Cast: Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Dorothy Tristan, Eileen Brennan, Ann Wedgeworth, Richard Hackman
Drifters Max Millan (Gene Hackman) and Francis Delbuchi (Al Pacino) join company with plans to start their own car washing business. The two form a strong bond of friendship as they make their way across the Land of Opportunity. Along their journey they meet with conflict, catastrophe and eventually tragedy: “The crows are laughin’!”
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Scarecrow brought Al Pacino and director Jerry Schatzberg back together again after their successful collaboration: The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Scarecrow retains the rough, edgy cinematic style of the first film; exploring the world of people living below the breadline in American society. Our two heroes Francis and Max have only the possessions they carry with them. They have no home, no jobs, a few friends but plenty of hope! Drifters generally make interesting characters in drama as they represent those looking for their place in the world and are open to any if not all possibilities without much restriction.
Pacino’s Francis is a seemingly happy-go-lucky sailor that has quite literally been out to sea for a few years and is looking to get back into life. His motivation derives from the revelation that he has recently become a father and is determined to deliver the lamp (under his arm) to his son as a present. Hackman’s Max is a stark contrast to Francis. He’s a huge bear-like figure (wearing countless layers of clothes) and suffers from a serious lack of self-control, peddling a repertoire about starting his own business (that we get the feeling he may have been doing for a long time). However, the men are saints to each other’s sinners! Francis’ humor calms Max’s dangerous temper and Max’s strong physical presence safe guards the diminutive, vulnerable Francis.
This dynamic between the two men is central to the movie and is very entertaining! Everywhere they go trouble seems to around the corner waiting for them! Behind each escapade lies the reminder that even a simple life takes every ounce of effort. Take the scene where Francis and Max decide to promote their car washing business in the bar. It begins with so much joy as the punters warm to Francis’ charm and comedic performance on the bar! But Max’s restless temper gets him into a fight that causes a riot and the two of them are thrown into jail.
By this time we the audience are rooting for these two guys who (thanks to Hackman and Pacino) are incredibly likeable and endearing. It’s flawed characters like Max and Francis that really appeal to us on screen. Things going right all the time will get an audience bored, but with Francis and Max every whisper of success is then drowned out by the yelling of failure. They can’t even hold down a job washing dishes without literally getting kicked out onto the streets!
“The crows are laughin’!” Pacino’s Francis explains his philosophy about why the scarecrow manages to stop crows from pecking at the farmer’s crops. We can see the method behind this in the various situations where Francis uses humor to ease Max out of his many confrontations. Hackman plays Max in his trademark brash and aggressive fashion. You can’t force him to do anything and so the only way to influence him is inadvertently… with an outlandish philosophy! The philosophy works well until Francis meets Jack Riley (Richard Lynch) in jail.
Jack Riley’s violent and sexual advances towards Francis portray the harsh realities in life to which there is no humorous remedy. Francis suffers deeply psychologically as well as physically. This is due in part to the fact that he and Max have parted company. If only Max was there to protect him? While Max certainly gives Riley a good beating for his crime it all feels just a little too late. Similarly with Max’s wonderful strip/dance scene in a bar room conflict we think is about to become a brawl. Max has clearly been convinced by Francis’ theory and surprises us by avoiding the fight. There is, sadly an underlying feeling that a black cloud is about to rain down on them.
The impending doom shows its face in the form of Francis’ mental breakdown. After being told a coldhearted lie by the mother of his child; Francis goes into a mental breakdown he will not recover from. The charmingly light comic strokes from Pacino performance melt back into the deep and torturous inner conflict we are normally used to seeing in his performances. One could draw many parallels between Scarecrow and Midnight Cowboy (1969) given the nature of the relationships between the lead characters in both movies. At the heart of both movies is a tragic message about friendship that people the world over can identify with.
With Scarecrow Pacino once again creates a memorable performance and while some critics found his performance was dwarfed by Hackman’s gravitas, it’s Pacino’s Francis that stays with me after the curtain closes. The image of a broken man stood drenched in the park fountain is so powerful in an understated and realistic way. It’s understandable that a low-key film like Scarecrow needs to battle for attention over Pacino’s other films like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983) but his work in Scarecrow is certainly of the same quality of those other top draw performances and simply should not be missed!