American moviegoers take the buddy action movie for granted. After two episodes of 48 Hrs. and four incarnations of Lethal Weapon, after everything from The Blues Brothers to Bad Boys (parts un and deux) to long-forgotten comedies like Dan Aykroyd and Gene Hackman in Loose Cannons and Martin Lawrence paired with Luke Wilson in Blue Streak, it is, I think, assumed that the comedic formula of two guys bonding together over a cocktail shaker filled with mutual distrust and respect-- all mixed up by the perpetual motion and turbulence generated during nonstop pursuits by foot and all manner of vehicles-- is one that is as old as the movies themselves.
But the popularity of the modern buddy action comedy as we know it today can probably be traced straight back to what director Richard Rush, writer Robert Kaufman and stars Alan Arkin, James Caan and Valerie Harper et al did on their summer vacation back in 1974. Released later that year as a Christmas present to unsuspecting moviegoers, Freebie and the Bean became a smash hit, despite the multiple warnings heard emanating from a dog pile of bad reviews. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby decried the movie as the worst of the year’s crop of flop cop comedies, “probably because it has a cast of otherwise good actors doing bits of business (sometimes called acting) as if they thought they could upstage all of the movie's automobiles, which are seldom still.” The cherry on top of Canby’s dismissal came when he admitted “finally get(ting) the feeling that a car directed the picture —it’s as sensitive as a door knob and as witty as a bumper sticker — and maybe one did, though the title credits list Richard Rush,” who, as Canby is quick to point out, earned his reputation in Hollywood directing low-budget motorcycle dramas.
Canby’s point of view was not uncommon among people who were paid to see movies back in 1974. But as far as the public was concerned (and even some directors—Stanley Kubrick was an out-and-proud fan of the film) Freebie and the Bean was gold. In an era when such matters didn’t much concern either the intelligentsia or the great unwashed, Freebie and the Bean was about as un-P.C. a comedy as one could possibly imagine. The movie is a product of a time that recognized the reality of an emerging multiculturalism and the relatively unquestioned societal bigotry that was all tangled up with that new social reality. Yet Freebie, unlike, say, All in the Family, wasn’t a satirical attack on those prejudices. It existed, then and now, as a reflection of them, of how people (and filmmakers) recognized, ignored, and sometimes reveled in the impatience and fear and anger people from opposing points of view had for each other, fearlessly spelunking for the comedic tension that arose from those conflicts, and from the mutual respect that struggled to balance them out. Arkin and Caan artfully walk this tightrope while blasting each other with the funniest bile-soaked, rapid-fire, semi-improvised dialogue ever to grace an action comedy. These two really seem like they’ve spent an adult lifetime dodging each other’s verbal onslaughts. And their partnership is one with real dirt under its fingernails, a long-abandoned model of movie friendship cut from the moth-eaten cloth of interpersonal paranoia, suspicion, respect and, yes, the sneaky subtext of homoerotic romance and, of course, panic-- exactly the kind of treat most often flattened-out or outright buried underneath the THX Dolby super-soundtracks of modern play-it-safe crash-and-bang contraptions.
And make no mistake-- Freebie and the Bean is a crash-and-bang contraption. All that talk of social reality is neither to try to pretend that the movie was ghost-written by Athol Fugard nor to ignore the exhilaratingly high percentage of vehicular mayhem that it showcases. Indeed, some of the funniest, most breathtakingly hilarious car stunt work in the history of the movies is contained in this picture. But what’s ultimately rewarding about the movie is that the struggle Canby suggests the actors are engaged in, trying to upstage Rush’s constantly accelerating automobiles (Is there a more aptly named moviemaker?), is one that, through their own accelerated interaction and awareness of each other as performers, and their own brand of sensitivity to what the other is doing, the actors win hands-down. Nothing in Freebie and the Bean is as chokingly funny as Caan and Arkin, as the two eponymous and antagonist detectives, pitching the movie’s central plot mechanism—a proposal to protect a local crime boss from an impending hit just long enough so they can get the evidence to arrest him themselves—to the apoplectic San Francisco D.A., played with brilliantly discombobulated disbelief by Alex Rocco. These two are their own multi-car pile-up, walking all over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, stutter-starting and stopping mid-sentence as they try to weasel Rocco and avoid yet another in what one suspects is a long line of shout-downs from a superior. And nothing in the movie is as moving or engaging as Arkin’s scenes with Valerie Harper, the two decidedly non-Latino stars expertly play-acting married urban lower-middle-class Mexican-Americans who can’t decide if they love each other more than they are impatient with or suspicious of each other. How the two of them avoided Oscar nominations is probably written in the fine print of the marketing of this loud, obnoxious, hilarious picture, the kind which the Academy Awards are likely contractually predisposed to ignore.
The relative depth of Arkin and Harper’s work together comes in a movie that is, above all, a love story. (It says so right on the one-sheet.) But the undercurrent of love in Freebie and the Bean is subtext, and of the dare-not-speak-its-name variety. What’s genuinely outrageous, especially for 1974, is how that subtext slowly becomes text as the movie progresses. We’re ultimately encouraged to view Freebie and the Bean as the male version of a warring married couple, the kind with the sort of passion to live out their lives in arguments as well as romance—or, um, mutual respect, you know. More problematic for some viewers is the movie’s portrayal of one of its peripheral villains, a transvestite by whom the boys are clearly repulsed. Paul Matwychuk, in his positive assessment of the film, is of two minds about the movie’s portrayal of this character. He writes: “The character is portrayed as an object of disgust; but on the other hand, he nearly beats up Caan without thinking twice — and in high heels to boot.” I think the movie’s “disgust” with the character is one that, like its racism and sexism, is very typical of the time, and certainly Rush doesn’t over-exert himself trying to challenge the attitudes the two cops display toward their threatening (in more ways than one) nemesis.
But given that typical representation in movies of the day, Freebie has been hastily singled out and misrepresented, most notably by the documentary made from Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, as Exhibit A in the case against Hollywood’s history of homo hatred. And Paul’s point that the transvestite does put some serious hurt on Caan’s ass shouldn’t be discounted. The gay villain’s physical prowess, coupled with the emerging comic subtext of the homoerotic tension between Freebie and the Bean, lifts the portrayal of this transvestite baddie out of the realm of the typical macho fear of faggotry (and the need to amplify that fear for anyone who happens to be within eyesight or earshot) and onto a plane where the two characters must interact with equal ability and strength. The villain’s fate isn’t portrayed as anything more or less typically violent than what ‘70s baddie Paul Koslo undergoes earlier in the picture—the transvestite isn’t killed, as he might have been in other pictures, because he was a “fag” and threatened James Caan’s manhood, but because he was a force that had to be dealt with the same way Caan would deal with anyone trying to take out his kidneys and break his neck in a public restroom. Yet The Celluloid Closet takes the gory clip of this guy bloodied against the bathroom wall, in a dress and high heels, and uses it to make its not-unnecessary point that Hollywood has historically gone out of its way to marginalize and/or punish homosexuals. There’s a difference, however, between integrating gay characters into the world a film conjures (and all that is possible in that world) and simply punishing them for having been there in the first place.
There are so many elements of Freebie and the Bean that are disarming, foremost of which is its own forward momentum, the relentless insanity of the way Rush makes a crash-bang universe out of the streets of San Francisco (no stranger to car chases even without this classic), and the way Caan and Arkin live in the skins of their characters, performing the way two aggravated brothers do who are forced to spend too much time together, unsure of their desire to keep company with anyone else. Of all the movies that have come in its 35-year wake (35 years?!), only Michael Bay’s underrated Bad Boys II comes close to capturing its unique mix of wanton (yet spectacularly choreographed) destruction and the rat-a-tat byplay of its lead characters. But even so, there is and can be only one Freebie and the Bean, a great, cacophonous, hilarious ‘70s artifact that might play even better now than it did when it was first unwrapped on Christmas Day 1974.
Freebie and the Bean has been playing here for Los Angeles audiences at the New Beverly Cinema since Sunday, and tonight is the final screening. If you missed it on Sunday and Monday and somehow didn’t know it was there before reading this, I apologize for not getting the word out in a timelier manner. But this evening’s screening would be a good one to catch, because Freebie plays with Midnight Run starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, another great action comedy that could be said to have roots in the model of character and action that Freebie and the Bean forged 14 years prior to its release. Midnight Run’s screenwriter, George Gallo, will be in attendance and taking questions in between films tonight. And since I feel so bad about my journalistic standards and being so late on posting this piece, if you can’t make it to the New Beverly tonight, feel free to come over to my house sometime and watch the recently released Freebie and the Bean DVD, which was recently made available in a no-frills edition from the Warner Archives Collection, on my IMAX-sized big-screen TV. (B.Y.O.P.)
Here's Josh Olson giving Freebie and the bean the old Trailers from Hell treatment! (So big and wide one blog couldn't contain it!)