Chase, The (1965): Arthur Penn’s Underestimated Melodrama Starring Brando, Redford, and Jane Fonda

At the time of its release, Arthur Penn’s all-star feature, The Chase received mostly negative reviews and subsequently failed at the box office.
The Chase
The Chase - 1966 Poster.jpg

Original film poster
The N.Y. Times’ Bosley Crowther disliked the movie, because, “everything is intensely overheated,” from “the emotional content to the pictorial style.” He found the film to be “cold, obvious and outrageously clumsy an attempt to blend a weak but conceivably dramatic theme of civil rights with a whole mess of small-town misbehavior, of the sort that you get in Peyton Place.”

Other conservative critics faulted the movie for being exploitational in language and depiction of sex and violence. Nonetheless, reevaluating The Chase, the critic Robin Wood described it as a “seminal work,” because “it anticipated many of the major developments that took place in Hollywood in the next decade.” The Chase preceded Penn’s masterpiece, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but in many ways, the film points to the direction that Penn would go in his future career.

Two writers worked on the script. Lillian Hellman adapted to the screen Horton Foote’s book (and later Broadway play). It was Foote’s second script of a small-town movie, the first being To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1980s,  Foote wrote about small towns more than any writer, producing an impressive body of work for the stage, screen, and television.

Penn cast major roles with players of New York’s Actors Studio (Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Janice Rule, but he also used players from the old (Miriam Hopkins) and new (Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson) Hollywood. Known for his meticulous work with actors, Penn assembled one of the best casts in a Hollywood movie.

The Kennedy’s assassination and a real incident in Texas provided the inspiration for the film. The story unfolds in a tawdry Texas town, on a hot Saturday. As a melodrama, it employs the narrative paradigm of “the outsider.” The convict Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) is on his way back to town to join his wife Anna (Jane Fonda). Sheriff Calder’s (Marlon Brando) task is to arrest the fugitive, but what seems to be a routine assignment turns out to be an ordeal, because of the obstacles the town presents. At the end, the revelation that the convict is innocent comes as no surprise. Unlike other movies, which begin with the outsider’s arrival, The Chase ends” with Bubber’s arrival in town. The movie chronicles the effects of Bubber’s arrival, which is talked about and feared; he himself is seldom shown.

For a small-town movie, The Chase boasts an extremely large gallery (about a dozen) of characters, an innovative structural element in its own right. Those who perceive it as a conventional genre film, which it is not, charge that the movie contains too” many characters, causing a superficial representation of each individual. Perhaps.

What’s beyond doubt is that the subtext of The Chase is more significant than its explicit text. In other words, what’s being implied counts for more than what’s actually said or shown.

The moral center (though problematic) is represented by Calder, a sensitive, conscientious sheriff (not unlike Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon). His task is to arrest the fugitive and protect the social order. Unlike Will Kane, though, Calder is not a conventional hero. There is ambiguity about his status: He is always reminded that he owes his position to Val Rogers (E. G. Marshall), the town’s richest and most powerful man.

Mrs. Reeves (Miriam Hopkins), the fugitive’s mother, afraid that they are going to hurt him, offers Calder money. “Isn’t my money good enough for you” she charges when he refuses to accept it, “Val Rogers owns you. He bought you.”  And if Mrs. Reeves knows, everybody knows, which means that the sheriff will never be able to gain the town’s respect.

That said, Calder is the only person who really cares about blacks’ rights. Early on, he tries to save a black man, Lester, from beatings, putting him in the county jail, adjacent to his living quarters. “The people out there are nuts,” he tells his wife, “I’m sick of living here, I’m sick of my job.”

Calder’s integrity is not in doubt; what is in question is the effectiveness of his leadership; Lester is later beaten at the jail itself. Here, too, the movie departs from established conventions. The jail is usually a safe place and out of reach, but in The Chase, Rogers invades the “safe” territory, which ironically functions as Calder’s private residence. Calder thus lacks control over his public and private domains.

He is married to Ruby (Angie Dickinson), a submissive and supportive wife, and on the surface they enjoy a marital bliss. But there is domestic tension around the issue of children. “I wish we adopted some children,” says the wife, revealing that they would like to–but cannot–have a family. Calder also resents the fact that his wife is wearing the dress that Rogers had bought her; he wishes she’s send it back. Values of dominant culture are probed, particularly those concerning marriage, motherhood, and the nuclear family. Bubber’s parents think they have failed as parents. “What did I do wrong” asks Mrs. Reeves the perennial question, when a child turns out to be different from his parents’ expectations.

When the sheriff expresses his concern, Mrs. Reeves says with no hesitation: “I don’t believe you’re sorry.” Motherhood is no longer taken for granted as women’s ultimate goal. “We never had any children,” says an elderly woman to Mrs. Reeves, “It’s hard when you don’t, and it’s hard when you do.”

Most of the action takes place at Sol’s Cafe, which is owned by Anna’s stepfather. A morally confused woman, Anna (Jane Fonda) is the center of a sexual triangle. Married to Bubber, she has an affair with Jake Rogers (James Fox), the boss’s son. Harsh and contemptuous of Sol, Anna wants out: “You just pay me my mother’s part of the business and I’ll be out of here in one hour.”

The distinct layers of the town’s power structure are most visible. At the top of the hierarchy stands Val Rogers, the oil baron and banker, who owns the town. Like other patriarchs (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer), he is anguished over his weakling, no-good, but only son. The movie deviates from conventions, showing Rogers, allegedly the most “respectable,” as the town’s most vicious person. Rogers controls every aspect of town, its police, economy, and even education; he announces the construction of a college dormitory for women. It’s patriarchal oligarchy at its most extreme. The town’s stratification system is revealed through its social life. It’s Saturday night, the big night, and the town boasts parties, set in houses across the street from each other. The poor socialize in Sol’s Cafe, the sleazy local bar-motel, whereas the rich are invited to a celebration of Roger’s birthday. Hence, Edwin Stuart (Robert Duvall) the bank’s vice resident, and his wife Emily (Janice Rule) were not asked to the party.

Earlier, Emily invites the baron for a drink. “Just thought you’d like to see how the lower classes live” she says, but Rogers questions her, “Are you the lower class” The adulterous Emily fools around with her husband’s colleague, Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford). However, jealous of Damon, Emily asks about her competitor, “How is she in bed” “I don’t carry a computer to bed,” says Damon.

Jake Rogers is also trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage. Both he and his wife have illicit affairs, about which they talk frankly. Adultery is no longer a secret (as it was in Peyton Place or The Last Picture Show). Damon’s wife Mary (Martha Hyer), a cool and boozy blonde, knows her husband is cheating on her.

In fact, most men are depicted as macho and sexist; Damon slaps his wife in public when she talks too much about his affairs. And watching Anna dancing, Damon observes: “I like them younger and younger.” For Edwin, however, the youths signify his wasted life and lost opportunities, “all the things I wanted to have when I was their age.” Racism is rampant in town, just as it is in In the Heat of the Night (1967). The blacks are mistreated and brutally beaten. In the first scene, a black woman who forbids her son to get involved with Bubber, says: “Let white men take care of white men’s problems.”

The other ethnic minority, the Mexican-American, is in no better position. The Mexican laborers who work for Rogers curse him in front of his son, but he could not care less. Their wives are more hypocritical: a Mexican worker’s wife tells Jake she enjoyed seeing his beautiful wife pictured in the newspapers. With no exception, every inhabitant is nasty, mean, intolerant, drunk, or all of the above.

Religion is no longer the cement to glue the diverse populace into a tightly knit community; a fanatic woman praying on the street is ridiculed. While the resolution is borrowed from High Noon, it goes a number of steps further. Sheriff Calder is not only unable to protect Lester, Bubber (and the town), but unable to protect himself. Brutally beaten, he is helpless.

Similarly to Will Kane, Calder leaves town under contempt. There’s a difference, however. In High Noon, viewers were assured that Kane and his wife would settle down somewhere and live peacefully, whereas sheriff Calder and Ruby drive out of town lacking any idea of destination or future. Though he begins as a representative of the law, Calder becomes at the end an outsider, literally and figuratively.

Also like High Noon, which nominally is a Western but works much better as a political allegory about McCarthyism, the Texas town in The Chase represents a microcosm of American society circa 1966. Every character represents a recognizable social stratum, and the tensions reflect conflicts among distinct social groups: Parents versus children, legitimate authority versus crime, blacks versus white, rich versus poor, men versus women, dominant culture versus subversive counterculture. Though using narrative conventions and screen types that are familiar from several small-town classics, The Chase is innovative in several respects. The film acknowledges the sexual revolution, a term that’s explicitly used in the text. “Do you believe in the sexual revolution” Emily asks Rogers. As the critic Robin Wood pointed out, the film provides different models of sexual arrangements (monogamy, adultery, triangles). Through Anna’s character, the film sends signals about a new, liberated type of a woman in American society.

Made a year before The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (both in 1967), The Chase acknowledges the prevalence of a generation gap (alongside with class divisions), while conveying the decreasing effectiveness of the legal authority in handling crime and violence.

Credits:

Directed by Arthur Penn
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by Lillian Hellman, based on The Chase, 1952 play and 1956 novel by Horton Foote
Music by John Barry
Cinematography Joseph LaShelle
Robert Surtees (uncredited)
Edited by Gene Milford
Color process Technicolor

Production company: Horizon Pictures

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release date: February 18, 1966

Running time: 134 minutes
Box office $2.3 million