The Getaway movie poster

Jim Thompson’s 1958 novel The Getaway is vintage Thompson. Sam Peckinpah’s early ’70s movie adaptation of the novel is comically bad.

I don’t know that The Getaway is a truly great Jim Thompson novel. I probably wouldn’t put it in my top five. There are some dives into backstory that could be handled with a little more finesse, and the characters, while interesting enough, don’t come alive in the same way that many Thompson characters do. But it is, after all, a Jim Thompson novel, so it hangs together and is imbued with the unique, bleak, cynical mood that all Thompson fans are familiar with, and it ends with a heavy dose of literary surrealism just to let you know you’re not reading a run-of-the-mill crime yarn.

I was prompted to hunt down and read The Getaway after I happened to watch Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 movie adaptation of it, mainly to find out if it’s possible that Thompson wrote a story as idiotic and pointless as what is depicted in the film.

As it turns out, Thompson didn’t.

Book Plot Versus Movie Adaptation Plot

Carter “Doc” McCoy, the main character in Thompson’s book, is not the main character Steve McQueen gives us in Peckinpah’s movie. Thompson’s McCoy is the quintessential con man, loquacious, ingratiating, creative, and sly–as well as the quintessential tough career criminal, always ready with some highly effective violence.

Peckinpah’s, and McQueen’s, McCoy is a grouchy, tight-lipped loser with a remarkably bad haircut. He doesn’t have anything like the gift of gab, and unlike Thompson’s McCoy, he isn’t hemmed into a bad situation by bad luck, but continuously does idiotic things when all he had to do was, basically, nothing … just drive away with the loot.

Instead, things like this keep happening: After the big bank robbery is pulled off and the town is on high alert and he and Ali McGraw are cruising away with nobody suspecting them, he suddenly puts the gas pedal to the floor, screeching tires around corners, narrowly avoiding head-ons, and finally barrelling his car through someone’s front porch.

Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw in a car.
“Nobody suspects us. Maybe you should start driving like you’re having a seizure.”

It seems that Sam Peckinpah felt some action would be good here, and so he just put it in, without modifying the script to justify it.

Book Plot

The plot, in the book, has to do with nearly-middle-aged Doc McCoy’s criminal career running off its rails after a lifetime of him being able to out-hustle and out-think his shady colleagues. Doc has a wife 13 years his junior, and he knows that if he spends any more time in prison, he’s going to lose her and everything else.

As the story opens, Doc was recently set free from prison because he got his wife to bribe the head of the parole board (with more than money, we eventually learn), and the bank job that is the basis for the story’s action is the big score necessary to pay off the crooked official and live happily ever after.

But, of course, everything goes awry, because if it didn’t, there would be no story. Doc’s old crime partner, Rudy “Pie Head” Turrento–so nick-named because during his birth, a doctor’s forceps left him with a permanently wedge-shaped cranium–is handling the hands-on portion of the bank robbery, and he plans to kill Doc and escape with the loot, just as Doc plans to kill him and escape with the loot…

That is the story, and as handled by Thompson, it’s logical, and the awful luck that continuously besets Doc is just awful luck.

Movie Adaptation Plot

However, in the movie adaptation, these forces are only hinted at clumsily. Rather than explain anything, Peckinpah tries to show Doc’s frustration with scene after scene of the man silently brooding, which comes off either intensely awkward or laugh-out-loud funny. The best worst scene is probably when Doc is first released, and he and the wife go to the park so they can bask in the moment (or something), and Doc looks into the lake and sees visions of himself and Mrs. Doc frolicking in the water, with all their clothes on.

It’s the kind of scene that makes you wonder if you’re on drugs. Are you really seeing this? Why are you seeing it?

I can only conclude that Sam Peckinpah was on drugs, and he was sharing his drugs with the whole crew.

Throughout the movie, Doc, the hero, supposedly the savviest of criminals, behaves like either an out-of-control drunk or a panicked teenager. He always drives as if he’s trying to provoke the police. He slaps the crap out of Mrs. Doc on the side of a busy freeway, with dozens of cars passing each second. He goes to a hamburger joint when he knows his face is being plastered all over the media, and can’t believe it when the waitress recognizes him and calls the police, which forces him into an absurd chase in which he uses his elephant gun to blow the front ends off police cars pursuing him at high speeds.

The effect of the whole movie is, basically: Am I really seeing this? Why am I seeing this?

Happily Ever After?

The climax, such as it is, has Doc rushing back to a hotel that all of his enemies know he’s rushing back to, so six or eight heavily armed men can ambush him (because this criminal mastermind could never anticipate such a thing), and so he can, in turn, butcher them with his elephant gun. The best part of this scene, if we decide to give ourselves over to the awfulness of the movie, is the blood, which appears to be Bright Red No. 4, purchased by the special effects guy in the paint aisle of the local Ace.

Still of man bleeding after a shootout.
Blood is red, right? This stuff should work.

Really, though, I think the movie adaptation is a product of the era. It’s supposed to be somewhat artsy and experimental, I guess, and it was a hit with the viewing public at the time (although not with reviewers). Maybe people in 1972 saw things that we have lost the ability to appreciate. Maybe Peckinpah expressed everything that is in the book, and much more, and if you have a certain amount of drug damage, it’s all brilliantly clear.

Want Top Notch Scoring? Don’t Look Here

Oh yeah, one more thing: the musical score. If you like pulsing, grating noises, like what you might hear if an industrial machine snaps a belt or shears off some bolts and is grinding itself to pieces as it cycles, this movie has you covered. If, alternately, you like your moods set with sounds that bluejays might make once caught by the family cat, the master of the harmonica, Toots Thielemans, was brought in to make this masterpiece complete (no, really; Toots was so important to the project that he is the first name in the closing credits).

On the whole, I recommend this film an experience, if not as a film.

By Matthew Louis

Founding editor of Out of the Gutter Magazine and Gutter Books. Author of The Wrong Man and Roots Down to Hell. Short stories published in a few places. Honorable mention in the Year's Best Mystery Stories. Other things...

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Maybe you need to go back to Spider Man.This was when movies were worth watching. Steve McQueen was known as the King Of Cool.

Sara the Editor

Sure, they were cool, but that may have been mostly the T levels of the actors compared to the soyboys we have now. Cool or no, the plot still has to make sense and follow the laws of human behavior.

Alex S.

Interesting commentary and subject matter! I’m not sure the movie could be as bad as you say. I guess I’ll have to watch it and find out.

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