Fascism is a subject that seems to plague Clint Eastwood in his crime films. Or perhaps it’s the specter of Dirty Harry that hangs over his Bruce Wayne. It’s hard to say. But it’s also impossible to think Sam Peckinpah would have cast Eastwood if it weren’t for Callahan, and it’s impossible to think that Eastwood would be willing to work with the director of Straw Dogs if he didn’t understand that there were some kinky aspects to his most famous lawman.
Then again, calling Eastwood Bruce Wayne in Peckinpah’s version of Batman is almost unfair. Gone from this mid-70’s film are the euphoric bam’s and pow’s, the psychedelica of the television version (all the drugs seem to have been kept behind the camera), gone are Alfred, Robin, the bat-signal, and virtually everything that made the kid’s version (though this version is perversely cut to a PG) so much fun. Indeed, Eastwood makes his leather mask (mixed with his rough, leathery visage) into something akin to a fetish show. And I wouldn’t put it past Peckinpah to play up the S and the M of a character who deals out vigilante justice.
One wonders if Peckinpah, who loved his alcohol and was no stranger marijuana, spent a day or two running Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point in a 48 hour marathon while on a peyote high. That’s really the only explanation for his fusion of his macho aesthetics with – what amounts to – a car movie. And that’s the amazing thing about the film, and what Peckinpah brought to the mythos: so much of Batman’s masculinity, so much of his (dare I say) drive is tied into his car.
The film starts with a scene in a pool hall. Three roughnecks (two seem to be stuntmen, with Jamie Sanchez playing the lead) harass a group of women when Batman shows up and we enter slo-mo city. They have knives, but this Batman (with no real tricks up his sleeve) is a born brawler. That doesn’t stop him from breaking a bottle over one of the stuntman’s head’s in a shot that is amazing for cutting from one angle of slow motion to another slow-mo overhead shot (running the same speed) as the bottle disintegrates. The cadence of action was never more heightens when Peckinpah was let loose, but – sadly – the early sections show more care, as Bloody Sam was removed from the editing of the final two reels. When Batman finally beats the crap out of the three guys, he looks at the women with a vacuous stare. One wonders if Peckinpah cribbed from the Anna Christie/Greta Garbo school of blankness/the Kuleshov effect. I wouldn’t doubt it. The credits then play over Batman listening to a cop radio mix with Quincy Jones’s score.
I should stop for a second. Peckinpah was fairly public about his disappointment that he was denied Jerry Fielding yet again, but there’s no complaining about Jones’s work here. Not to stretch too much here, or whatever, but the film is discordant in so many ways; this would be no one’s dream Batman project – even if such an amazing team as this was assembled – and you can see why they let Burton go lighter when they decided to rejigger the whole thing 13 years later. But the funky soundtrack (that out funkifies Lalo Shiffrin) adds to the outer-space disconnect of Eastwood’s Batman prowling. Only in the last moments of the film does Eastwood ever take off the costume (and then only to lie down and go to sleep at 7 am in his nice home), so calling this picture a dream-state fugue-piece is applicable, and when applied to the sensibilities of the violence (and the lack of much blood) helps the picture along, even if it may be overcompensation on my part.
It’s only after the extended (six minute) credit sequence that we are introduced to Bo Hopkins’s Joker. A street thug with an oddness that can not be denied, his performance here is mostly done sans dialog. Hopkins’s malice is mostly implied, and when he does talk (as the IMDb states, he only has sixteen lines of dialog), I – for one – get chills. There’s something about Bo that says “yeah, I’d rape your sister if only she was a little younger” and never has his just unpleasant demeanor been put to better use. And his laugh is perfect. It rings like a death rattle around his throat, gurgling and slurping to the surface. There is an implied sense of back-story, but the film is about constant motion. In his first scene Hopkins says one line “Get Him. Get the Bat… Man,” And it defuses whatever sense of arch or camp might be expected. Hopkins in this film lays claim to being the American Klaus Kinski, if Kinski only worked for Werner Herzog ever. Muted is the word for this film as Eastwood says even less. There is no jibber-jabber in this film. Only engines revving, stopping, tires squealing, and hits connecting.
From there on out (the 20 minute mark) – as some critics have suggested – the film resembles Eastwood’s later The Gauntlet, in that it is not much more (or less) than a cat and mouse game played between the Joker’s pawns and Batman. And Peckinpah is ingenious in ramping up the stakes with each encounter (must have been an influence on Walter Hill’s The Warriors). Peckinpah – perhaps concerned after his recent efforts that his violence would be trimmed without mercy – seems to have worked here specifically without gun violence for that very purpose. It may seem a bit absurd that Batman stops and gets out of his car on four different occasions to get into fist-fights/brawls, but the energy and tempo of each sequence is dynamic enough to give each fight a different an exciting pop. After the opening three against one, you’ve got the clever stand-off fight of the heavyweight boxer type against Bat-Man (who uses his clever Karate moves to his advantage, and also picks up a strange zen-like theme to Batman’s violence), the forty-against-one stand-off in the alleyway (which starts at the beginning of a dead end, goes up a fire escape, through four apartments, then goes to four different roofs, only to go back into an apartment – eat your heart out Chan-Wook Park,), the marksmen fight (which I think Peckinpah put into to acknowledge guns) with its constant zoom-ins, and then Batman’s raid on Joker’s palace. Had Peckinpah directed these last two sequences (and not – as has been credited – Eastwood with an assist from Hal Needham), it might be one of the greatest films Peckinpah ever directed. But where the first hour (of this 87 minute film) wastes no time with back-story or any of that nonsense, the final showdown is bogged down with flashbacks (which – to be fair – are at least done silently) that explains the two’s relationship. But already the film had created a sense of duality, something Eastwood came close to exploring with films like In the Line of Fire and A Perfect World (though never as successfully), but never dipped his toe in as well as he does here… at least until it all goes a little south.
At this point Walter Hill had worked with Peckinpah, and I wonder if they didn’t compare notes as Hill was working on The Driver around this time, and they both have that zone-out feel, though Peckinpah took Detroit as his playground, and Hill took Los Angeles.
I write this now, partly because I don’t think the film ever recovered from Pauline Kael’s evisceration (“Bats in the Belfry”), though I guess she and Sam were drinking buddies at one point, and this was something of a pissing match. I know she felt for him, but perhaps she never got over her distaste of Eastwood. Which is interesting as this film undercuts his mythos more than even Unforgivendoes/did. Batman – as Peckinpah said in interviews – was a fucked up individual, and he saw the film in some ways as a sequel to Straw Dogs, but he also said he never told Eastwood that. Peckinpah’s career was already headed to the shitter, and he obviously got fired off the film (as the last reels show), so it’s hard to say if he wasn’t just squeezing some sour grapes. Still, when people ask me what’s my favorite superhero film, I usually point to this one. Or Ang Lee’s Hulk.