There is a scene in The Getaway where Steve McQueen’s Doc and Ali MacGraw’s Carol evade a roaming cop car by diving into a dumpster. The pair end up swimming in trash for a lot longer than they’d probably expected, but it’s the few shots leading up to this sequence that are the most interesting. As the cop car slowly turns the corner and begins the prowl down the thin alleyway, Doc moves furtively up to the corner and braces himself against the brick wall, gun drawn. This is Steve McQueen, major action star of the era, it’s Frank Bullitt and Thomas Crown and The Freakin’ Cincinnati Kid for chrissake – but when Doc sidles up to the corner of that alley, the guy playing him ceases to be so endearing as he usually is; those cops coming down the alley are about to die, and Doc’s going to kill them.
He actually doesn’t kill them, of course, and we’re treated to the dumpster sequence instead. Point is that Doc’s moral compass is way (way) off from the kinds of characters you usually see McQueen portraying, and the prospect of shooting cops dead is a decidedly likely prospect throughout the course of The Getaway. Sam Peckinpah plays with this beautifully, and it’s possible that his second collaboration with McQueen (following the much more lighthearted Junior Bonner) was designed specifically to explore the questionable morality of the central character. It’s also something that Peckinpah would continue to explore in his 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
It’s more jarring here, through McQueen’s Doc. Freshly released from prison, Doc takes Carol along on a heist as the getaway driver. The heist goes bad and team member Rudy (played brilliantly by Al Lettieri) attempts to kill Doc and take the money for himself. A narrow escape only paves the way for a multifaceted chase, with Doc and Carol, Rudy, the police, and other forces vying for the stolen cash. All the motivation Doc has is to survive, to not go back to prison, and to keep the money for himself; the first two motivations are understandable, but it’s the third that receives most of the focus here. Doc really wants that money, and he’ll beat up and shoot people to make sure he gets it.
Rudy’s character, I think, effectively makes Doc’s character tolerable, meaning we’d be a hell of a lot less likely to root for Doc if we weren’t also rooting against Rudy. The two men being opposed from the very start is what provides us a clear good guy/bad guy pairing, or at least pushes that idea a little more into the light. One of the best Rudy scenes sees him riding in the back of a car driven by a man he has taken hostage. The man’s simpleton wife inexplicably sides with Rudy during this entire encounter, and as the trio barrel down the highway Rudy and his new girl munch happily on sticky ribs. A rib fight ensues, meaning Rudy and the girl gleefully whip ribs and fries at each other and at the despairing hostage. Barbecue sauce coats the inside of the car. Suddenly, Rudy shrieks “I don’t like this game no more!“, and the trio go immediately back to silence. There’s something weird and off-putting about this scene, very nearly bordering on disturbing, because Rudy’s mental state is shown to be completely unhinged by something as absurd as a rib fight.
That said, Doc isn’t a portrait of mental health either. His prison stint has had a clear effect on him, evident when he states it out loud – “It does something to you…It does something to you” – and again when he snaps at his own girl Carol. He strikes her for a simple misstep, and one could argue that his turnaround is as sudden and therefore even as repulsive as Rudy’s. But we’ve seen Doc in prison at the beginning of the film, we’ve seen the mindless way that days bleed into one another and time slips into nothing, we’ve seen years of days in a few short minutes. Rudy doesn’t have such a backstory, so his character traits are unexplainable, unreasonable, alien and terrifying. Doc may very well exhibit the same traits, but the reason we aren’t scared of him isn’t just because he’s the protagonist or just because he’s Steve McQueen. Doc’s pain is the cause of his ruthlessness, and in this way out of the entire Peckinpah oeuvre The Getaway is probably matched only by Straw Dogs in terms of depth of character.