My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
We watched Jeremiah Johnson and I STILL have Chandler singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” stuck in my head.
It was my choice this time around. We mutually decided that we’re sticking with Redford for the long haul, so that helped narrow down the options. We’d already discussed wanting to watch Brubaker, Sneakers, and a few others that at least one of us had seen many many years ago. But I wanted something new. By which I mean something old. Redford’s break came in 1967 with Barefoot in the Park, so I selected a film from just before then, when he was just some jobbing actor still. I went with The Chase.
The Chase and me
I’d never heard of The Chase before the Chain Reaction Film Club. And all I knew when we sat down to watch was the IMDB blurb (below) and that alongside Redford it also starred Marlon Brando as a sheriff, and Jane Fonda. Seemed plucky, but why had I never heard of it…?
The Chase (1966): The escape of Bubber Reeves from prison affects the inhabitants of a small Southern town. 7.3 stars.
Expectation gap can be a terrible and a wonderful thing. While I’m sick of films being wilfully mis-sold by their trailers (more on that at the end), it’s also perfectly possible to sometimes just get the wrong end of the stick. That’s what happened with The Chase, and took about half the film for me to catch up.
From the title and the IMDb blurb I thought I knew roughly what I was in for. A convict on the run; a small town sheriff the only man who can catch him; a bit of tension, a bit of action, everything coated in a layer of dust.
In actual fact The Chase is a sub-Tennessee Williams Southern melodrama, and probably all the better for it (having since looked up the writer, Horton Foote, I feel a bit bad about calling him sub-Tennessee Williams given he’s won the Pulitzer prize. But I do think it gives a sense of the tone).
Yes, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison. And yes, Marlon Brando is Sheriff Calder, the law man on the spot. But for starters it’s set contemporaneously (I think). And Redford is barely in it. Instead we spend an evening in Bubber’s home town which, purely accidentally, is where he’s headed. The town bigwig, an oil man, is hosting a birthday party to which the great and the good are invited, as is Sheriff Calder, who was installed in office by the bigwig himself. But the sheriff isn’t happy that the bigwig has bought his wife an ostentatious dress for the occasion. The sheriff isn’t to be bought so easily…
PLUS the bigwig’s son Jake (James Fox) is in a marriage of convenience and both parties know they’re merely playing, but bigwig doesn’t understand… and Jake also happens to have always been in love with, and is carrying on an affair with his friend Bubber Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).
PLUS the bigwig’s earnest employee (Robert Duvall, would you believe) is also hosting a party, put out that the bigwig never invites him. But his wife is fairly openly having an affair, and happened to tell Bubber Reeves a couple of years ago that Duvall set him up for the first crime he was convicted of.
PLUS another employee of bigwig, the one Duvall’s wife is having an affair with, is married to a drunk and is a racist, just waiting for an excuse to teach a black man a lesson (with his two burly friends in tow, of course).
PLUS there’s an elderly town snoop who… seems to be everywhere at once and know all the secrets.
PLUS Bubber Reeves’ mother thinks Sheriff Calder just wants to kill Bubber, but is arranging to sell her house to the town snoop in order to fund a lawyer. And she really blames herself for whatever has gone so wrong in Bubber’s life.
PLUS Bubber is implicated in a murder during the escape but Calder doesn’t bring in outside forces to catch him, in order to ensure he’ll live.
PLUS… I’m pretty sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten.
But what I mean is there’s a LOT going on here. Simmering sexual frustration, racism reaching boiling point, a town full of secrets that everyone knows really, a powder keg just waiting for notorious wild boy Reeves to come back and light the fuse.
And there’s the slight hole at the centre of all of this. Ten years earlier, Brando could have played Reeves (actually the part would’ve been too small for him I reckon, but it’s a Brando kind of part nonetheless). But Redford… isn’t that guy. It’s funny to think of a time before Redford was a star, before his screen persona, with its limits and its inversions, was etched in the mind. But he’s not a wild man. He’s not a kid that’s always been on the wrong side of the tracks. When his wife finally catches up to him near the end of the film he says something about looking terrible. But he has that chiselled jaw, not a hair out of place and might as well just have taken a bath. He looks like young Robert Redford goddamnit, not a wild con on the run with a troubled history.
It’s not enough to spoil the film, but I think it’s part of the reason I’d not heard of it. Cast someone properly dangerous in that role and it could elevate the whole shebang.
Oh, and there’s some INCREDIBLE dancing.
If you’re interested, the two recentish films that win joint Most Mis-sold awards from me are It Comes at Night and Inherent Vice. It Comes at Night trailers made it look like a traditional jump scare horror. In fact it was hellishly tense and horrific, but not a standard popcorn-in-the-air horror. It was one of my favourite films of that year, but I think some audiences were disappointed because they were expecting something else. And Inherent Vice had one of the funniest trailers I’d ever seen. It was great – I still quote it in fact (“molto pancaku!”). But the film is a sluggish, stoned bore.
Perhaps not an overlooked classic, but there’s much to recommend if you can chase it down.
We’re sticking with Redford. Expect Brubaker, Sneakers, Electric Horseman and The Sting at the very least before we move on…