CONVOY (1978) – Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael reviews Sam Peckinpah's "Convoy"

by Pauline Kael

Was Convoy punished because of the blood Peckinpah has made us look at in the past? It got the bum’s rush, though it’s a happy-go-lucky ode to the truckers on the roads, a sunny, enjoyable picture, with only ketchup being splattered (in a mock fight in a diner). The lighting suggests J.M.W. Turner in the American Southwest, his eyes popping with surprise. Seeing this picture, you recover the feelings you had as a child about the power and size and noise of trucks, and their bright, distinctive colors and alarming individuality. Peckinpah uses the big rigs anthropomorphically. Each brawny giant in the procession has its own stride; some are lumbering, others are smooth as adagio dancers, while one bounces along and its trailer shimmies. At night, when a frightened driver pulls out of the line to go off alone in the darkness, the truck itself seems to quaver, childishly. The trucks give the performances in this movie, and they go through changes: when the dust rises around them on rough backcountry roads, they’re like sea beasts splashing spume; when two of them squeeze a little police car between their tanklike armored bodies, they’re insect titans. The whole movie is a prankish road dance, and the convoy itself is a protest without a cause: the drivers are just griped in general and blowing off steam. They want the recreation of a protest.
Sam Peckinpah talks in code, and his movies have become a form of code, too. Convoy is full of Peckinpah touches, but you can’t tell the put-on from the romantic myth; his cynicism and his sentimentality are so intertwined by now that he’s putting himself on. He has a mocking theme here that’s visual: the spaciousness of the land and the pettiness of men’s quarrels. But the script doesn’t play off this disparity, and so, when the spaciousness overwhelms the lawman!s spite that set the convoy in motion, it’s the plot (rather than mankind) that seems silly. The film barely introduces the characters, and one of the funniest. J.D. Kane’s Big Nasty, who talks in a voice so deep it might be his mammoth truck talking, is lost sight of. And here, as in Cross of Iron, Peckinpah can’t shoot dialogue; he doesn’t seem to know anymore how people talk. (Also, the post-synchronization is so poor that the voices seem disembodied.) The visual music of the moving trucks is enough to carry the film for the first hour, but when the truckers stop for the night at an encampment, the movie stops; there’s no narrative energy to keep it going.
The actor at the front of the convoy, Kris Kristofferson. isn’t convincing as a horny trucker grabbing a sad-eyed waitress (Cassie Yates) and hopping into the truck for a quickie; Kristofferson lacks the common touch that might have given the movie some centrifugal force. But, with his steely blue eyes, and his hair and beard blowing in the wind, he’s as majestic as the big trucks, and his reserve is appealingly heroic. Kristofferson doesn’t overact, and his charm is so low-key and easy that even the disembodied sound doesn’t damage him—it goes with his faintly detached personality. The sound is rough on the other performers, though; they seem not quite there. Kristofferson is partnered by Ali MacGraw, who has never seemed anywhere, and some of the resentment directed against the film may be because of her. She is a truly terrible actress, of the nostril school. (Did she study under Natalie Wood?) As the camera comes closer, the nostrils start flexing—not just for anger, for any emotion. Her role makes her seem soft and spoiled and rich, and she doesn’t react to a situation, she comments on it, in a hideously superior way. When she’s really working hard, she adds a trembling lip (reminiscent of Jackie Cooper as a child) to her tiny repertory of expressions. She isn’t around a lot, though, and Kristofferson doesn’t pay much attention to her (which saves him).
It isn’t clear whether Peckinpah walked away from Convoy after presenting his first cut, or was barred from the final editing, or how much Graeme Clifford, who finally put it together (he was the editor on Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now), is responsible for. But there are lovely editing transitions and fast, hypnotic rhythms and graceful shifts of stationary compositions. Sequences with the trucks low in the frame and most of the image given over to skies with brilliant white clouds are poetic gestures, like passages in Dovzhenko. The film has a springiness of spirit, and a lust for drifting white desert sand; it’s so beautiful (yet funny) that often you don’t want the camera to move—you want to hold on to what you see. Probably Peckinpah intended to make a simple action movie, but something in him must have balked at that. He saw the trucks and the skies and he kept shooting, like Eisenstein when he saw the faces of the Indians in Mexico.

The New Yorker, September 25, 1978
When the Lights Go Down, pp. 432-434


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