name as well as his own birthday. There are three parties in the movie, all on the same night, and this one is a glitzy, formal affair, with tuxedos and ball gowns, in other words, the party I'd be most eager to attend. (Never mind that the place is crawling with obnoxious, boozy, callous people. As it turns out, 90% of the town is that way anyway!) A wide variety of ladies is present, from beaded and baubled trophy wives to overweight matrons decked out in flashy cowboy gear.
It is here that we briefly meet Fox's wife Hyland, who is tan and done up in a gleaming white gown and has that hair that I go nuts for (only a small percentage of which, I'm sure, is even hers! That is NOT her above, by the way, but another guest.) And as I mentioned above, Miss Leoda Richards is often on hand, usually placed either in front of near a featured star. She's shown here at the extreme lower right, gripping the edge of a table. Marshall wants his son Fox and his wife Hyland to be happy, but they'll have none of it. She coolly accepts the prearranged situation they're in and he can't wait to ditch the party full of rich phonies and hot-foot it over to a motel where Redford's wife Fonda is waiting.
In case we might miss the fact that Fonda is in a motel, and even though a neon sign is shown backwards stating as much and her frequent use of motels is referred to more than once, someone decided to drive the point home with a full screen shot of the sign “MOTEL”!
He brings in two huge bottles of champagne and, without benefit of uncorking them, just smashes one's neck on the table, pouring it out of the broken end into the room's cheap glasses. They are about to get busy when she learns that her husband has escaped from prison and may need her help. It seems that she and Fox and Redford had formed a triad of friendship as young kids and she married Redford when it looked like she wouldn't be accepted into Fox's wealthy family. Now, she's faced with giving up Fox again if Redford returns or if she flees with him.
Meanwhile, Duvall, who works for Marshall, but wasn't invited to the fancy party, is having a raucous gathering at his house. The working class types are drinking and dancing frenetically, occasionally canoodling (not always with his or her own spouse) and even firing off a handgun now and again. This action leads Duvall's wife Rule to start spewing various double entendres about pistols, something she is not in any short supply of. Her flimsy dress, with no slip, is often threatening to ride up and show her bare thighs when it isn't plunging low enough to have a tit almost plop out!
Next door to Duvall, a gaggle of rowdy teens have gathered, frugging away to their own wild '60s music and getting more and more hyped up with each passing minute. There are several teen couples, but tossed into the mix is teeny Williams as a character called Seymour. He has an odd asexual quality, like a pre-op female-to-male tranny or something, complete with “moobs.” He was twenty-six at the time, but still looked like a child. That's him with the blonde hair and glasses.
Brando and Dickinson were fortunate enough to secure invites to the Marshall bash, but Brando becomes disturbed when he finds out that Marshall sent over an expensive designer gown for Dickinson to wear (giving her a brief chance to gussy up in an otherwise dowdy role for her.) She delightedly swishes around their living quarters in the dress, but ultimately puts on the old one that he'd previously purchased for her (which still looks good, just not as fancy. Dickinson was close to her physical prime at this point.)
As news begins to spread that Redford has flown the coop, the activities around town become more heated. Unlike the play the film is based on, Redford is not after Brando, nor is he a killer. He is more a hapless ne'er do well, caught up in the circumstances of his environment and upbringing. Nevertheless, many of the townspeople seem to want to do him harm and several of them develop a taste for blood as the evening drags on.
Redford lands at a junkyard run by an old black pal of his and asks the man to find Fonda for him. When the man heads to Fonda's apartment, he is accosted by Cabot and three of the drunken, racially-condescending and oppressive men of the town: Bradford, James and Inhat. Before they can work their hatred out on the black man, Brando intervenes, taking him to jail for his own safety. This doesn't stop the men, though, and they pursue the matter at the jail.
Things reach a fever pitch when Redford, Fonda and Fox are all three holed up in the junkyard with Marshall trying to get his son out while the thugs take it upon themselves to beat Brando to a bloody pulp (in the film's most famous scene.) They punch and throttle him all over his office in what was, for 1966, a graphically brutal display of violence. Penn would push the envelope further the next year when he directed Bonnie and Clyde, which ended in an extended bloodbath.
A badly pummeled Brando heads to the junkyard where, by now, virtually every person in town has also gathered. They amp themselves up into a frenzy, throwing molitav cocktails into the shelled-out cars in an effort to drive Redford out. They set huge rubber tires on fire and roll them down the hill into the lot. It basically becomes a riot. Since most of the “chase” had occurred over the opening credits, a better name for the film might have been “The Mob” or “The Hunted.”
By the time the dust settles, one person has been killed in an explosion and another has been cut down by an assassin's bullet, very much inspired by the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby (this was filmed in the wake of President Kennedy's murder, which also took place in Texas.) It's a bleak outcome for most of the characters with only a glimmer of hope for some of them. The downbeat, almost accusatory tale didn't sit well with most audiences and the film was not a success at the box office. In fact, its failure set producer Spiegel on the road to career ruin after having previously produced such cinematic touchstones as On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Suddenly, Last Summer and Laurence of Arabia! He next made the awkward Night of the Generals (with Peter O'Toole) and the silly The Happening (with Anthony Quinn and Faye Dunaway, who'd auditioned for a role in this film, but was turned away by a casting director for not being pretty enough for the movies!)
For Brando, one of the screen's most accomplished actors ever, this was just one disappointment in a string of middling films that threatened to permanently sideline his career (though there's no question that his own prickly behavior contirbuted significantly to this as well.) Although he did some decent work here and there (and is, in fact, quite good in this movie, if one can work through the infamous mumbling), it wasn't until 1972's The Godfather that he came completely out of the slump he'd fallen into (and even that role was given to him under protest from the executives at Paramount.)
Fonda had only been in films about six years at this point, but was on the heels of Cat Ballou, a big success. Freshly married to French director Roger Vadim, she was balancing Hollywood studio work with European movies. The year after this, she went red-haired for another southern-fried hoot, Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown (profiled elsewhere on this site) and then paired with Redford again in the decidedly less dramatic Barefoot in the Park. (They would collaborate a final time in 1979 with The Electric Horseman.) Oddly, for The Chase, she didn't even attempt any sort of accent while for Sundown, she certainly did.
This was only Redford's fifth film (one of which was an unbilled bit as a basketball player in Fonda's 1960 debut Tall Story.) He had yet to establish the star identity that would make him a major name in the '70s. Prior to this, he played a closeted homosexual in Inside Daisy Clover, but two years after this, he landed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the rest was history. Despite playing a sweaty, mud-soaked, desperate escapee here, his hair is rarely mussed and retains its side part through thick and thin. The shots of him shown here are directly after he has stated to Fonda, “I guess I don't look too good...” I beg to differ! Though he is not an Underworld obsession, he clearly had some seriously good looks as a young man and little to nothing was done here to mask them. He would later play a sheriff in hot pursuit of a desperate and misunderstood young man in 1969's Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, with Robert Blake as the prey!
Marshall was a two-decade long film veteran by this time, but was one of those actors who always seemed to play characters older than himself. He was frosted with fake gray hair for his part here, but at least he really was twenty-five years senior to the actor playing his son. At the time of filming, he'd just completed a successful run on television with the legal drama The Defenders. He would continue a busy career in character parts and, in fact, his final two roles were in TV-movie updates of The Defenders in 1997 and '98, the year in which he died from lung cancer. In The Underworld, he is notorious as the clean-freak who is beseiged by an army of cockroaches in Creepshow, a sequence I cannot watch.
Dickinson had been in films for about a dozen years by this point and continued to do them (as well as television) through the early '70s when she made her big splash as Sgt. Pepper Anderson on Police Woman. She had just married composer Burt Bacharach in 1965 and would stay with him until 1980. She manages to make the most of a somewhat colorless role and surely relished the opportunity to play opposite Brando. Her part mostly relegates her to reacting to the events around her, but she does so rather well here, especially following Brando's big fight scene.
Rule got her big break as a teenager cast opposite Joan Crawford in Goodbye, My Fancy in 1951, but by 1966 was essaying far more adult types of roles. Though she kept busy through the mdi-to-late '70s, she never really hit it big. In what could possibly be taken as something of an insult, she was brought in to Burt Lancaster's The Swimmer to re-film all of Barbara Loden's role because it was decided that Loden was stealing the show from its star! Her character in The Chase is first shown in a dress that resembles snakeskin, allowing her to slither into her husband's office and proceed to flirt with his co-worker Bradford, practically right in front of him! Someone from the gaggle of writers involved with the later film Airport '77 had to have seen this sequence because the set-up of an audacious wife flirting with her husband's associate (after having already slept with him previously) and egging him on for more is repeated very closely. Lee Grant even seductively blows on Gil Gerard's hair, which is something that Rule does to Bradford in The Chase! Interestingly, Rule turned down the female lead opposite Brando in On the Waterfront (which wound up scoring Eva Marie Saint an Oscar!) in order to work on the stage. Always resistant to the artifice of the Hollywood studio system, this reluctance to play along ended up costing her the sort of stardom she might have otherwise had. She eventually achieved a PhD in psychiatry and later died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003 at age seventy-two.
Her onscreen paramour Bradford really was from Texas and made his debut here. The prematurely gray actor (not yet thirty at the time of shooting) had been studying with Lee Strasberg prior to this and soon afterwards was selected to headline a brooding spy series in the U. K. called Man in a Suitcase. Remarkably, this show was a cult favorite, despite only lasting thirty episodes, and remains a fan favorite there even today. He continued to work here and there in films, most notably in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables. He also played Dr. Joe Gannon in the pilot for Medical Center, but the series starred Chad Everett in his place.
Miss Hopkins, an infamous scene-stealer and, at times, quite hyper actress is very dour here, though she does have one very showy public meltdown that is quite over the top. It's simultaneously fun and shocking to see Brando knock on her door and have what looks like one of the statues from Easter Island answer it! She has makeup on, but there's just no disguising that weather-beaten face. (She was only sixty-four at the time - think about that! - but looks older.) Her character here is down and out, and she plays it most of the time with considerable restraint, but it's a hoot when she finally lets it all hang out. It's interesting that she used so many mannerisms and facial gymnastics as a younger actress to draw focus and yet can still do so here by remaining nearly movement and expression free. The pendulum swung another way for once, but the result was the same. She's captivating. She would make 1970's Savage Intruder, one of the psycho-biddy movies, before passing away of a heart attack in 1972 at age seventy.
Hyer, another native Texan. had had a pretty good run in the 1950s, with even an Oscar nomination in '58 for Some Came Running, but by this time was about to slide into some dastardly career decisions. Her part here is hideously embarrassing and she makes quite a fool of herself, especially sitting on a sofa back, plastered, and “shooting” off a long-stemmed rose as if it's a machine gun (though it's hard to pick a "worst moment"!) She's frequently described by viewers as chubby in The Chase, but she's really just busty. Her waistline is quite small compared to everything else. In just a couple of years, though, she would indeed “fill out” some and wound up in a head-scratching array of awful roles in things like Picture Mommy Dead, The Happening and Once You Kiss A Stranger... What's most confounding about this is that she had married produced Hal Wallis in 1966 and surely didn't need to work and, if she wanted to, might have secured something in one of his movies and not the tripe she acted in. She finally gave up after 1973's The Day of the Wolves and is still with us, in comfy retirement, now aged eighty-seven!
Duvall, who has since emerged to become one of the movies' great actors as well, was still doing a lot of smaller roles and plenty of television. He'd been personally recommended by author Foote for his prior role in To Kill a Mockingbird and the two formed a close working relationship from then on, ultimately resulting in an Oscar for Duvall years later for Tender Mercies. He continued to plug along after The Chase, with parts in Frank Sinatra's The Detective, Steve McQueen's Bullitt and John Wayne's True Grit until a gig with Francis Ford Coppola called The Rain People ultimately led to his casting in The Godfather. He then kicked into high gear with that Oscar and five additional nominations, still at it today at age eighty. In The Chase, it seems at first as if he is going to be a featured part of the goings on, but by the end he has all but disappeared from the proceedings, lurking around with few, if any, lines.
British Fox had been a child actor before growing into more adult roles as the '60s dawned. His slighter older brother Edward Fox had a slightly more successful movie career (with Day of the Jackal a particular highlight) while James struggled with various personal issues and the dabbling into drugs, which helped to set off a nervous breakdown in the early '70s. Fortunately, after nearly a decade away, he returned to the profession and has been a busy character actor ever since, with recent movies including Johnny Depp's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock Holmes.
Hyland, who as far as I'm concerned never looked better than she did here, was a busy TV actress who occasionally landed a feature film. After a long string of working on practically every popular show on television, she was cast in Eight is Enough, a seriocomic family series in which she and Dick van Patten were parents to an octet of children. Sadly, she discovered that she had breast cancer and was dead after only having filmed several episodes. Her lover at the time, John Travolta, had met her the previous year during The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (in which she played his mother!) and was especially crushed by her too-early passing at age forty-one.
This was Henry Hull's final role though he lived another eleven years, passing on at age eighty-six. A film actor from way back in 1917 and a notable stage performer as well, he had amassed a wealth of credits by this time. His character in The Chase is intrusive and more than a little annoying, but Hull was a talented, textured actor who was able to convey a variety of moods in his work.
Jocelyn Brando was a Broadway actress before her kid brother took the world by storm. Blacklisting in the 1950s stymied her career, but Marlon was able to help her get this gig as well as another in the previous The Ugly American. She is immortal to camp movie fans everywhere as (fictional) Redbook journalist Barbara Bennett in Mommie Dearest, the gregarious writer who is witness to one of Faye's biggest meltdowns when her daughter dares to challenge her “in front of a reporter... a reporter!” Another of those performers who always seemed to play older parts, she was, in fact, almost three decades younger than her onscreen husband Hull!
Aged character actress Nydia Westman had a small part as a dottering, Bible-carrying senior citizen who tended to burst into the middle of situations and announce her intentions of praying for everyone involved. She has a hysterical moment in which she enters Hopkins house and starts singing “Blessed Assurance” in a very rote way. Here, she's shown parading through the town square as oddball Williams cheers in the background. Williams, an undeniably great songwriter, tried his hand at acting, but was only marginally successful. Probably his acting highlight was as a supporting actor in the Smokey and the Bandit movies.
James, who is still with us at age ninety (!), was an expert at playing overweight blowhards and authority figures. (He's pictured far right here.) Inhat was a Czechoslovakian who was able to perfectly mask his native accent and effectively play American characters. Usually cast as a merciless villain (in films like Madigan and on an episode of Star Trek), he occasionally played a more sympathetic type (such as on an episode of Marcus Welby, M.D. In which he was the father of an autistic son.) Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1972 at only the age of thirty-seven.
Cabot was once a popular leading man, notably in the classic King Kong, though he was even more effective as a villain (as in 1936's Last of the Mohicans as the vicious Magua.) By this time, he was having trouble eking out a living as an actor, but an alliance with John Wayne helped ensure him some character bits in Wayne's many films of the 60s and just beyond. A one-time close friend of Errol Flynn, his treatment of Errol during the making of a (never to be finished or released) movie he was producing and starring in, caused a downward spiral that eventually broke Flynn's spirit and his bank account. Cabot died in 1972 at the age of sixty-eight of lung and throat cancer.
The Chase is a real curio. Time and again, while watching it, events are either discussed or alluded to that have occurred before the action of the screenplay and one can't help thinking, “If they'd shown that, this might have been more interesting!” Too many hands in there dabbling must have drained it of much of its impact. Several subplots are left without resolution. At the time of its making, there was a sort of underlying resentment towards Texas because that was where the U.S. lost its (mostly) beloved President Kennedy. (This wasn't completely assuaged until the advent of the TV series Dallas.) The movie was seen as a sort of indictment of vigilantism and mob mentality as well as a condemnation of society in general. It plays better if viewed as a fable or allegory rather than as a legitimate piece of drama. The film's constantly-squabbling background conflict led Leonard Maltin to comment that the drama behind the scenes was more interesting than the finished product!
As a lover of all-star films and of almost anything made during that 1964 – 1969 period when movies still looked glossy and beautiful no matter how sordid the subject matter, I can't help but enjoy it. It's just a shame that Penn was never able to assemble it the way he wanted so that we might find a truly great movie instead of a merely interesting flawed one.