Arthur Penn's bizarro 1965 thriller Mickey One had the misfortune of originating in the wrong country at the wrong time. If Penn's black-comic homage to the French New Wave and Film Noir had been released in France it would have fit right in with the cinematic revolution instigated by the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd. If it had hit American studios a decade later American audiences would undoubtedly have been more indulgent towards its arty weirdness.
Instead Mickey One died an unmourned death with critics and audiences alike. By the time Penn directed 1967's Bonnie & Clyde a counter-cultural revolution had primed audiences for its radical reinvention of the gangster movie. In between the two movies Penn struck out with 1966's The Chase, a relic of a bygone era when desperate studios fatally out of step with the times threw money at prominent theatrical and literary properties in a doomed attempt to stave off obsolescence.
The Chase consequently boasts a formidable pedigree on all fronts. It was adapted–in theory at least–by Lillian Hellman from Horton Foote's novel and play though it was reportedly taken out of Hellman's hands early and rewritten extensively. The legendary Sam Spiegel produced and Penn had already developed an impressive reputation thanks to his television work and films like The Miracle Worker. Then there's the cast: Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Robert Duvall, James Fox, Angie Dickinson, E.G Marshall and even a young Paul Williams, who looks disconcertingly like a lesbian midget in one of his earliest roles. With all that going for it how could The Chase possibly fail? Then again with the sky-high expectations that come with that level of talent how could The Chase possibly succeed?
The Chase takes place in one of those hot-blooded small Southern towns where long-simmering resentments constitutes the local growth industry and business is booming. It's a town where everything is for sale, especially people and sex. Marlon Brando stalks forthrightly through this cesspool of sin and moral degradation as a sheriff looking to recapture the parts of his soul that haven't been fatally compromised through his relationship with town patriarch E.G Marshall, a character actor I suspect emerged out of the womb a middle-aged, faintly malevolent authority figure.
Redford co-stars as the only other man in town whose soul isn't entirely owned and operated by Marshall's family or their money. For much of the film Redford stands out as a solitary figure, an outlaw surviving on wits and animal instinct. Brando and Redford serve as mirror images of each other, renegades playing by their own moral code. If The Chase had focused on Brando's pursuit of Redford with the single-minded focus William Friedkin brought to The Hunted the result could very well have been a striking existential thriller.
Instead Penn gets bogged down in a punishing gauntlet of subplots. Cuckolded bank employee Robert Duvall let Redford take the rap for stealing fifty bucks years earlier and suspects that Redford is bucking for revenge. Wealthy scion of the Marshall fortune James Fox is shtupping Redford's wife (Jane Fonda), much to the chagrin of Marshall and the community. Everyone's fucking everyone besides the people they're married to while the town's young people seem perpetually on the verge of revolt.
The Chase is at heart a film about the way money controls our lives in a million different ways. But just as Crash subscribed to the curious notion that the best way to deal with the strange silence concerning race in American films was to make a film where no one talks about anything but race The Chase tries to correct the absence of class-consciousness afflicting American movies by making money the explicit subject of damned near every conversation.
The Chase is an unexpectedly dull muddle but it attains a deceptive cumulative power. While Redford and Brando are engaged in a treacherous end game the rest of the town boozily, blearily parties like the apocalypse is at hand. The town elders behave like drunken frat boys while the anarchic energy of a young generation devoted only to cheap kicks and mindless pleasure threatens to tear society apart.
So while The Chase is far from a success there is a strange majesty to its failure. The Chase contemplates a world where the stodgy old order is dying and young people are more likely to destroy old traditions than preserve them. In its bleak, borderline apocalyptic climax The Chase eerily anticipates the cultural forces that would change American movies and America itself, forever.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Fiasco