They meet by chance on the side of a rural highway. Max (Gene Hackman), irascibly chomping on a stogie, would rather have nothing to do with Francis (Al Pacino), a spryly energetic fellow drifter. They eye each other warily. They try to hail down the occasional passing car to no avail. It’s an itinerant’s competition, until Francis sees that Max’s lighter isn’t working and he offers him his last match. So begins a particularly indelible movie friendship, as well as one of the unfortunately lesser-known features of American cinema’s ’70s golden age.
The narrative goals of Jerry Schatzberg’s gorgeously grungy road movie, shot in grainy widescreen by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, are simple: Ex-con Max dreams of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh, and he wants former sailor Francis to be his partner. But it’s the episodic cross-country journey that matters more. Max and Francis gruffly dine and drink their way through economically depressed small towns (the scene where Hackman’s brawl-ready bruiser does an impromptu striptease is a wondrous mix of hilarity and heartbreak). They visit friends and relatives who either overcompensate their affections or unleash their long-held disdain (Pacino devastatingly performs Francis’s emotional fallout after he’s dressed down by his ex-wife). Slowly, the redemptive vision of that car wash recedes—another ephemeral American dream lost in the haze of living hand-to-mouth, surviving day by day. Not even a companion by your side is guaranteed; Hollywood movies have rarely spoken such tough and tender truths.
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