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Director Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973) is a road movie set during the twilight of America’s Vietnam War. The film, written by Garry Michael White, is a portrait of male friendship. Specifically the bond between two itinerant souls, disenfranchised and cast adrift on America’s dusty back roads. Max (Gene Hackman) and Lion (Al Pacino) may owe something of their character to the novels of the Beat Generation though they’ve retained none of the literary movement’s romanticism.

Scarecrow is a bleak film. The images are mostly kept wide, encompassing the vastness of America’s heart land. Max and Lion often appear as solitary figures in an expansive landscape that reflects their aimlessness and ineptitude. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography in Scarecrow is generally overlooked but remains among Zsigmond’s greatest achievements. Every frame of Scarecrow looks as worn, cold, and desperate as the protagonists.

There was a trend in the seventies of road movies that function at once as character studies but double as anthropological snap shots. These films, including Scarecrow, thrive on exploring the intersection between the internal struggles of a character and the external social and political climate of the nation. Films such as Wanda (1970), Milestones (1975), The Rain People (1969), and Scarecrow proved so adept at this kind of dual portraiture that they remain both relevant and powerful works of cinema today.

Schatzberg was one of the great “actor’s directors” that came up in the New Hollywood. With Hackman and Pacino he’s not only working with two of the giants of seventies cinema but two men who have an innately powerful chemistry. Pacino’s work in Scarecrow explores many of the elements of his earlier collaboration with Schatzberg The Panic In Needle Park (1971). Pacino has rarely gotten to give the kind of performance that Lion calls for in Scarecrow; a balance of frailty and innocent exuberance. But even an actor as good as Pacino cannot rival Hackman’s work in Scarecrow which is probably the finest of his career.

Hackman, as usual, gives a bawdy larger than life performance that masks a deep well of emotions. For most of the film Hackman is thriving on a volatile mix of machismo and bluster with all of his trademark grit and charm. But it’s in those scenes where his character Max is called upon to take care of Lion that all of the posturing subsides to reveal love and tenderness. Hackman’s work in his final scene with Pacino is one of the most impactful depictions of friendship and heartbreak that was put to film in the seventies.

Scarecrow, despite being one of the best of the New Hollywood films, remains overshadowed to this day. There are a few of us who have discovered the adventures of Max and Lion but it’s doubtful that Scarecrow will ever be a popular favorite. Scarecrow does that remarkable thing that so few major Hollywood movies do which is to embrace the darker aspects of our nature with an unsentimental tenderness and compassion.