From Dream to Despair: ‘Scarecrow’ and Seventies Cinema

Hell hath no fury like a seventies film. The production code had met its demise, Vietnam was raging, and Nixon’s lies were about to plague the entire nation with disappointment and despair. Rape and murder, as the Rolling Stones prophesized, were just a shot away. Fear and paranoia spread from the noisy streets of Manhattan to the quiet suburbs of New Jersey. Everyone, it seemed, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They were all losing their minds.

It is this cynical sentiment that most scholars claim is reflected in 1970s American film. Filmmakers had something to say, and they were not afraid to cross the line in order to express themselves. The Godfather (1973) equated American capitalism with the mafia; Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) depicted the disintegration of the American family through divorce; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) feared that individualism was mistaken for insanity. These films, and many more like them, are cinematic milestones. They represent the best that American cinema can offer, and while some cinephiles of a certain age still consider the silent era or the classical era to be the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking, there are others who believe that American film reached its peak in the 1970s.

One of the best and most underappreciated films of the 1970s is Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973). The film stars Al Pacino and Gene Hackman as two drifters who form an unlikely friendship. The story is not unlike Midnight Cowboy (1969) and other classics of the decade. However, film history has not been kind to Scarecrow, as it is rarely discussed and analyzed by critics and scholars today. Perhaps the film is overlooked because its stars also appear in similar seventies films directed by Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, and Sidney Lumet, three filmmakers whose combined work more or less defines the decade. Schatzberg, on the other hand, has only one other significant film to his name—The Panic in Needle Park (1971)—and even that film is minor compared to the monumental status attached to The French Connection (1971), The Conversation (1974), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). It seems, then, that Schatzberg’s terrific film has gone unacknowledged because Schatzberg is not as respected of an auteur as other seventies filmmakers. Nevertheless, Scarecrow demands our attention as it is one of the most emblematic films of the decade.

First, it is important to note that Scarecrow is a buddy film. It is specific to the decade, however, because the two male protagonists are social outcasts. Max (Hackman) is a wandering ex-con and Lionel (Pacino) is a catatonic homeless man. Like most male characters of the 1970s, they are anti-heroes portrayed by two of the most prominent character actors of the decade. Their friendship, I believe, is indicative of their low status in the social hierarchy.

Consider, for instance, the opening scene in which Max and Lionel meet. They stand on opposite sides of a dirt road as each man attempts to hitchhike. Neither man is successful. This is significant, because it demonstrates Max and Lionel’s powerlessness. For some reason—and we are not entirely sure why when the film begins, though we later learn it is because of the characters’ financial instability—Max and Lionel do not have the ability to travel by automobile. In order to move from place to place, the scene suggests, the characters have to rely on the help of others.

This opening scene is a powerful symbol of Max and Lionel’s misfortunate. An automobile represents mobility, freedom, and affluence, and this is precisely what Max and Lionel lack in their lives. Their progression from one place to another is literally out of their control and in the hands of the individuals with higher status. The fact that Max and Lionel are not offered a ride conveys everything we need to know about them within a matter of seconds. Society has forgotten about them, and as they drift through the dusty roads in the middle of nowhere, Schatzberg visualizes their seclusion from society. Schatzberg places Max and Lionel side by side in a wide shot as they try to hitchhike, and the framing of the scene suggests that they are alone in the world. They do not have anyone else, and as Max fails to light a cigarette, and Lionel offers him his last match, the two form a friendship. Similar to the pairs in Easy Rider (1969) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), Max and Lionel come together out of desperation.

Moreover, a haunting scene toward the end of the film further demonstrates how isolated Max and Lionel are. Lionel and Max congregate near a fountain, and Lionel, the clown of the bunch, attempts to cheer up a group of children by splashing around in the water. This seemingly joyous scene turns chaotic when Lionel is afflicted with an attack that causes a disturbing scene in the park and leaves him catatonic. Max, observing Lionel’s vulnerability, bears ostracism from the crowd and comforts Lionel. Max’s social sacrifice, namely, to stand by his ill friend, is reminiscent of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) care for Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) as he is dying in the end of Midnight Cowboy.

This powerful scene is representative of the decade in numerous ways. Most significant is the internal realization Max comes to as he decides to stand by Lionel’s side. Max is stronger and more put together than Lionel, just as Joe Buck is mentally and physically healthier than Ratso, but he is still a social outcast, and he understands that Lionel is his only friend. The decision to swallow his pride and accept his place in society is a sacrifice he must make if he wants to keep his companion and escape a life of loneliness.

Further, the scene characterizes the random outbursts of chaos and violence that epitomize seventies cinema. It is crucial to understand that Lionel’s outburst at the fountain is an uncontrollable urge that springs from mental illness, while Max’s violent tendencies throughout the film are controllable actions that stem from a violent temper. Both men can cause destruction at any point in time, but the thematic significance of these outbursts is different for each character.

Lionel’s catatonic state, for example, illuminates society’s misunderstanding of his mental illness. We can assume that Lionel’s state is a product of past hardships, specifically, his failure to be a father. Strangers who witness Lionel are unaware of this and pass judgment, just as a viewer of the film might stumble upon a babbling psychopath in a park and form a conclusion without understanding the truth behind the babbling psychopath’s condition. Lionel is similar to the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, whose spirits are smothered for the sake of social conservatism and conformity, and Schatzberg suggests that Lionel is in need of compassion rather than criticism.

Max, on the other hand, portrays the seventies male who is plagued with misdirected anger. For instance, there is a scene in the middle of the film in which Max suddenly gets into a fight. Schatzberg illustrates Max’s anger and shows that Max does not know what to do with it. He is mad as hell, like Howard Beale in Network (1976), and instead of shouting outside of a window, he instigates fights with strangers. This fight lands Max and Lionel in prison, as higher authority does not bother to understand Max and Lionel’s plight. As an audience, however, we feel sympathy for them, and are aware that they are victims of their circumstance.

If Midnight Cowboy chronicles the cinema of urban despair, Scarecrow reflects the cinema of rural despair. Combined, the two films argue that social outcasts are unable to find a place in 1970s America. The disillusionment with the American dream, coupled with capitalism’s harsh caprice, stifles Max and Lionel’s ability to succeed in America. This is why they are drifters and outcasts to begin with, and why Max has been in and out of prison, and why Lionel has been homeless. Ordinarily, an American film might condemn characters like Max and Lionel, but in the 1970s, filmmakers told their stories in a way to evoke sympathy from the audience. Bonnie and Clyde rob banks because times are tough in the depression; Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo steal food because capitalism has cast them aside; Max and Lionel struggle because they have made past mistakes for which society will not let them atone. In Schatzberg’s film, Max and Lionel are victims of a cruel capitalist world.

For example, Max dreams to open a car wash in Pittsburgh, and the money he hides in his boot is literally the small glimmer of hope on which he walks every day. He plans to use that money to star his business. Toward the film’s conclusion, however, Max is caught up in a dilemma. Lionel becomes ill after an attack and may not recover. Max wants to stay by his side, but needs to start his business. In the final scene, Max buys a plane ticket to Pittsburgh, but in order to see his friend again, he purchases a round trip ticket. The ticket costs more money than he has in his pocket, so he uses his savings. Typical to 1970s cinema, the film ends ambiguously as Max is at the ticket booth, and we do not know whether or not he will return, or in what state Lionel will be when he returns.

Some may suggest that the ending is optimistic, as Max makes the financial sacrifice to return to his friend, but I find that assertion hard to believe. An optimistic ending would undermine the director’s decision to end the film ambiguously in the first place. If all was going to be okay, the director would have given us a happy ending. However, things are not okay in seventies cinema, and one of the ways filmmakers portray the cynicism and bleak uncertainty of the decade is by ending their films before things get worse. Even if Max returns and Lionel recovers, they will continue to struggle, and they will inevitably fall prey to a capitalist system that has no place for them, and will fall behind in a country that shuns the social outcast. And what else should we expect? The Chief may have thrown the sink through the window at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the wounded soldiers may find the strength to sing “God Bless America” in the final scene of The Deer Hunter (1978), but these personal victories do not negate the crushing constraints of the system. Despite the outcomes in Max and Lionel’s personal lives, they will never be able to defeat the larger system that keeps them down.

In addition to the American dream, the film tackles issues of gender roles. When Max and Lionel first talk to one another in a diner, Max warns Lionel that he is the “meanest son of a bitch alive.” He then proceeds to bend a fork in half to assert his masculine power. Like most male characters in seventies films, Max uses violence to give a false impression of strength and fearlessness. He acts tough in an attempt to mask his insecurities. Schatzberg symbolically shows Max’s fears through the many layers of clothing Max wears, as if to suggest that Max needs the layers as protection from life’s pain. Lionel, on the other hand, uses humor to make people respect him. He tells Max the story of the scarecrow, from which the film gets its title, and claims that the scarecrow actually makes the crows laugh. Lionel is not unlike the scarecrow.

The characterizations of Max and Lionel comment on surface level masculinity. Max represents the typical male who wants everyone to fear him, while Lionel sees through that and realizes the limitations of its façade. In effect, Lionel defies conventional masculinity and uses laughter to win people over. Nevertheless, Lionel’s goofy behavior serves the same purpose as Max’s intimidation, as they both do what they can to deal with life’s vicissitudes.

At one point during the beginning of the film, Scarecrow features a brief scene in which Max and Lionel hitch a ride with a hippie couple in a Volkswagen. The young couple is kind, but the sounds inside the van are not of rock music or laughter, but of screaming babies and the harsh realities of adulthood. The dream of the 1960s had ended, and what took over was the grim reality of the 1970s.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Noel Figueroa

    I’ve been watching a few of Pacino’s well known films lately, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon etc.. Then I came across this one that I’d never heard of, I asked my dad (who was in his late teens when all of these films were coming out) and he had never heard of it either. Really enjoyed it and was surprised to have not known about it before.

    • Guillermo

      Its fine-tuned humor makes it entertaining and the gradually unfolding tragedy makes it gripping. The fountain sequence is by far the finest piece of acting I’ve ever seen in a movie. Scarecrow is absolutely worth watching and should have deserved much more attention.

      • I remember really looking forward to this film at the time it was released. I loved it, but it got surprisingly little attention, both before and after its release. I saw it in a nearly-empty theater, and the reviews (as I recall) were unenthusiastic, even indifferent. Those were the days long before weekly publication of box-office results, but even then I knew it was a financial flop. By the time it won at Cannes the movie had already left the American theaters.

      • Aaron Graham

        I study film, and although I had heard the name before, since there is basically no talk of it anywhere, I thought it to be missable.

        Then one day one of my professors (film theory) came in – and he’s a veritable goldmine if you like films from the seventies – and slapped (amongst others) Scarecrow on the table, and said: «now we’re gonna see what one can do without dialogue». He then screened the first ten minutes of the movie, and I immediatly was hooked. Had to get the movie. Turns out it was never released in Europe, so I had to import it. One of the best buys I’ve ever done.

        Very underrated movie.

  2. C.Night

    Wrote an essay on Scarecrow years back exploring the plot and meaning. I think of this movie as centering around the two main characters’ universal personality types rather than the characters themselves.

    At the beginning of the film, it’s immediately established that the two are absolute opposites of each other. But in a way, they are exactly the same. They each have built a wall between them and reality or their problems. Obviously Max is militant and uses violence to escape reality; Lion uses humor.

    But I really think we’re supposed to believe, in the beginning, that Max has the problem and Lion as our hero will rescue Max and show him how to relax, and I think that that is how Lion views the situation too. But as the story progresses, you can start to sense that Lion has problems as well and is not happy all the time (thanks to the superb acting of Mr. Pacino). A lot of his antics and gags seem forced at times, and quick moments where you see him remove his facade and reveal, in a split second, a struggling and unsure, almost saddened mind. Obviously the ending accents this point.

    To me, this movie is in two parts. The first focuses on Max’s metamorphosis, the second Lion’s. I think the point of it all is to point out two opposite defense mechanisms and then argue the fallacies of both.

  3. I have appreciation for films made in the seventies. With the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code in the late sixties, movies were in a way liberated and were finally able to project things as they were without having to conform to rules. It was a sort of rebellious age for America and for movies. The glorified way of life in America that was so burned into the minds of audiences was finally being portrayed in a more realistic sense, and this was reflected in the movies of the era. Although I have not seen this particular movie, I can imagine just how the cynicism of the director translated into a movie that drew real emotions from its audience.

  4. Nilson Thomas Carroll

    Thanks for this. Great recommendation. The film wasn’t on my radar, but it seems right up my alley. I’m sure Al Pacino will not disappoint.

  5. I loved this analysis, and one thing I’d like to point out is how Max’s loneliness was further exemplified in the ending scene at the train station.

    As Mr. Lisi notes the friendship began when Lionel spared his last match for Max to light his smoke. In the end at the station, Max tries in vain to light his cigar, and once he can’t get it lit because his Zippo fails to ignite, no one is there–like Lionel was–to lend him a match. It was almost like a divine symbol that he was meant to be alone, a small but harsh reminder that it’s just his destiny.

    He was desperate for Lionel to wake up, and things that would normally be a small nuissance appear to be a formidable omen that there is nothing left to return to shall he decide to make the round trip back to see his friend.

  6. One of the best films of its era. I just saw it again the other day and can’t stop thinking about it. Equivalent to more known greats such as the Dear Hunter, One flew over the Cuckoos Nest and Midnight cowboy.

  7. Cynthia G Lyman

    I found this to be an instant favorite, maybe because I am a huge fan of most film from the era and possibly because it featured one of my favorite actors of all time, Gene Hackman, working alongside the brilliant Al Pacino. I could watch this movie over and again and catch something subtle that I’d missed on previous viewings. This really isn’t a genre film beyond the buddies on the road, united against the world theme. It’s a startling and often disturbing microcosm of life in the United States in the early 1970s.

  8. A theme in a number of ‘70s films, that misfortune is the result of external factors beyond the subject’s control is indeed prevalent and had a disturbingly welcome following.

  9. Wonderful critique and analysis. I was thinking about this film today without knowing why. It haunted me when I saw it back then and I don’t think I even knew anyone who’d ever seen it: somehow, it didn’t seem to make much of an impact in theaters. The actors were both incredible as they would become legends later. Another Buddy film? Maybe, yes…but so distinctly different and unique it captured a time and world that most folks just drove by and never stopped for the the hitchhikers just outside their windows.

  10. Sandip M.

    Absolutely Brilliant.

  11. Brilliant analysis of an under-appreciated movie. Reading this was comforting closure after Schatzberg and his ambiguous ending left me in tatters!
    Great work.

  12. Bonnie Keating

    Excellent analysis of this film. I to see Max and Lion join other losers like Billy & Wyatt, Joe Buck & Ratso. Love to have breakfast in Hobo Jungle with all of them….

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