Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The transporter


Directed by Richard Fleischer
Written by Alan Sharp

Spoilers: see above? (highish, if you're a real stickler)

If there is any singular author for The Last Run, chase film and crime thriller, then realistically such a person would probably have to be identified as George C. Scott: besides making this film about a man grappling with the fact of more years behind him than ahead of him into his own personal midlife crisis (the movie has two actresses, and Scott started it married to the one and ended it married to the other), the gruff, growly actor's curious stardom was instrumental in it getting made in the first place, and he outlived not one but two directors on the project before finally finding himself satisfied with the third, with it being a very fair supposition that it was Scott who suggested that the first two should leave.  The first was John Boorman, who didn't like Alan Sharp's script; Scott did like this script, and Boorman fucked off to do Deliverance, so it's difficult to say Boorman made the wrong decision here.  John Huston took over, and he also did not like Sharp's script, but Huston was Hollywood royalty (even out here in coastal Portugal and rocky Andalusia on behalf of MGM-Britain), and he was someone Scott respected, partly because they'd worked together a few times before (I can't tell you the exact nature of Scott's thoughts upon his participation in the Abraham segment of The Bible ...In the Beginning), but more because the thing that Scott wanted most out of The Last Run was a "Bogart" kind of role, and you would've been hard-pressed to find a more accomplished expert on such things in 1971 than John Huston.

Thus Scott suffered, for a spell, Huston's naked contempt for the project, and initially backed Huston's seemingly-neverending cycle of sending the screenplay back to Sharp for rewrites without specifying, at least with any precision, what he expected Sharp to rewrite it for.  Shockingly, this didn't make it better, it just made it an awful incoherent mess.  Eventually, Scott got sick of this, took Sharp's side, and he and Huston (amicably enough, given the circumstances) parted ways.  With the film on the edge of being cancelled, MGM enlisted Richard Fleischer, and he didn't like the script either, until Scott and Sharp clarified that, actually, it wasn't the scriptthe way the story's told (and clearly some heroic Wikipedia user is one big Last Run fan), Fleischer visited the set and expressed surprise when Sharp recited a completely different story than the screenplay Fleischer had seenwhereupon they did, indeed, show Fleischer the original shooting draft that Huston had rejected.  To Scott and Sharp's relief, not to mention MGM's, Fleischer shrugged and said something along the lines of, "hey, good enough."

It's not for Scott, of course, but for Fleischer that we're here.  Or at least I am: after all, someone needs to be there for Fleischer, whom I increasingly feel must be one of the more underrated filmmakers of the American post-war.  As far as I'm concerned, The Last Run keeps up Fleischer's well-above-par average, even though it represents a foray out of the director's major works and into his B-sides.  His second (of three!) films for 1971 (and by 1971 "three" was decidedly abnormal, maybe helping fuel Fleischer's hack reputation), it's a small movie.  It is, somewhat openly, aping the new trends.  That poster is one of the most tryhard things I've ever seen, yet if Scott were being more honest about his goals he'd have said he was after a Bogart role, but, you know, in the style of McQueen or Hackman.  Maybe by "Bogart" he meant marrying his younger co-star.  Regardless, because it's Fleischer, it's no surprise to find its memory relatively submergedmore surprisingly, it wasn't even a commercial successand while it didn't elicit, for example, the worst and most useless Roger Ebert review of 1971, this is only because The Devils came out the same year and his review of that is plausibly the worst and most useless film review ever written by a major film critic.  As for The Last Run, it is very sturdy, solid stuff, and while I guess it couldn't manage to be cool in 1971, from the distance of fifty years it is deeply unclear to me why Bullitt or Vanishing Point or Le Samourai got to be cool (and frankly I think only one of those movies is actually cool) and this one didn't, except possibly because it's too soaked through with age and death.  But damn, man, it was the 70s.

In any case, what we have is a bit of a template-filling crime programmer that still has the decency to have a healthy portion of panache and pathos, not to mention it arrived just as that template was really starting to get fixed in place, so it feels fresher than something from even a few years down the line.  So, then, in Portugal we find one Harry Garmes (Scott), who was once a hotshot criminal operator with a specialty in cars and driving, though this is well in the pastit will eventually be stated he hasn't worked in nine long yearsand he has, for most of this past decade, resigned himself to a life in stasis on the Algarve coast doing, basically, nothing.  (He bought a boat with an aim to be a fisherman; he rapidly gave up and now just rents the boat to actual fishermen, at most fixing the engine when it breaks.)  His wife left him some time ago; before that, their son, barely out of infancy, died of accident or illness; and his most rewarding relationship these days is with his prostitute (Colleen Dewhurst, Mrs. Scott no. 1).  It is out of an aim to do, or be, anything again that Harry angles to come out of retirement, and so does he receive an assignment to serve as a driver for one Paul Rickard (Tony Musante), a hitman serving a few years in stir for the less-heinous crimes they actually caught him for, with Harry's assignment being to help Rickard make a fast but surreptitious getaway when his associates contrive to free him during a prisoner transfer.

This goes off without a hitch, and the only complications are that Rickard is enough of an obnoxious fuck that Harry has to restrain himself from beating the tar out of himas Rickard is indeed obnoxious beyond the mere confines of the film, it's a satisfying thing that Harry doesn't actually restrain himself for that longand that Rickard has Harry pick up his girlfriend, Claudie (Trish Van Devere, Mrs. Scott no. 2*).  However, what they don't know, but they'll find out, is that the only reason that Rickard was sprung was to kill him, and they'll kill anyone with him, like Claudie, and Harry figures this out with just enough time lefta few secondsto make a fateful choice about exactly how he wants to spend the rest of his miserable existence.

The weak link is very obvious, and it's Musante.  Really, it's Rickard, the character-on-the-screenplay-page, though Musante plays that character exactly as written, an empty little animal of a man whose most humane trait is his performative arrogance, and whose most humanizing trait is his fandom for Golden Age gangsters, and of course this is what the film needsit is not even close to a "buddy movie," and at no point is Harry moved to compassion for Rickardbut maybe it didn't need so much of it.  He's a draining force, to the extent I'm possibly understimating Musante's contribution, since he brings a youthfully 70s masculine bravado that does indeed feel specifically European.  But I mean this in a negative way; Musante winds up so attuned to the idea of presenting himself as authentic continental B-movie talent that even his dialogue feels dubbed, and not necessarily translated with care.  (The actor was born in Connecticut.)  But he does fulfill his chaotic neutral function, more-or-less inherently toxic, with a hold on Claudie that's born out of the latter having few options and which comes off at least incipiently violent, even if there's no concrete reason not to believe Rickard when he says she can make her own choices.

Everything else about the movie works, and the show, acting-wise, is undoubtedly Scott, who gets to be taciturn, and if he's less indifferent than grouchy, that's the Scott of it, in pursuit of an achy character whose closest companion is the constant irritation of middle age.  It cuts productively against a character who is, whether recognized as such in his time or not, everything "cool" that you'd expect to find in an iconic 70s antihero: he's stoic, he smokes, he's pleasant (even poetic!) to sex workers, when he beats up annoying colleagues he makes sure not to do it in front of their girlfriends, he wears turtlenecks with leather jackets without irony, and he's competent as hell at crime and especially his core skill of driving a souped-up BMW fast.  The story of The Last Run, distinct from its plot, strikes me as slightly askew from its cool crime guy contemporaries, though, as it charts the course of an exceedingly cool crime guy who becomes increasingly uncool because of a woman (really his own weaknesses), effectively bringing forth the oldest story in noir out from the sociopathic nihilism of its 70s descendants, and in Scott's hands it worked on me pretty completely, benefiting from such a visibly middle-aged actor (and Scott looks older than he even is, which winds up an explicit if perhaps not entirely intentional joke at Scott's expense, when Rickard asks Harry, in full seriousness, if he ever met Dillinger; so even if he's not all that appealing, at least Rickard is the vector for the film's loopiest dialogue).

It's kind of a weird role and kind of a weird performance for Scott, incorporating as much 70s cool factor as the granddad-like actor can muster, which is honestly far more than I would've expected (besides projecting strength in his many silent scenes, he physically handles Rickard with credible ease), but balancing that with his encroaching uncoolness, so that the thing that sums up the arc of the film, as strange as it might sound, is a self-deprecating joke about his ex-wife's tits (something along the lines of "she went to Switzerland to have her breasts lifted, but I thought she meant by a surgeon") that is delivered exactly like how Rodney Dangerfield would if Dangerfield were thinking about killing himself.  It sits there, laughlessly-sour, for the relieving flourish of pulling on his tie and musing about respect is impossible, because he's wearing that turtleneck.  Van Devere, meanwhile, is good, and better than I initially clocked her as: it's amusing that so much of her character involves not actually having sexual chemistry with the man who'd be her husband within a year, but she has a difficult role to play, all the moreso because she's got the least space of the three leads to play it, requiring her to shift seamlessly between dissatisfaction with being Rickard's disposable gun moll, apparent indecision over whether she actually would like to fuck Harry or if it would be more of the same but with a worn-out sadsack, suppressed disgust mixed with regret that the mission of sexual manipulation Rickard sends her on ruins any prospect of finding out for herself in any honest way, and genuine recognition of Harry's finer qualities, and she gets there even if it's in the unshowy and (I assume) intentionally-obscure register of a woman who isn't sure she actually has a personality anymore.

I have made this sound too much like a character drama, though it's a 70s car movie, and so of course it's more of an impressionistic mood piece of a mere 95 minutes (and a lot of that is driving or occupied by tense silence), punctuated by action; and it's some good, wholesome vehicular action, perhaps not so special that I could recommend it on its centerpiece car chase alone, but tactical and exhilarating and ultimately pretty physical in that wonderful way that 70s car movies had mastered, benefiting a great deal from famous Swedish photographer Sven Nykvist's hazy treatment of the rough, dry and mountainous Iberian landscape, and benefiting even more from Fleischer's worst feature as an auteur, unsafe stuntwork.  (I actually don't know if it was unsafe, as the previous year's Tora! Tora! Tora! had been, or if it just looks unsafe, but from an insurer's perspective I would have been very cross if Scott took a piece of shrapnel to the skull from an exploding Jaguar.)

Aesthetically, Fleischer is content more with the poignant mood you'd want out of a movie called The Last Run, but even so the geometric Panavision style he'd been developing over the 60s, which isn't going to be as easy to showcase in a location-shot movie where 80% of the scenes are labeled [exterior], still shows up often enough for its force to be feltbesides the semi-abstracted meditations on cars moving across the serpentine curves imposed by the Spanish terrain (that are as easy to credit to the second unit), he's having a swell time blocking his three principals across distinct planes of action in his widescreen frames (and, in one really tightly-composed shot, the quietly-unreal image of their faces placed in the frames-within-frames provided by the holes in a wrecked car), and if Fleischer's mod style is subtly present in a lot scenes, there's at least one undeniable "Fleischer shot" that uses the strong vertical and diagonal lines of graves in a cemetery in service of a strikingly graphic image.  And then there's the most obviously great thing about the movie: I've outright said the movie was a creature of Scott, while making a case for Fleischer, but if the film's most indelible signature doesn't belong its composer, then it's just because in this phase of his career Jerry Goldsmith was not interested in being recognizable except in the sense that so damned many of his scores were so terrifically bizarre.  The Last Run's isn't an exception: it's this funky, jazzy, Eurospy thing, that in every respect is precisely a product of 1971, yet leaning so much into 1971 it winds up feeling like something absolutely offbeat, albeit still in ways that supply the frequent gunplay and footchases (whereas the big car chase, following its influences, offers solely its own diegetic noise) their feverishly groovy complexion.  Goldsmith never exhausts his creativity, eitherthere's a sense of escalation throughout the scored stretches of the filmthe climax in particular winding up with one extraordinary percussive experiment, that sounds like Goldsmith decided to see what it sounded like if he started smashing chrome ingots with a hammer.

Ultimately, I do want to bring it back under Fleischer's wing, and the difference between the good movie it had been and the modestly great movie that I'd claim it to be arrives no earlier than the final 120 seconds, and it's all a matter of how he sends us off.  I think you could probably make a broadly accurate guess as to how our antihero ends upfrom the title on down, I don't suppose the film ever wants you to find your way out of its melancholy fatalism, and what it wants you to do instead is think about whether the choices that brought our trio here were nevertheless the correct onesbut the brusqueness of that ending cuts short any possible feeling of triumph.  (There is likewise the curious way it feels all the more ambivalent, and the latent heroism all the more potentially pointless, because not as many people die in that ending as you might expect, with shithead marked-for-death murderer Rickard likewise surviving on the basis of Harry's hopeless nobility, to suck the life out of Claudie for what could easily be years to come; Harry lives just long enough to potentially wonder if the young people he died for can even appreciate what he did.)  Fleischer ends his movie with by far its nastiest piece of violence and its flashiest piece of editing, and in a movie that has been all about time and what to do with it, and has committed significant stretches of its own runtime to Harry's sense of languish, the bluntness of the last two minutes is a hell of a gambit, concluding with a piece of symbolic storytelling about how, in the end, time stops like someone turned a switch.  (The very last shot, under the credits, is a corpse "watching" a boat depart, and certainly doesn't insist on so much as a bittersweet reading.)  However accidentally, it feels a lot like a dry run for Soylent Green, and while it's not nearly as deep into "most depressing movie ever made" territory as Fleischer's nihilistic masterpiece, it distills a very strong strain of 70s bleakness out of the last, perhaps very futile effort of a doomed man to finally find some measure of meaning in the time he had.

Score: 8/10

*Now, let's be accurate: Dewhurst and Van Devere are, in truth, Mrs. Scotts nos. 3 and 4, respectively.  In a sense, Van Devere was even no. 5, for Dewhurst was nos. 3 and 4 all by herself; she and Scott gave it another go until Scott met Van Devere.  With due respect to Scott and Van Devere's affair, at least Scott finally found his partner, for they remained together until Scott's passing in 1999.


  1. I still haven't seen this, but I'd come across this movie on Amazon a while back and thought it looked interesting, and wondered at the time how I'd never heard of it. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of coverage of it online, either, so I definitely appreciate the review and the bits of its background history.

    1. Thanks! It unfortunately left Criterion (not that I would assume anyone to have Criterion) at the beginning of the month. I'll probably wind up popping on the Warner Archive DVD myself, I like it enough (and any given movie's hopes of getting a blu-ray release are always pretty negligible... until I buy the DVD, then they immediately announce it, thppt).