Arthur Penn made a handful of really remarkable films spanning the late 60s and 70s: Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man among the most notable. The Chase comes in third for Penn’s great works, but that’s kind of like admitting that A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t quite up to par with Hamlet.
On the surface, The Chase is a standard crime narrative: Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison with only a few months left to go on his sentence. He makes his way back to his Texas hometown, where his wife Anna (Jane Fonda) has been having an affair with his friend Jake (James Fox), the son of Val Rogers, richest man in town (E.G. Marshall). The hometown sheriff Calder (Marlon Brando) promises to catch Bubber if he comes back. That’s the basic plot, and it could have turned into a standard wrong man narrative, as Bubber attempts to win back his wife, avoid the sheriff, and expose the corrupt rich man. Luckily, the film doesn’t go that way at all.
What we’re treated to instead is a town full of seething animosity, sexual, racial, classist, and generational, that Bubber’s return brings boiling to the surface. Calder is despised because the townsfolk believe that he’s been bought by Val Rogers. Rogers in turn is despised by his son, who chafes under his father’s rule without understanding how much his old man truly loves him. Anna is in love with both Bubber and Jake, imprisoned by her poverty and her stepfather (Bruce Cabot). Meanwhile, Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall) is terrified of Bubber’s return for his own reasons, dealing with his drunken and flirtatious wife (Janice Rule). She, meanwhile, has been carrying on with bank vice-president Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford), a character who becomes increasingly despicable as the film goes on. In the background lurks the petty racism of mid-60s Texas, as black characters are assaulted by whites, victims of white insecurity. Into the midst of all these complex, hateful relationships comes poor Bubber, a boy who isn’t as bad as everyone makes him out to be. There’s no way this is going to end well.
The Chase peels back layers of love and animosity, misunderstanding and paranoia, all in the middle of the very drunken Saturday night Bubber has chosen for his return. From the staid birthday celebration of Val Rogers, we descend the social scale to the more raucous party of the Stewarts, and then the parodic gyrations of the teenage crowd (watch out for young Paul Williams, you really can’t miss him). There’s no difference between any of them, except perhaps for the veneer of respectability that gradually falls away. Calder prowls the parties searching for Anna, knowing that if Bubber is going to come back, it will be her he goes to. But Anna doesn’t trust the sheriff, the sheriff can’t trust his deputies, and the party-goers begin to believe they can take the law into their own hands.
Without going through all the hideous plot machinations that the film goes through – it all tends to the same end, which becomes pretty clear by the time everyone leaves the parties to take to the streets – just let it be said that the film proceeds with a sense of inevitability. You cannot live in this sort of society without being caught up in the witch-hunt. We come to understand that Sheriff Calder and his wife (Angie Dickinson) are among the few sensible people in the whole town, the few not stuck in the web of violence and deception. Calder tries desperately to do what’s right and protect those that need protecting. By the time we come to the fire and blood drenched conclusion, any pretensions to justice or even civilization have fallen away from this sweet little Texan town. These people are a mob.
What is most disturbing about The Chase is that the mob becomes a mob slowly, drawing us under its influence. By the end I was reminded of Rebel Without A Cause. Bubber gives us the clearest indication of generational defiance, as he confesses to his wife and his friend that he escaped because he could not handle prison life any more, and that he would never be told what to do ever again. It’s as close as The Chase will come to a true act of defiance against the social system, even if it ultimately proves futile.
The Chase has been maligned – I think unfairly – as a potboiler akin to Peyton Place. It certainly has those elements of sex and violence underlying small town society. But it rises above that, buoyed by the ability of the actors – what a cast! – and the complexity of the narrative. Brando anchors the film as the conscience of the town that is habitually insulted and ignored, even lambasted. Sheriff Calder’s pretended corruption is the cross laid upon him by the society that surrounds him – he must be corrupt, because they are. They cannot permit the existence of an honest man.
It’s a film about love, hatred, confusion, intolerance, and violence without justice. Images resonate – there are elements of the Kennedy assassination, of early Vietnam, of social upheaval crushed under the weight of the power structure. Calder is a sheriff with a conscience, but the town does not deserve the protection he gives it. Bubber is the wrong man without redemption; Anna the whore who was never a whore; Jake the unspoilt spoiled child. The price of their rebellion against their proscribed roles is destruction.
The Chase has a similar cadence to Bonnie and Clyde – that generational defiance that must be punished by the powers that be. If there is hope here, it is in the depiction of Calder as a man who continues to do the right thing, against all odds. But it’s a very dark film for a multitude of reasons. It’s very brilliance lies in its lack of compromise. We all knew how it was going to end, but the film makes us so very angry that it has to end like that.