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Damn the Double Nickel: “Convoy” Shows a Great Director Slumming

Dividing the auteurist from the average hedonist.

Convoy is another of those movies that divide the auteurist from the average filmgoing hedonist. To the ordinary viewer, it’s one of many 1970s vehicles (no pun intended) where cars or trucks speed and crash primarily for the delectation of Southern drive-ins, only it doesn’t happen to star Burt Reynolds or come from Roger Corman. In other words, it’s a throwaway, a project tossed together to cash in on C.W. McCall’s 1975 hit song of the same name, now with new PG-rated lyrics.

Yes, but: to the fans of Sam Peckinpah, this is the spectacle of a great director slumming. Since he couldn’t help making personal cinema, it kicks up plenty of his dust, not least in his distinctive style of editing action by intercutting regular and slow-motion bits from different angles. This recognizable and effective trait analyzes the violence in a self-conscious “alienating” way while making it more vivid and disorienting in the cinematic approximation of an adrenaline rush.

More significantly, Peckinpah made digressive, elegiac movies, and this story of a longtime rivalry between “independent” driver Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson) and Arizona sheriff Dirty Lyle (Ernest Borgnine), with the former telling the latter “There’s not many of us left,” somehow becomes a picture of a (literally) passing America. Peckinpah concentrates on the contextual fringes and margins of the story, all those uncredited extras in what amounts to documentary footage, a snapshot of a certain type of rambunctious, down home, salt of the earth, hard-scrabble, noisy class serving the road that sustains and passes them by.

Peckinpah is just as interested in the old golf-cart codger who says “Damn the double-nickel!” (in reference to the 55mph speed limit) as he is in Duck or Lyle, and much more so than in Ali MacGraw’s character, along for the ride and marquee value. (She’d starred in Peckinpah’s The Getaway.) In the raucous diner fight that sets the plot in motion, the editing places equal emphasis on bystanders like the owner and the customers, especially the weatherbeaten oldster with long gray hair who calmly lights his cigarette amid the fracas.

There’s lots of old people here, including the ancient couple in their ancient car, and lots of young people, like the marching band and the intense Indian (or Hispanic?) deputy, and lots of grizzled, bearded, unkempt stragglers in between. Such is the American Southwest, the movie seems to say in between all the reckless damage to property that serves as plot.

These centralized margins work better than the attempt to turn a simple chase script into Viva Zapata, as Kristofferson describes it in the making-of . A reluctant Rubber Duck gets pulled into an escalation of events that becomes a media circus and political opportunity for a governor (Seymour Cassel) who wants to exploit the “protest” (lots of illegal shenanigans), with CB radios (the craze of the day) serving as the era’s internet or cell-phone network, allowing both the law and “the people” to eavesdrop on each other. Mythically, the plot is overloaded with more weight than even Rubber Duck’s Mack truck can bear, and the ending shows post-production chopping from a longer version.

It’s still a throwaway, but Peckinpah keeps what many films leave out, and that’s what shouldn’t be thrown away. Now the movie’s in a widescreen Blu-ray with several extras, including a 75-minute making-of that doesn’t belong to the industry’s promotional machine where everyone raves about the honor of working with talented people. Interested in the truth, it contrasts opinions and reminiscences in a manner resembling the fable of the blind men and the elephant. It was a troubled, over-budget production with an ailing director and two second-unit directors (including Peckinpah’s friend James Coburn), and we hear from the “money” side, the creative side (including Ali McGraw and Borgnine), and the director’s biographer.

Other extras include reconstructions of lost scenes, notes on cameos and in-jokes (such as the fact that Burt Young, Madge Sinclair and Franklin Ajaye drive trucks named after characters they played), a comparison of international ads, and a Norwegian fan discussing the trucks involved. Somebody should lavish this kind of loving attention on The Getaway.

RATING 6 / 10