Just before Arthur Penn would change the landscape of the American film industry forever with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he directed The Chase.
Derided at the time as an old-style Peyton Place-like potboiler, what critics failed to realise was that this was as stark a depiction of violence as had ever appeared on the American screen.
A Lillian Hellman adaptation from a Horton Foote novel, Penn’s first masterpiece is also one of his darkest works, a southern gothic portrait of small-town America as a festering backwater stagnant with avarice, jealousy, and racism.
Marlon Brando, in one of his great mid-period roles, is magnificent as benevolent Sheriff Calder, reluctantly assigned by local kingpin Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall) to capture escaped fugitive Bubber Reeves, played by future New Hollywood star Robert Redford.
Bubber’s imminent return to his hometown rouses hostility among the citizens of Tarl, such as Edwin Stewart (Robert Duvall), who believes Bubber will come after him to settle an old score, and Damon Puller (Richard Bradford), who, between grope sessions with Edwin’s wife Emily (Janice Rule), uses Bubber as an excuse to terrorise black residents.
As the atmosphere heats up, Calder wants to keep Bubber alive, and he convinces Bubber’s wife Anna (Jane Fonda) and her lover, Val’s son Jake (James Fox), to find Bubber and coax him into surrender.
Val’s fear that Bubber will kill his son, however, sparks a long confrontation that leaves rational law and order pummeled into the ground by the town’s ignorant cruelty.
In one sense, Hellman’s script is like an updated Western; in another, it evokes the madness and violence that gripped America in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.
Although Penn virtually disowned the picture after producer Sam Spiegel had it re-edited, it remains a genuinely disturbing evocation of that traumatic era and an explosive drama of one man’s fight to cling to what he knows to be right.
E G Marshall