February is drawing to a close. The calendar is racing towards spring and the days are growing milder. In a hail of red crepe paper and discarded heart-shaped trinkets, we have left Valentine’s Day behind. Chocolates have been eaten, hearts have been broken, and supermarket shelves are crowded with half-price red confectionary. With Valentine’s Day receding into the past while its sense of romantic longing still lingers like bitter candy, I am going to tell you two stories: one glamourous and thrilling; the other dark and twisted. Both stories pivot on ideas of love, obsession and passionate intensity. One of these stories concerns a beautiful young couple fleeing from the law, indulging in high-speed chases and ultimately finding freedom across the border in Mexico. The other story also concerns a beautiful young couple on the run. In this case, however, the couple does not find freedom, but instead embarks on a hellish descent into living death and a cannibalistic nightmare. Their fate is to be consumed just as they themselves have consumed wealth, robbed goods and stolen lives.
A striking contrast, but I am not, in fact, telling you two different stories; I am telling you the same story. Both of these tales are versions of Jim Thompson’s 1958 crime-thriller The Getaway. Although best known from its 1972 cinematic adaptation, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, the original novel upon which this famous heist caper is based was a much darker, almost surreal, exploration of greed and consumption. The ’72 film of The Getaway was directed by Sam Peckinpah, with a script written by Walter Hill. Occasionally violent and often darkly comedic, Peckinpah’s film is nevertheless a million miles away from Thompson’s novel. The film’s violence is generally of the heroic type, and, like so many outlaw couples, the protagonists, Doc McCoy and his wife, Carol, are appealing, attractive figures. Criss-crossing the expansive highways of America in the aftermath of a daring bank heist, Doc and Carol are running from both the police and a psychotic accomplice. As played by McQueen and MacGraw, the pair embody the allure of the outlaw couple.
A perennial figure of intrigue and romantic fantasy, the outlaw has always exerted a powerful influence over the American popular imagination. According to the eminent scholar of US literature Leslie A Fiedler, “the typical male protagonist of [American] fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat – anywhere to avoid ‘civilization’.” From Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn to the counter-culture heroes of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, America has always been spellbound by men on the run, whether they are running from the law, from authority or from society as a whole. The couple on the run is an extension of the outlaw fantasy, a twisted reflection of the American dream and an inversion of the nuclear family. The outlaw couple represent sex and passion without the responsibility of family and community. Peckinpah and Hill’s adaptation of The Getaway certainly foregrounds the allure of the fugitive couple. The film begins with Doc McCoy in prison, and the viewer is exposed to the mechanised, repetitive nature of his daily routine. The opening shot homes in on the startled visages of trapped animals, deer, with whom we immediately associate the prisoners. Clad in identical white uniforms and shot from a deindividuating birds-eye view, the prisoners are presented as a homogenous mass. Their lives are rigidly structured, monitored and scheduled. The first scenes of the film render in extreme close-up the machines the prisoners work with, and their incarceration begins to seem less like a punishment and more like some sort of industrial dystopia.
In contrast with this tedium, when Doc is released his experiences with his wife, Carol, are emblematic of freedom and pleasure, fantasy fulfilled. Nowhere is this sense of romantic liberty more apparent than in the scene by the riverbank when Doc imagines diving into the river with Carol, revelling in the cool water and kissing her mid-stream. Cross-cut with Doc’s dreamy expression, this fantasy does not remain in the realm of the imaginary for long as Carol and Doc actually dive into the river a few moments later. Despite the violence of the film, Peckinpah’s vision of Doc and Carol is fundamentally romantic and idealised. After robbing a bank, the pair are pursued across the country and their journey is, for the most part, one of defiance and rebellion. They eat fast-food dinners in motel rooms, steal cars at will and cross vast landscapes bisected by endless highways. The immense vistas of the American heartland glisten with freedom and potential.
In contrast, Doc and Carol are often deliberately juxtaposed with more conventional couples and ordinary American domesticity. When Carol waits for Doc in a train station, she sits near a woman close to her own age. This woman is dowdy, worn out and tormented by a crying baby. Sitting near the radiant Ali MacGraw, her homely domesticity is in stark opposition to Carol’s defiant glamour. Carol and Doc may face gun battles and frantic flights from the law, but they are free from the drudgery of family, parenthood and mundane, middle-American life. This is not to say, of course, that the fugitive couple’s escape is entirely idyllic. Over the course of the film, they fight, threaten to break up, and at one point they even find themselves hiding in a garbage dump, a wasteland whose quasi-apocalyptic panoramas almost recall the surreal horrors of the original novel. Likewise, the fantasy of the outlaw couple, passionately in love and positioned in opposition to a conformist world that does not understand them, is repeatedly undermined by the parallels drawn between the primary pair, Doc and Carol, and their dark reflection, the psychotic and abusive relationship between their former accomplice, Rudy (Al Lettieri), and his “girlfriend” Fran (Sally Struthers). Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the cast and crew disagreed as to whether or not Doc and Carol actually love each other, they make their getaway. They escape across the border to freedom.
In the final moments of the film, the fugitive pair manage to hijack a truck and its elderly driver, forcing him to ferry them to Mexico. Once safely on the southern side of the border, Doc and Carol pay the old man an exorbitant sum of money for the truck. Considering that the man is a poor worker who struggles to provide for his family, this exchange of money and the couple’s apparent kindness are framed as acts of defiance. Having successfully stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars and evaded the police, all the while smashing through the restrictive social structures of conservative mid-century America, the outlaw couple upend the capitalistic system upon which such structures are built. They may be criminals, but they are considerate enough to distribute some of their wealth to those in need. They break the law, but their crimes only hurt large, indifferent institutions such as the banking system, while their generosity benefits real Americans, small insignificant individuals who are usually victimised by these same institutions. Peckinpah’s film, like much of his oeuvre, is violent, brutal and often nihilistic; however, we are nominally treated to a happy ending as Carol and Doc drive off into the freedom of Mexico. Their relationship has moments of violence (something which probably needs an entire article to unpack) and they regularly threaten to split up. We are left to wonder, at times, if their love is genuine, or if their relationship is one of convenience and financial obligation. After all, Carol plays a key role in the robbery, and so should be entitled to a share of the loot. Despite this profound ambiguity, the film’s denouement suggests unity and promise; a better, brighter future amidst the golden sands of Mexico.
Jim Thompson’s original novel offers no such comforting conclusion. Indeed, Thompson leaves us without any sort of certainty. Loose ends remain untied and we can only imagine the horrors that await our protagonists. Although closely mirroring its film adaptation in many ways, the novel takes an abrupt turn into terrifying, surreal symbolism in its final chapters. Towards the end of the novel, Doc and Carol, still heading for the Mexican border, travel to Southern California where they hide out with the matriarch of a notorious criminal family named Ma Santis. An imposing woman, Ma is described as the daughter of a criminal, the wife of a criminal and the mother of six criminal sons. It is while staying with Ma that the novel abandons its more realistic tone and swiftly becomes a horrifying psychological nightmare. Hounded by the police, Carol and Doc are forced to hide in small caves – holes, really – along the cliffside by Ma’s home. Claustrophobically small, dark and stagnant, the caves are described by Carol as being more akin to coffins: oppressive, sealed enclosures rather than welcoming features of the natural landscape. Worse still, Doc and Carol’s descent into the caves, a subterranean nightmare, is described almost like a descent into Hell, a stifling sojourn in the underworld. Before entering the caves, Doc and Carol are made to strip. They leave their clothes, money and personal belongings behind them. Before this, the couple had already lost their car, which they were forced to dispose of in a “bottomless” gravel pit. As thieves, so many of their actions have been guided by avarice, the desire to have more. Now, they are stripped of everything. They lose everything, including their dignity and their basic humanity. Carol is unaware of the horror that awaits her. She dismisses Ma’s advice to take the sleeping pills that wait for her in the cave. Carol distrusts what Ma knows well: the caves are so confining, so like the grave, that the oblivion of sleep is preferable to the living death of lying awake in those dark, suffocating holes.
When the ordeal of the caves finally comes to an end, Carol and Doc are then hidden by Ma’s son Earl in a “haystack-sized mound of manure”. Here, they are tormented by unbearable heat, and besieged by multitudinous flies and “corpse-coloured” grub worms. Remote from the glamour and freedom usually associated with the outlaw couple, Doc and Carol are consigned to a seemingly endless wait in a limbo forged from rot and decay. Yet, this is not even the most horrifying element of the novel. When the pair finally make it to Mexico, they are not confronted by the manifold possibilities of an open highway. Instead, they find themselves in the mythical kingdom of El Rey. A haven for escaped thieves, El Rey is a city whose description initially conjures up images of utopia and bliss. Appearing on no existent maps, El Rey is depicted as having a changeable climate, but no disease. It is a place conducive to good health and long life. Yet, even here, there is something sinister in the promise of long life. The narrator tells us that “even such man-created maladies as malnutrition and starvation are minus much of their normal potency, and a man may be almost consumed by them before he succumbs to them”.
El Rey, it transpires, is exorbitantly expensive. Everything is first-class, from the accommodations to the food and clothes. Although this may seem like a paradise for thieves on the run, this is the trick of El Rey – to seem like bliss while actually being the worst torment imaginable. Before long, the criminals, who arrive with a limited store of funds, invariably run out of money. No matter how lucrative their crimes have been, money can only last so long in such an expensive place. People run out of money; they turn on each other. “Suicides” and “accidents” are common as individuals murder others for their money or resources. Worse still, those who run out of money are moved out of the main city of El Rey to a small village paved with cobble-stone streets and filled with brilliantly white-washed houses. In this place, where there is no money and no food, suicide and cannibalism are rampant; the “odor of peppery, roasting flesh” fills the air. The novel ends on an ambiguous note: Doc and Carol, aware of their rapidly dwindling funds and cognisant of the horror that awaits them, secretly plot to kill each other while toasting their “successful getaway.”
Some critics have suggested that El Rey is a vision of Hell, and this interpretation is certainly logical. The image of gaunt ravaged detainees feasting on the flesh of their compatriots is evocative of the most horrifying works of Hieronymus Bosch. Similarly, the fact that the penalties meted out in El Rey reflect the crimes of its citizens echoes the concordance of crime and punishment in Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, it is possible to imagine that Doc and Carol’s descent into the perdition of El Rey parallels, at least in some small way, the poet Dante’s journey into Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in The Divine Comedy. However, while Dante began his travels in Hell and moved upward to the grace of Heaven, Doc and Carol begin in the relative paradise of successful crime and romance on the run. Ultimately, however, they descend to the Purgatory of the Ma Santis’ caves and the mound of manure, before finding themselves in the Inferno of El Rey.
At the same time, however, there is an interesting cultural commentary embedded in this symbolic horror, especially if we bear in mind the context in which Thompson’s novel was written. Published in 1958, the book is undeniably a product of 1950s America: its paranoia, its conformity and its greed. In The Getaway, Thompson laments the conformity of American society in the decades after the Second World War. For example, he is adamant is his assertion that the Santis Family were “hill people, rebels and outlaws” who had “the misfortune to be born into a civilization which insisted upon conformity and pardoned no breakage of its laws, regardless of one’s needs or motives” [emphasis mine]. According to Keith M. Booker, “all of Thompson’s novels are, in one way or another, narratives of attempted escape from carceral control, generally leading to dire consequences for the attempted escapee.” In The Getaway, Doc and Carol, as well as the Santis Family, are rebels, attempting to escape the conformist structures and norms of their society. However, Thompson is in many ways a pessimist. For him, such prisons cannot be escaped and there is no freedom for those who try.
At the same time, Thompson also seems critical of the greed and materialism of the 1950s consumerist mentality. Booker observes that the kingdom of El Rey is “Thompson’s most horrific image of capitalist competition and the commodification of the individual under capitalism.” Likewise, Abby Bentham also alludes to Thompson’s critique of capitalist greed, describing The Getaway as a “nightmarish vision of a bleak and spiritually void modernity, where rampant individualism has destroyed community and made personal relationships impossible to maintain”. For many, the outlaw couple, the lovers on the run, represent rebellion, a struggle against a stifling, conformist system, and while Carol and Doc certainly attempt to escape the mundanity of 1950s America, they cannot escape its greed and consumerism. As criminals they live outside the law, but their desire for money and wealth indicates that they operate within a fundamentally capitalist system. The cannibalistic horrors of El Rey, although a surreal coda to a comparatively realist crime novel, suggest that criminals and those who live outside of society are perhaps less romantic, less revolutionary than we might imagine. Like everyone else in the materialist climate of post-war America, they are consumers; they desire wealth and luxury, but like the rest of America, this desire for wealth will ultimately consume them.
Here, then, we have two stories of love on the lam. In one, the romance of the outlaw is problematised, but upheld. In the other, it is undermined and torn apart. Jim Thompson was the original screenwriter on the 1972 version The Getaway, but he was replace by Walter Hill (a great writer and filmmaker in his own right) when he refused to excise the novel’s horrific ending. The disturbing kingdom of El Rey is also cut from Roger Donaldson’s 1994 remake. Perhaps the myth of the outlaw, the rebel, the anti-hero is too precious to our collective imagination. We imagine these figures as legendary renegades whose ability to break free of social convention mirrors our own lust for freedom. However, if their attempts end in tragedy and horror, if their motives are revealed to have their origins in the familiar pang consumerist desire, what happens to our fantasy?