Modern Classics: The Fugitive

The Fugitive (1993) – directed by Andrew Davis. Story by David Twohy, based on characters created by Roy Huggins. Screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy. Produced by Arnold Kopelson, Keith Barish, Roy Huggins, Stephen Brown, Nana Greenwald, and Peter McGregor-Scott. Key Cast: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Julianne Moore, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Jeroen Krabbé, Daniel Roebuck, L. Scott Caldwell, Tom Wood, and Jane Lynch.

In August 1993 I saw The Fugitive at DC’s Uptown Theater. I’d heard a little about the 1960s TV show from which the film was based, and expected simply a good Harrison Ford action movie. By the time I left the theater I realized I had seen so much more. Most audiences and critics felt the same way, and the film was an immediate hit. The Fugitive nabbed seven Oscar nominations, rare for an action movie or thriller, and Tommy Lee Jones won Best Supporting Actor. I’d always considered the film a classic, but realized I hadn’t gone back to it in more than 20 years. Did the film still hold up, and if so, why?

As you’ve probably guessed by the fact that I am writing this in the first place, The Fugitive lost none of its impact. The quality and the durability come from how grounded the story and the performances are. The narrative and the action flow from the characters rather than being imposed on them, as we see in so many other films. Director Andrew Davis stages the action scenes brilliantly, but relies just as much on suspense, dialogue, his actors, and small touches.

Like many filmmakers, Davis owes a debt to the great Alfred Hitchcock, who would often cast stars not just for their box office appeal, but for what the actors brought with them in audience identification. By 1993, Ford had played what Charlie Rose called “the just man in an unjust land” in films such as Witness, Frantic, and Patriot Games. He immediately engenders audience sympathies.

Davis plays on these sympathies early in the film, when the cops interrogate Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) after his wife’s murder. Davis explained that Ford did not know the questions the actors playing the cops were asking him, making Kimble’s anger and horror all the more authentic as he realizes that he’s the prime suspect. Davis frames the cops and Kimble separately, emphasizing the growing distance between them.

The film moves quickly through Kimble’s conviction and incarceration, getting to the daring escape. While Davis cuts quickly in the escape scene you always know where the characters are in relation to each other, and where the prisoners’ bus is in relation to the oncoming train. The split second timing takes your breath away. Davis said he was inspired by the iconic North by Northwest scene where Cary Grant is running from the plane, and that comes through. It also helped that this was still in the days before computer-generated imagery (CGI) became common, so the crew was using a real bus and real train. They had to nail the scene in one take, and they did. The topper is that all of these scenes with Kimble, including the escape, happen in the first 16 minutes, before you even see Tommy Lee Jones.

When you finally see U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Jones), he wisely underplays the moment, quietly saying “My, my, my, what a mess.” Jones acts and talks like a man who knows his work and is used to being in charge. He’s instantly credible as Gerard takes full control of the investigation, culminating with that famous speech: “What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive's name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.” As he’s delivering the speech, the film cuts back-and-forth from Gerard to Kimble on the run, telling us that much of the film will be a struggle between these two determined men. But the film gives goes beyond that.

Gerard has a whole team under his command. This gives us some great movements of byplay among the team and further fleshes out Gerard. He banters with his second-in-command Cosmo (Pantoliano), while giving tough love to the young, green guy Newman (Wood). When Newman is just sitting there, explaining that he’s thinking, Gerard replies “Well, think me up a cup of coffee and a chocolate doughnut with some of those little sprinkles on top, while you're thinking.” Gerard’s team also further emphasizes how alone Kimble is in his struggle.

The film wastes no time setting up a battle of wits between these two men. Kimble goes on the run in an ambulance. The marshals have him surrounded in a tunnel. Advantage: Gerard. But when they close in, their target has disappeared into thin air. Advantage: Kimble. Gerard hears a water current and lifts up a grate: “We got a gopher.” Davis skillfully sets up what becomes the film’s signature scene. Gerard stumbles in the water system, and his gun floats to Kimble, who points it at him. Kimble proclaims “I didn’t kill my wife!” and Gerard replies “I don’t care.” Davis explained in the DVD commentary that the script originally had pages of dialogue between Kimble and Gerard. But he, Ford, and Jones together wisely pared it down. Those two sentences, with those two actors perfectly encapsulate Kimble’s and Gerard’s character and motivations. One man will do anything to prove his innocence, while the other one will do anything to bring him in.

Of course, the tables are turned a minute later with Gerard holding a gun on Kimble, next to the water falling thousands of feet into a river. Ford conveys so much just by the look of fear and desperation right before Kimble jumps. Jones, in turn, has the perfect expression of disbelief, with even a slight smile. Gerard would never admit it, but he admires Kimble’s determination. He has a truly worthy opponent.

Now that Davis has set the stage he can play with the audience a little bit. He gives us a red herring with Gerard’s team going after who we think is Kimble, but is actually the other fugitive who escaped from the prison bus. Even this scene gives us a revealing window into Gerard’s character and his relationship with Newman. When Newman is briefly held at gunpoint, Gerard doesn’t negotiate, but shoots the other fugitive. Newman is shaken, and Gerard gently whispers to him “I don’t bargain.” Jones plays the scene with just the right mixture of toughness and tenderness. The film has a satisfying payoff to this subplot, later in the film, when Gerard tells Newman “Nice work young man.” To Newman, we see how this compliment means the world.

As for Kimble, he heads into the MacGuffin part of the film. The MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock said, is what “the characters care about, but the audience doesn’t.” In this case, it’s Kimble uncovering the plot behind his wife’s murder, including the infamous one-armed man. The important part here is not what that plot is, but that it requires Kimble to go back into a hospital. The film gives us a brief scene where Kimble saves a boy’s life. This was both an homage to the TV show, where Kimble would do this all the time, and a window into Kimble’s values. When Kimble is discovered by a hospital doctor (Moore), he gives a pleading look that’s just heartbreaking. Incidentally, the original script had a romantic relationship between Kimble and the doctor, which Davis thankfully dropped. It would have taken too much time away from the main story, and would have weakened our perception of Kimble’s character.

Davis made another smart decision by using authentic Chicago locations (and local Chicago actors in small parts), grounding the film in reality. For part one of the tour de force, Davis used a Chicago city government building to double as a corrections facility. Kimble risks his freedom by visiting the facility to see if a certain inmate is the one-armed man who killed his wife. Davis ratchets up the tension by surrounding Ford with uniformed policemen. Everything that comes afterwards is so brilliantly designed and executed. Some of it is another battle of wits: Gerard seeing Kimble in the corner of his eye on a staircase and yelling “Richard!” It’s an involuntary reflex to turn and look when you hear your name called, and Richard does. Then the staircase chase is flawlessly edited, so that at one point you see Gerard on one staircase in the background for a split second before Kimble appears from another staircase in the foreground. Then Kimble grabs the advantage by telling a policeman that there’s a crazy man with a gun yelling behind him. The police hold Gerard back for just long enough for Kimble to make it through the glass doors outside. Gerard fires, and there’s a delicious moment where Gerard, we in the audience, and even Kimble himself think that Kimble has been shot. But he’s been saved by bulletproof glass.

For many films that bravura sequence would have been enough. With The Fugitive, it’s a setup to an even more daring and exciting sequence; Gerard and his team chase Kimble through Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. This echoes, while also surpassing, a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Davis shot the sequence guerilla-style during the actual parade. The people you see are marching and most don’t even realize they are part of a movie. The editing seamlessly combines handheld and Steadicam shots as Kimble blends into the parade. Certain moments almost feel like they could have been part of a documentary. One masterful shot even has Kimble and Gerard in the same frame, only Gerard is looking in the wrong direction. Davis, having brought the tension to a boiling point, lets it off at the end with a little comedy, as Gerard desperately jumps up in the air to try to find Kimble, then throws his hands up in frustration. The DVD commentary revealed that Davis added this sequence on the spot when he realized that the parade was happening; a prime example of how a director needs careful planning but also needs to be smart and flexible enough to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

The Fugitive continues to have fun by tweaking audience expectations, but all in service to the story. Kimble uncovers evidence of the plot leading to his arrest and his wife’s murder. He finds the one-armed man, and calls Gerard from the killer’s house. Gerard frantically tries to keep Kimble on the line so his team can trace the call. We have seen this scene so many times before, where the man on the phone has precious time to say what he has to before the cops finds out where he is. Or so we thought. Kimble walks away from the call but does not hang up. Quickly we realize that Kimble wanted Gerard to trace the call all along. For the house has evidence critical to the case.

As noted, Gerard has said he did not care whether Kimble was innocent or guilty. A lesser film may have had Gerard change his mind though some sort of change of heart, but the film instead moves Gerard in a way that’s true to his character. Kimble understands that the silver lining of “I don’t care” is that Gerard has no preconceived notions. He also knows that Gerard will follow him wherever he goes, and will not stop. By painstakingly uncovering the truth, and leaving the evidence like a trail of breadcrumbs, Kimble silently presents his case to Gerard, and Gerard has no choice but to listen. Without either one of them saying so, they are gradually working together.

Of course, the film can’t subvert our expectations completely. Kimble does confront both the one-armed man and the man responsible for hatching the plot in the first place. Even there, Davis respects the audience by having a ferocious, but sometimes clumsy, closing fight. The clash is between two doctors, who are not trained to do this. The power comes from their desperation not their skill. Davis also creates one of the signature moments of the movie when Kimble’s arm juts out of a closing elevator door and pushes it open.

The TV show ended with Gerard killing the one-armed man, saving Kimble. The film turns it around. Gerard explains that he knows Kimble is innocent, as the real villain slowly sneaks up on him. Kimble gets the bad guy right before he can shoot Gerard. This is not pure heroism. Kimble needs Gerard. The man who was once his enemy is now his salvation. The film kept Kimble and Gerard apart for almost the whole movie, but gives us a few precious moments with them together.

Other action films or thrillers may have equaled the spectacle of The Fugitive, but few have matched its smarts, depth, characters, and pacing. Davis made the most of his cast, letting Ford and Jones showcase their talents. Because you feel like you are watching fully fleshed out human beings, the drama and suspense have real stakes. Davis staged scenes in clever ways that engaged the audience while respecting their intelligence. As Davis learned from Hitchcock, future filmmakers could learn much from watching The Fugitive.

Adam Spector
May 1, 2017

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