Two drifters with dim prospects meet on an empty western road (complete with tumbleweed) and throw in together in Jerry Schartzberg‘s great (and not well-enough known) 1973 Palme d’Or winner, “Scarecrow.”
A road movie that in many ways created a template for others that followed (Max materializes out of a remote landscape–ditto, Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas;” scenes play out on lonesome highways and in sad cafes; beleaguered characters look for love or one last chance), “Scarecrow” chronicles the unlikely friendship between Max (Gene Hackman), self-described “meanest SOB alive,” recently released from prison, and newly discharged sailor, sweet-natured, laughter-loving Francis (Al Pacino). Max renames him Lion .
Neither man is part of the era’s counterculture and yearns for his piece of the conventional American dream. Max, sporting an odd layered look, never removing a collegiate letter sweater, is headed for his promised land, Pittsburgh, where he intends to become a business owner, running a car wash. Francis is determined to reach Detroit, hoping to restart a life with his ex and the child he’s never met. He carries a small lamp in a white box with a red bow–it’s a unisex gift, he doesn’t know if he has a son or daughter. Like Diogenes searching in the sunlit streets of Athens for an honest man, Francis is looking for an honest break. But uncertain of the welcome he’ll receive, he accepts Max’s offer of a partnership in Pennsylvania.
After a detour to visit Max’s sister in Denver, which ends in a going away party brawl, the two are delayed for a month in a prison work camp. Upon their release, in a spectacular-looking boxing-themed bar, Max, with his short fuse about to blow again, chooses, as he sees Francis exiting, to forgo fighting and instead performs an amazing impromptu striptease. Adhering to Francis’ way of getting by, he leaves his would be assailant and the bar’s patrons laughing.
Events in Detroit sink Francis and he is committed to a psychiatric hospital. Max who earlier in the film pronounced, “I don’t trust anyone, I don’t love anyone” now begs a mute and motionless Francis to come with him, “I can’t do it alone.” At the bus station, leaving for Pittsburgh, Max scrapes together the cash for a round-trip ticket.
“Scarecrow” will open at Film Forum on Friday, May 17 for a one-week run. Director Jerry Schatzberg will introduce the 7:30 pm show on opening night with a Q&A to follow the screening.