Friday, April 20, 2018

Past Misdeeds: The Last Run (1971)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Former professional getaway driver Harry Garmes (George C. Scott very brilliantly being George C. Scott) had retired to a Portuguese fishing village nearly a decade ago. Shortly after coming to the village he lost his child in an accident, and a bit later his wife to another man, leaving him if not dead inside, then emotionally hibernating for a long time.

Now, Harry seems to have decided that enough is enough with the moping, and takes on the job of helping in the escape of con Paul Rickard (Tony Musante) from a Spanish prison. Harry's supposed to pick up Paul while the guards of his chain gang (or whatever the Spanish version of one is called) are distracted by a big damn explosion, and get him over the border to France.

Of course, things don't go quite as planned. It's not just that Paul turns out to be - fitting enough for a professional criminal - a bit of a jerk, he’s a rather dumb one at that, and is willing to risk a detour just to pick up his girlfriend Claudie (Trish Van Devere), who one might imagine to be able to make her way to France on her own. There's also the little problem that the people responsible for Paul's break-out only got him out of jail to kill him once he arrives in France.

At that point, the very lonely Harry has already fallen in love with Claudie - something Paul supports for practical reasons - and is willing to risk the little bit of life he feels he still has to help the couple escape. The trio's best route of escape seems to be to reach Harry's Portuguese home and cross the ocean to Africa on a fishing boat the driver owns. They only need to somehow avoid the horde of killers that's on their trail. Yet even if they manage this, things still may not turn out too well for Harry.

The Last Run's director Richard Fleischer is a peculiar case of a man somtimes only regarded as a work for hire guy of dubious talent (which probably is the kind of reputation you deserve when you end your career directing films like Red Sonja and Conan the Destroyer), yet who nonetheless has some fantastic films that look pretty damn personal and auteur-ish in his earlier filmography. Especially some of Fleischer's later RKO noirs and many of the films he made in the late 60s and early 70s are well worth a look, and possibly even worth a snooty remark calling the director a "true auteur" or some such.

Until last year, when Warner decided to finally release the film on one of their overpriced Archives DVD-Rs, it was quite difficult to get a hold of The Last Run at all, so it was easy to believe the critical mauling the film got from people like Roger Ebert (whose competence at understanding genre cinema was basically nil). Fortunately, now that one can see The Last Run  with one's own eyes, one just might be able to see a film that certainly isn't flawless but is also much better than the reviews and its rather pained production history (George C. Scott driving away initial director John Huston! George C. Scott ruining his marriage on set and already working on his new wife! George C. Scott being as difficult as Kinski! Etc.) would lead one to expect.

One of the most criticized elements of the film is the lack of dynamic in its action sequences, but watching them in context, I couldn't help but think their dry, laconic, and utterly naturalistic tone is part of the point of the whole affair. After all, Fleischer (or frequently brilliant scriptwriter Alan Sharp) even sets up an explicit contrast between the old gangster romanticism of classic Hollywood and the much dryer tone of his own film through various dialogue scenes between Musante and Scott and another scene where Musante and Van Devere are watching an old gangster movie.

This does not mean the action scenes are completely unexciting. In fact, if you're willing to accept Fleischer's clear emphasis on staying inside the realm of the physically possible, you'll perhaps find them to be unexpectedly effective at raising your blood pressure. Fleischer's direction of these scenes, and really, of the whole rest of the film too, is wonderfully off-handed and laconic, avoiding all big directorial gestures and all showing off - and not by making this avoidance of showing-off its own grand gesture, either. The director grounds his sparse plot in a believable sense of place, giving as much room to the Spanish landscape his characters drive through as to the things happening in that landscape.

Neither the action scenes nor the crime plot are really what the movie is interested in anyway. I believe these elements are only there at all to fulfil the genre expectations an audience will probably have going in. At its core, though, The Last Run is a film much more interested in exploring the nature of loneliness in middle-aged men and the emotional death it can lead to, the difference between the cynical optimism of youth as embodied by Musante and the - ironically - much less cynical pessimism of Scott's age, and the very existentialist (or Nietzschean, depending on your philosophical favourites) concept of hope as the most destructive emotion of them all - even if the one hoping is as conscious as Scott here of how little importance his hopes carry in the greater picture of the universe.

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