Review: The Last Run (1971)

Directors: Richard Fleischer, John Huston

Starring: George C. Scott, Tony Musante, Trish Van Devere

Release Date: 7th July 1971 (US)

Many people look forward to giving up work as they reach old age, only to discover a void where once they had purpose; after years of planning towards retirement, a new senior citizen may realize they’d no plan for retirement, and cops and robbers are no different. The Last Run is a film about a criminal’s failed retirement where activity, for good or ill, has given way to the restless contemplation of time running out. Harry Garmes (George C Scott), once a professional getaway driver, gave up the crime business nine years ago, moving from his native Chicago to the small fishing village of Albufeira in southern Portugal, retiring there with his wife and three-year-old son. As we shall see, neither are around anymore. Away from organized crime, Harry has a life of organized nothing, visiting the local whore when not whiling away the time at the harbor with his friend Miguel, a fisherman who loaned Harry’s boat when Harry found he wasn’t cut out for a life at sea. Harry Garmes, retired from crime, is slowly retiring from life.

A man of Harry’s age could well have served in the war, and we can not unreasonably posit he enjoyed the camaraderie of the armed services; unlike the antagonists of Suddenly (1954), He Walked By Night (1948), and The Killer is Loose (1956), into which the army which bred extreme individualism, turning them towards crime in order to lash out against society, Harry Garmes prefers crime as a team sport, more akin to the train robbery gang of Plunder Road (1957). Usually however, America is the country of the lone wolf, men who, like Ben in Shadows (1959), can shrug off his friends and go it alone. Harry has done this and become a wolf who howls in the dark, not through independence, but in the hope of hearing a reply.

We sense Harry’s isolation during The Last Run‘s meticulous opening credits where, working under a single bare light bulb, Harry fine tunes his car. As Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderfully evocative score plays, Harry fits a supercharger to his 1957 BMW 503 convertible, a rare car in good shape, still capable of a job, but like its owner, nearing the end of its usefulness. Listening to the engine with a piece of rubber tubing, the old-fashioned way, Harry is finally satisfied with his work. Draping the car with a sheet, as if tucking it in for the night, Harry returns home, where he lays on his bed, checking his hands, the best tools he owns. There’s not much else for Harry to do but check for signs of aging.

Just after sunrise, Harry tests the car on the mountain roads, slinging the BMW around sharp bends, up through the gears and engaging the supercharger, until he’s satisfied all is well and heads back the way he came. Several IMDB reviewers have praised TLR‘s many car scenes for their realism, and what looks to the layman like bad cornering is actually an honest representation of a 1950s sports car driven at high speed. By the way, don’t worry if you’re not a gas-head, as there’s plenty to look at with Sven Nykvist’s expert cinematography enhancing the stunning countryside (TLR was filmed entirely on location in the Andalusia region of Spain and is an excellent showpiece for its scenery).

Later, Harry watches at the harbor as the fishermen return from their night’s work. Talking to Miguel (Aldo Sambrell), Harry explains he is leaving on a business trip tomorrow. Can he bring anything from town for their boat? No says Miguel, “she will float until you get back,” says Miguel. “God willing.” Harry laughs.

And Harry laughs with good – or should I say bad – reason, as we next see him placing flowers on the grave of his son (in a cemetery seen in a slanted medium shot, beautifully set up by director Richard Fleischer), who died a few weeks short of his fourth birthday. The epitaph of the headstone remarks the boy died “against hope, against need, against hope.” The grave is another object of devotion for Harry, like his car. In laying fresh flowers upon his son’s resting place, one can say Harry is doing the same for his own life.

This view is confirmed by Harry himself after one of his frequent visits to the local prostitute, Monique (Colleen Dewhurst, soon to become the ex-Mrs C. Scott for a second time). Mopping up after what sounds like quite a session, Monique asks if Harry put in the extra effort for a reason, but Harry deflects this, and they discuss Monique’s clients, and why they need her services. “Some,” she explains, “come to me to escape their wives, of the mothers of their wives, or their children, or work.” As for Harry: “just call me a creature of necessity.” However, it becomes clear that Harry is a man who not only needs love, but also has the need to love others, and Harry visits Monique to escape from what his life lacks, the very reasons other men seek comfort in Monique.

Harry gives Monique an envelope of money to look after while he’s away. “You are driving for criminals again?” “I’m driving for me,” he replies, “I’m getting ready to die, sitting around here.” Monique asks if the job is dangerous, but Harry claims otherwise, saying he just wants to prove “my nerves and my brain are still connected.” “Are you a catholic?” “In the old days, before the Fall, I owned a few shares,” muses Harry, who is told by Monique she will pray for him. Harry laughs, just as he did at Miguel’s invoking of God. “You think it would do no good, to have a whore pray for you?” Harry proves his sensitivity and intelligence with what sounds like a literary quote: “She is not a whore who sleeps abed with thee and he and me. She is a whore who has the heart of a whore.” Having checked however, I cannot find this quotation as part of a play or poem, and so conclude the line comes from something Harry has written himself. When a man turns to writing his own poetry, there’s trouble afoot.

The next morning and Harry drives for the Spanish border. He spends the night in a village pension, where he memorizes, then burns, the photograph of a man whose identity we don’t yet know. Before hitting the road the next day, Harry sees a church across the town square and decides to pay a visit. Seating himself by the confession box Harry begins, “Father, I have sinned,” but then admits, “I’ve not done much of anything lately. I don’t believe in much…but there’s this thing I have to do, and I want to do it right. It’s the only thing I know.” Harry adds this ‘thing’ involves money, and leaves his confession at that. Leaving, Harry bumps into the priest, and we realize the confession box was empty. Harry assures the priest there’s nothing he can do: “I’ve taken care of it.” Confessing to an empty confession box, and writer Alan Sharp has conjured up a sweet yet chilling metaphor of existentialist angst, of a man who finds he still needs God, even if he knows He is absent.

Harry pulls over somewhere high up in the hills, where the color of the soil matches the tan of his weather-beaten visage. We watch as the driver of a truck carrying a load of concrete rubble sets up an ‘accident,’ spilling the rubble across the road. A minibus comes into sight, a police van transporting prisoners. The van stops, and the prison guards order their captives to clear the road. Moments later, the truck explodes in a staged detonation, and one of the prisoners seizes his chance to take flight, hurling himself down into the valley and wading across a river to reach Harry.

The escaped convict is Paul Rickard (Tony Musante, who injects a surprising amount of good cheer into what could have been a stone cold character) who, while putting on the clothes (and wig!) Harry provides, insists he detours to the town where his girlfriend is waiting – not part of the arrangements, Harry tells him. “Don’t worry about it, you’re just the taxi driver, I’m the passenger.” Rickard has another surprise for Harry – he’s not the safecracker he was told about, but a hitman: “I blow heads. When I say bang, everything suddenly goes dark!” The convicts holds his hands over Harry’s eyes, much to his fury; anger at the approaching darkness, and the level of control Harry has over it, feeds much of the film’s bleak philosophy.

At the night’s hotel room, Rickard calls his girl, has Harry light his cigarette and laughs at the old man’s pyjamas (to be fair, they are quite funny). Claudine Scherrer (Trish Van Devere, soon to become the next Mrs C Scott) soon arrives, and she’s far from the archetypal moll: clean and innocent-looking, well-spoken and bright, Claudie appears content with her unstable life with Rickard and indifferent to the dangers it presents.

Rickard wants to know why he’s not heard of Harry before; when was his last job? Nine years ago, Harry admits. Displeased, Rickard calls Harry “a hearse driver” who “didn’t even bring a gun.” Claudie offers Rickard her .32 mm pistol, not that this improves her boyfriend’s view of the situation: “a pea-shooter for a gun and a dinosaur for a driver.” Harry assigns them identities: uncle, niece, and niece’s boyfriend. This leads Rickard to poke more fun at Harry, calling him ‘uncle’ at every opportunity, leading Harry to draw Rickard aside in the privacy of the corridor – where he punches the young man in the gut and grips him in a vicious headlock. “Save the comedy routines for your girlfriend,” he snarls. “Don’t make me your punchline.” And so begins TLR‘s battle between youth and experience, and the promise of tomorrow against the future of the past as represented by Harry Garmes.

It’s a rough deal for Harry, for as Rickard and Claudie indulge in some soft focus, family-friendly lovin’, and Goldsmith’s score degenerates into standard Seventies slush, Harry retires to Claudie’s single room and fishes out her underwear from their soak in the sink. At least Claudie thanks Harry for his consideration when she returns to the room later to pick up her nice, dry underwear (given Claudie’s use of the word ‘knickers’, I think we can assume she is English). Harry asks how Claudie knew Rickard would make it to the hotel: “do you have faith in him?” “It’s not that,” the young woman explains. “He’s very determined…he’d kill to get what he wants.” Claudie exits, a woman who loves without faith, leaving Harry thoughtful.

After much travelling, the group take a stop at a cafe-gas station. As Harry fills up the car, Rickard and Claudine discuss Harry’s age, with Claudie defending the older man. Rickard jokes that sex with Harry would be like “lying under a side of beef,” but soon its Rickard who stiffens: “cops!” Two policemen on motorcycles quiz Harry (although one is more intent on admiring the BMW), causing Rickard to flee for the safety of “the john.” Harry enters the cafe long enough to tell Claudie to invite the hippy hitchhiker (Robert Coleby) making eyes at her to ride with them.

This she does, and with the cops assuming this is Harry’s niece and her boyfriend, wave the group on her way. Further down the road, the hiker makes himself comfortable in the back seat, and around Claudie in particular, and so ‘uncle’ takes the chance to evict the hiker from his car, accusing the hapless hippy of “molesting his niece,” and “taking liberties.” Turning the car round, Harry re-enters the Cafe Florida (note the displacement indicated by the name) via its grim los aseos and finds Rickard seated in a cubicle reading ABC magazine, which is preferable to reading the scraps of newspaper hanging from a hook in place of, shall we say, the ‘comforts of home’ (as a poor traveler, this is the type of matter I consider important). The three enjoy a good laugh at the hiker’s expense, especially when they pass the poor sap plodding along the side of the road. Ha! And his fur-lined sheepskin jacket is yukky as well.

Rickard, always keen to talk, asks Harry about his past, of which the young man assumes he has a great deal. Harry replies he was born in Chicago. Rickard enthuses about the city, wanting to visit its famous crime scenes, like the garage where the St Valentine’s Day Massacre took place. Rickard asks Harry if he knew renowned figures like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz. “How old do you think I am?” cries Harry, only half-jokingly. Here’s the thing though; George C Scott is well-cast in the role of Harry Garmes, fitting the character like a comfortable leather jacket, a robust, virile man in his late sixties. I was astonished then on checking Scott’s wikipedia page and realizing the great actor was just 43 when he made this film – the same age as myself, and yet Scott looks closer to my Dad’s age, rather than that of the goon I see in the mirror each morning. They made them tough back in those days, but toughness, with its drinking and smoking, ages a man, one of the many side-effects of the old-fashioned, rugged American ideal. Scott would die aged just 71, having suffered several strokes in the years beforehand. One reason for Scott’s health was heavy drinking, hardly a novelty among Hollywood legends, but believed to be a result of the younger Scott’s military duty. A man’s face can tell his story, and Scott’s can tell many.

“Those guys had something though,” figures Rickard, thinking of the Chicago mobsters. “Style. Polish.” Harry thinks it only the movies that make it look that way (Hollywood gives everything a polish). Rickard quotes Dutch Shultz’s baffling last words: “A boy has never wept, nor dashed a thousand kim.” Delirium, figures Harry. “Sure,” replies Rickard, “but who’s going to be quoting you in forty years, uncle?” The younger man feels confident a kind of immortality awaits those who perform the deeds required, or speak the necessary words, while suspecting Harry knows he’s done nothing to secure such a status.

As the trio approach the French border, Harry tells Rickard to get into the secret compartment built into the back of the car, used whenever police are nearby. With Rickard unable to hear anything except the rear axle, Harry asks Claudie how the pair first met. “I used to go with his brother,” she explains, “but he got into heavy stuff” (‘stuff’ is TLR’s rather uninspiring term for drugs). “Don’t you want anything else,” asks Harry, concerned about “the chasing, hiding [and the] danger?” Claudie replies by talking about her father, who was “chased by bankers, financiers, doctors.” One day, he “got it in the stomach.” Not a bullet, but a burst ulcer. There were “no famous last words,” from Mr Scherrer, only breathing into her mother’s face until “she left the room to be sick,” whereupon he died, alone. More food for thought for Harry, and very unappetizing food at that, as he learns of the unromantic nature of Claudie’s father’s death, and the desperate way in which he lived life.

The car crosses into France without incident, and a Citroen DS follows from a side-road, as arranged. With Rickard still in the secret compartment, Harry tells Claudie he’ll give the pair his address in the Algarve, should they happen to pass through (unlikely, as Rickard has already told Harry they’re making for Paris). Feeling at ease with Claudie, Harry talks of his life in Portugal, where he tried to blend in, only to suppose “I don’t really belong anywhere,” a classic existentialist frame of mind. Claudie asks about Harry’s wife. “She went to Switzerland to get her breasts lifted…she never came back.” Harry explains he took the job to prove he could still do it, “though nothing’s happened yet.” As night falls, the Citroen indicates to take the next left, as per the plan.

Within moments of arriving at a deserted farmyard, it’s clear the plan has changed, and not for the better. Rickard is told his appointed contact “couldn’t make it,” and the men he meets with are abrupt and unfriendly. Harry insists on bidding his two young charges farewell; Rickard again quotes Dutch Shultz’s famous last words. This confirms to Harry something is badly wrong as Rickard and Claudie are led away. Pocketing his fee of $2500 (nearly $15,000 in 2015 terms), Harry backs the car up, only to flick the supercharger and run down the solitary guard.

Inside what looks like a distillery or brewery (booze comes from farms, right?), the lead bad guy ignites an acetylene torch, and it isn’t to light a last cigarette for Rickard and Claudie. “The dirty bastard sold us out,” could prove Rickard’s not very edifying last words, unless Harry can effect a rescue, and this he does, shooting dead a guard and enabling Rickard to knock out the chief baddie (you can tell he’s the ringleader due to his tinted spectacles). Harry and Claudie escape, leaving Rickard to ‘go medieval’ on a certain bad guy’s ass, if you can go medieval with an acetylene torch. Well, the screaming sounds medieval anyway. This done with, the three are off “on a round trip to Portugal.”

Another night, another hotel. Harry demands answers from Rickard: why was he sprung from prison? Who sprung him from jail, and who were those people at the farmyard? “Some other guys,” is all Rickard will tell Harry, who becomes angry at the idea of the would-be killers more than would-be killing him. The argument escalates, with Harry trying to convince Rickard he needs the driver to escape the police and bounty hunters on Rickard’s tail. Rickard ends the discussion by sticking a gun into Harry’s stomach. The older man leaves, intending to abandon the pair to their fate. Alone, Claudie tells her boyfriend they should stick with Harry. “He has a boat. We can get to North Africa.” Rickard wonders why Harry should help the pair and Claudine, with ice-cold perspicacity, sums up Harry’s motivation, and the film’s major underlying theme: “Because we’re the only family he’s got.”

Claudine and Rickard catch up with Harry, and the younger man gives an account of himself and his last major job, which even someone as out of touch as Harry will remember: “A guy in a big black car, with motorcycles back and front.” Harry seems to recognize this incident – possibly a JFK-style assassination attempt. The job went wrong however, leading Rickard to Spain where he worked as a drugs runner until caught by the police and sentenced to five years in prison. Nine months into the sentence came the escape, with Rickard assuming he’d been sprung to carry out another job. “Who were the others who were waiting?” asks Harry. Rickard laughs and shrugs: “whatever you call them, they’re the enemy. They got wind of the hit and moved in.” One of the crucial differences between Harry and Rickard is the latter’s casual acceptance of these secretive ‘enemies,’ with little interest in their identities or modus operandi. Things are as they are, and it’s futile to question this any further. Harry is more unsettled by such forces, even if he has the knowledge necessary to help him survive. Another key difference is voiced by Claudine: “Would you prefer to be hunted alone. or in a group?” Harry, a man of heart, naturally prefers to remain in human company.

During the night, Claudine visits Harry, climbing into his bed. Needless to say, presented with a willing and nubile young woman, Harry gets round to talking about death. “What people call death is just a funeral. Mostly it’s been going on a long time.” Time is the enemy to Harry, who even if he survives, fears he’d waste the extra time by continuing with life as it was before. For the moment though, Harry’s quite happy to make love with Claudine, who returns to Rickard’s bed in the early hours of the morning. “Good girl,” he tells her.

Soon after the group cross into Portugal, they are followed by a Jaguar XJ6, and later by a less salubrious blue saloon. The saloon overtakes the Jaguar, and both cars overtake Harry’s BMW. Not knowing if the cars are driven by enemies, Harry comments “there’s either two of them, or none,” another throwaway remark surmising Harry’s broken take on life and his relationship with what he hopes are his two young friends. Rickard threatens to kill the occupants of both cars regardless of their intentions, but Harry calls him a lunatic. “You can’t outrun a Jaguar in this,” counters Rickard. “The horse is OK,” replies Harry, “but what about the jockey?” With this, he takes the BMW off the road and into open country, with the Jaguar in hot pursuit.

I’m no automobile fanatic; I don’t own a car, I can’t even drive, but I do likes me a good car chase, and Richard Fleischer serves up one of the best here, the equal for excitement to anything seen in a James Bond film. The jaguar, cornering around the narrow mountain roads like Moby Dick, eventually comes off worst, but the BMW doesn’t get through unscathed either. Stopping to check the engine, Harry discovers a cracked piston, meaning any more chases could result in the car breaking down altogether. Before they can leave, the blue saloon hurtles around the corner, upset at the way Harry and friends treated what would have become a beautiful collector’s item of a jag, and heads straight for them. Rickard takes care of this problem with his gun, with Harry organizing matters to make the deaths look like an accident. In short, it’s explosion time, and the blue saloon goes up an absolute treat. Fleischer does a good job of organizing his actors, framing Claudine in one of the saloon’s windows and Rickard in the shattered windscreen, as Harry carries out his work, a neat visual metaphor for how Harry, and the viewer, sees these two characters, connected but separate.

From now on, the BMW runs with a clicking sound caused by the broken piston. It’s hard not to hear the noise as an accelerated clock, speeding through the remainder of the film, as Harry finds even a second doesn’t take as long as once it did.

That night, Harry asks Rickard whether he’d stop Claudine if she left him for Harry. Rickard claims he’d never stop a woman from doing whatever she wanted (Satre once said something similar to de Beauvoir, of their open relationship). This point, of freedom and belonging, is furthered the next day when Rickard laughs at Harry for calling the BMW “she.” “A car is an it,” Rickard tells him; “for you, everything is an ‘it’,” Harry replies, but he cannot help but express his need for objects to belong to him, even making them ‘family.’ Harry parks the car in some quiet woodland for a quick nap, and Rickard and Cl,audine takes the opportunity for a bit of sweaty fun in the back seat (Rickard isn’t beyond marking Claudie as ‘his’, giving her a love-bite). Rickard tells Claudine Harry had mentioned the girl leaving with him. Rickard tells Claudine he wouldn’t stop her, and it may be a good idea to let Harry think it will happen. Claudine responds, “I don’t like you sending me to other men. It reminds me of your brother.” “He sent you to me,” Rickard tells her.

Claudine wakes Harry from his nap and the pair discuss what would happen if they left the country together. Harry, knowing the girl has a clean criminal record, tells Claudine it’d be easy to enter the US and settle in a small, quiet town together. Claudine agrees to this: “you wouldn’t treat me like an it.”

Albufeira at last, and Harry has them convene at his son’s grave, telling Rickard and Claudie where to find the boat and what to say to Miguel, who Harry has prepared in advance. Harry hands the keys of his beloved BMW to Rickard and leaves for Monique’s, but Claudine catches up to tell him, “I’m not going with you. In case that’s why you’re doing all this.” With his back to the camera, we don’t see Harry’s reaction, but we don’t need to see; we know Harry well enough by now to know. Harry slowly turns around. “I never really thought you would.” It’s possible this is both the truth and a lie (to save Claudie’s feelings). Harry hoped, and wanted Claudine to go with him, but his life experience told Harry the dream was no more than a dream. Now Harry has only the void within him, and he cannot embrace it as Rickard has done. As his heart has nowhere else left to go, the only void Harry can embrace is death.

Harry visits Monique to collect the money he left with her, but senses something is wrong. A hoodlum jumps out at Harry, who escapes through a window, only to be winged by a loose shot. Hearing gunfire, Rickard and Claudie make for the BMW, driving it full pelt down the narrow lanes towards the shore only to crash, jamming the car sideways in an alleyway. They escape uninjured and run for the beach.

Bleeding from his wound, Harry stumbles onto the beach – and the corpse of his friend, Miguel. A man waves Claudie towards a row-boat; the fishing boat, and freedom, await a little distance from the shore. Harry shouts a warning, and is shot twice in the chest. Rickard shoots the boatman dead and Claudie runs to Harry as he collapses onto the sand. For a moment, Claudie looks appalled. “Come on,” Rickard tells her. “He’s been dead for years.” They head towards the boat.

The local police find the smashed BMW and turn off the ignition, just as Harry’s body relaxes in death.

You may have noticed I’ve yet to mention George C Scott’s performance so far in this review. This is because it’s near enough flawless, and almost every detail of the plot involving Harry Garmes could be read from Scott’s tone of voice, expression, or body language. Scott made TLR in the wake of his Oscar-winning performance in Patton (1970), and rather like the equally neglected Hardcore (1978), Harry Garmes is a big performance in a ‘smaller’ film than the war epic. Garmes is a man who believes in doing things right, a discipline which helps order a life becoming more insignificant as the years go by, with ersatz forms of love and friendship reminding Harry only of his failings and of what he has lost. In the end, Garmes loses his life so a young couple might find a new life elsewhere, and perhaps have the child Garmes can never hope to replace. Thanks to Scott’s performance, you’re with Garmes every step of the way, even as you sense (from the film’s title, if nothing else), each step could be his last.

The two other leads both perform well, with Trish Van Devere especially convincing given the slight unreality of her character, a young woman with a cold yet natural cynicism, invulnerable to unhappiness, even her own. Tony Musante plays his killer with a substantial side order of charm, and without recourse to stereotyped ‘bad guy’ qualities. Rickard is the kind of guy who can joke about killing, because killing is a joke to him, and if life has no meaning, Rickard figures, then all the better, as something without meaning can’t be taken seriously. Colleen Dewhurst doesn’t get much screentime as Monique, yet gives the self-confessed whore a tender sense of dignity, moved by Harry’s kindness.

How you feel about TLR comes down to how you like to take your existentialism, strong and hot, or with a dose of sugar and cream. If the former, then you may find TLR a frivolous experience, no more than a road movie which dropped out of college. Yet there’s enough going on between the exciting chase sequences to give most something to think over. For those viewers who empathize with Harry though, they may find TLR an uncomfortable experience. America is no country for old men, even if they move to another country to live out an old age they can’t quite believe is happening to them. An elderly person’s concern in the nation of eternal youth, TLR is not a film for the retiring.