Scarecrow would have been a very different film had it starred, as originally intended, Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon. As it is, it allowed up and coming Al Pacino and Gene Hackman to give two of the best performances of their careers, and it remains a mystery why the film has remained so long under the radar (the answer is partly that, despite winning the Palme d’Or, it was cold-shouldered by Warner’s a week into its theatrical release, in favor of pushing The Exorcist). Perhaps too, because it is about a pair of bums, with no real story aside from the picaresque of meanderings and passing encounters; but it also charts the growth of a male friendship, in a fashion extremely well-judged and genuinely moving.
The opening scene is terrific, as Hackman, as Max, stomps across a field, observed by Lion (Pacino), like faun behind a tree; Max glares at Lion as they wait on either side of the road, passed most frequently by tumbleweed, gingerly joshing one another, before an olive branch is extended, and silently accepted, as the sun goes down. From then on they’re together, headed to Pittsburgh to start a carwash, via a stop for Lion to see his son, who was born since he went to sea six years prior.
They are set up as an odd couple, in physical stature most obviously – Hackman looks like a grandpa in flat cap, steel-rimmed specs, and layers upon layers of clothes, towering over little Pacino, who’s all tousled hair, sneakers, and expressions of innocent friendliness. Lion is a joker, and Max is an ornery bastard and proud of it. One of the film’s best scenes is when Max decides to handle things like Lion, diffusing a fight in a bar, and loving it. We feel for him, but we feel too for Lion and his ambiguous, downcast expression, perhaps now uncertain of himself as not the only scarecrow (his theory is that the crows are not frightened, but laughing). In fact, as Max seems to come back to life under the companionship of Lion, the latter’s lifeforce slowly, and almost literally, is sapped, and it is almost heart-breaking.
The film was shot more or less in sequence, crossing the country, and director Jerry Schatzberg several times stages scenes in bars, with non-professional background and bit parts. The authenticity is palpable, as is the down home atmosphere and repartee as they stop over with an old flame in Denver; indeed Schatzberg allowed his actors a certain amount of latitude with improvisation, and Hackman and Pacino tramped around California for a month before production.
Under Vilmos Zsigmond’s lovely photography of mid-west wastelands, the world conjured is one with no hint of hippies or Vietnam. It is the world of little people, regular folk, small in scope, but no less valid, where going to jail for a month is not much of a surprise or a hardship; they are too bogged down in struggling to get their own lives up and running to worry about the world at large. In many ways it is a small, inconsequential film, but the close attention in performance and direction to the dynamic between the two men, the shifting levels of need and love, and the space allowed for small, natural details to emerge, act like a gradually magnifying glass, until the ambiguity of the ending makes one realize how very much we want these two to succeed.