Given its casting, pedigree, and subject matter, Scarecrow sounds like an automatic addition to the Mount Olympus of ’70s cinema. It’s a downbeat road movie about two vagabonds ineptly pursuing small dreams, the vagabonds are played by Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, the film was directed by adventurous humanist Jerry Schatzberg, and the cinematography is by the extraordinary Vilmos Zsigmond. Yet while the movie has a lovely intimacy, it doesn’t linger in the memory anywhere near as much as it should. That said, Scarecrow is near-essential viewing for fans of this period in American cinema simply because it exudes integrity and contains strong but obscure performances by two of the best actors America has ever produced. Although Hackman and Pacino each did better work in other films (because other films gave them better raw material from which to craft performances), it’s still a tremendous pleasure to watch these remarkable men amplify and complement each other’s talents.
Hackman plays Max, a volatile ex-con traveling like a hobo from California to Pennsylvania, where he plans to open a car wash. (Whether Max actually has the financial or managerial wherewithal to realize his dream is one of the film’s many richly ambiguous elements.) Max becomes traveling companions with Lionel Delbuchi (Pacino), a former sailor who approaches life with boyish exuberance; barely more than a simpleton, Lionel believes there’s almost no problem a good joke can’t solve. One of the inherent shortcomings of George Michael White’s script is that the Max/Lionel friendship always feels a bit contrived; their bond is more narratively convenient than purely organic. Nonetheless, Hackman and Pacino lend as much credibility to the relationship as possible, even when the characters behave in predictable ways—Lionel rarely steps outside his man-child persona, and Max keeps getting into stupid brawls even though he seems, in other respects, like a mature human being with real self-awareness. The film also suffers from the inherently episodic nature of most road movies.
Therefore, it’s almost all about the acting. Hackman is explosive and haunted and tender all at once, demonstrating his unique gift for incarnating emotionally conflicted men, and Pacino—though a bit over the top, thanks to a set of indulgent physical tics—creates many resonant moments. Supporting players Eileen Brennan, Richard Lynch, and Ann Wedgeworth lend strong atmosphere as well, though their characters border on being clichéd movie-hick grotesques. Former photographer Schatzberg and master cinematographer Zsigmond capture all of these lively performances in artful frames that showcase grungy locations and meticulous production design, so the physicality of the movie feels real even when the dramaturgy slips into artificiality.