HCF REWIND NO. 202: FREEBIE AND THE BEAN [US 1974]
AVAILABLE ON R1 DVD
RUNNING TIME: 113 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Freebie and Bean are two plainclothes cops in San Francisco who are first seen emptying garbage. There is a good reason for their actions though, which is that they are searching for evidence that will bring down a local, corrupt businessman called Myers, and lo and behold, torn up into a number of pieces is exactly the kind of note they have sought. However, after trying and failing to track down another criminal who may be involved, and as usual not being proud about how they go about assembling their case – violence and threats being mandatory – they are brought in by the D.A. who tells them they can’t get their arrest warrant until early next week. This is unfortunate, as Myers has a contract out on his head, and may not survive the next few days…
Riggs and Murtaugh? Tango and Cash? Cates and Hammond? Turner and Hooch? Carter and Lee? Everyone has their favourite cinematic cop duo and though I always enjoy watching the above, my favourite will always James Caan and Alan Alda as Freebie and the Bean. Freebie And The Bean you ask? Despite being a decent success at the box office and even spawning a TV series, this film doesn’t seem too well known now and didn’t even get a DVD release until 2009, which tells me two things: a Blu-ray release won’t happen, and Warner Bros just doesn’t like the movie. It’s certainly very un-PC. Some elements like Freebie’s constant ribbing of his partner’s Mexican origins and its treatment of a gay character would no doubt get many people moaning if it were made today, but by God folk are just so uptight about such things these days, and actually to me it’s a much wittier, sharper and, above all, funnier film than the majority of film comedy today which just seems to want to be as crude as possible. In any case, this movie never fails to make me laugh, to the point that I’m almost starting to laugh now even thinking about it. Humour is of course very subjective: many people love [to pick an example that was on in my house the other day] the sitcom Two And A Half Men: to me, it’s about as unfunny as a so-called comedy can get, a pathetic rehash of the same jokes [which weren’t that funny in the first place] over and over again. More action junkies should see Freebie And The Bean too though, because it features some incredible chases and stuntwork from the days when car crashes were all real. In fact, 40 cars were wrecked in this movie, a record until the madness that was The Blues Brothers came out in 1980.
Freebie And The Bean seems to have been inspired in part by The French Connection, only taking its idea of two cops who are not exactly angels further into more comedic territory. There’s no doubt about it: our two heroes in this film are complete bastards, but it’s never meant to be taken seriously. Its director Richard Rush remains a cult favourite because of his masterpiece The Stunt Man, and he’s one of those filmmakers I really wish had made more films than he did, though he was foolhardy and liked to put his cast in unnecessarily dangerous positions, something which alienated Caan and Arkin, the two growing closer for defence. Then again, both Caan and Arkin had reputations for being difficult on sets, Caan having a huge temper which was always in danger of going off, and Arkin tending to give directors a hard time, so the Freebie And The Bean set was a highly volatile one, more than anything else a case of three big egos thrown together on one production. Arkin says he still has nightmares about making the film which he called: “ A steaming pile of shit”, though as I said it was a hit at the time, and Stanley Kubrick called it the best film of 1974 [it’s close]. The short-lived TV series of the same name didn’t appear until 1980. It starred Tom Mason and Hector Elizondo in the title roles.
Arkin and Caan may have hated making the film, but it was worth it, because the two are simply brilliant in it. They’re so good that I would be happy to just watch and hear them bickering, the two actors displaying so much chemistry and Robert Kaufman’s writing being both so funny and yet, in as a way, so believable and naturalistic in that 70’s manner. Of course some of it is rude, though unlike in too many films these days there isn’t a need to swear very much, and, despite the constant sniping at each other including, yes, quite a bit of derogatory racial talk, and the two even coming to blows at times, you always get a sense of their affection for each other: the tagline of “Above all….it’s a love story” is totally accurate. Do you actually like them? Well, I love watching these two, I could watch them all day, but the film certainly pushes the idea of cop heroes as being little better than the criminals [i.e. Dirty Harry] they come up against to its limits, but it pushes it so far that it becomes totally absurd and even satirical: I mean come on, as the director said, you have two sexist, racist, homophobic cops loose in the most liberal city in America. Sure, these cops beat people up, bribe others [there’s a great bit where the two manage to obtain some new clothes from a shop for no money], destroy half of San Francisco, and even go so far as to shoot someone dead while he’s taking a crap, but they do it in such a hilarious and ridiculous way it just becomes silly fantasy, nothing more. And the opening scene, where they are emptying garbage, immediately tells us that they might be garbage too – total, low-life scum, and these are the good guys?
The film constantly stops its fairly thin and not very original plot for sequences of awe-inspiring idiocy. One bit which cracks me up whenever I think about it is when the Bean is brawling with an out-of-control customer in a hotel bar. What does Freebie do? Rather than help his pal best his huge opponent, he gets a sofa and chairs for them to sit on. The two crash their car into an apartment several stories off the ground where two people just carry on eating and drinking. One of them sends for a tow truck, when actually what they are going to need is a bloody crane! The lengthy action sequences are masterpieces of choreography and invention where you can imagine people sitting around a table brainstorming on how to make a scene even longer and sillier and the director including everybody’s contributions. A fight in a restaurant where people are eating? Let’s have it go on into the kitchen too. Some bits recall silent movie slapstick. Others seem to look forward to things in later Hong Kong movies, especially those of Jackie Chan, who was of course heavily influenced by silent movies comedy anyway, though none of Chan’s movies had a load of majorettes knocked down like bowling pins by cars, or had him drive through a park on a bike spoiling everyone’s day and wrecking everything in sight. People still get bloodily shot and hurt, while there is undoubtedly a cruel edge to some of the mayhem, though a huge amount of comedy is based on cruelty anyway. Of course the filming lets us see all this properly, rather than the current trend for editing action scenes to within an inch of their life.
Like many 70’s films. Freebie And The Bean contains some scenes which are almost incongruous and would probably be cut out if it was made today. The mad-cap pace that the film has for the majority of its running time is almost brought to a halt by a subplot where the Bean thinks his wife is cheating. When he interrogates his wife, the scene somehow manages the very difficult task of being funny and disturbing: the Bean is acting like a total idiot, but it looks like he could also beat the crap out of her. He doesn’t even apologise for treating her like shit, just tells her she’s not as dumb as she looks. These guys are arse-holes whose only redeeming feature is probably their love for each other. They’re also totally out of control, but after a while so is the film, which, when watched at home anyway, constantly seems to be struggling against being contained by the TV screen. The overall lightness does turn to seriousness towards the end, with a showdown that seems to have strayed in from a darker film, and a very long, slow coda. It’s nice once in a while for a film to wind down then suddenly stop though, and by then, despite our best intentions, we do care.
The slapstick aspect is emphasised by Dominic Frontiere’s infectious score, which is in part which is in part a series of variations on a single theme which he partially reworked in his main theme from The Stuntman. It shows that sometimes music which openly laughs can work, as in a scene where the two are chasing each other and brawling in a park and it’s the music more than anything else that makes it all so funny. The score deserves a release, but then this film has been treated abominably over the years despite its initial success, strong cult following and it usually being liked by people who have the privilege of seeing it. It’s gleefully anarchic, hysterically funny, astoundingly inventive and also a bit odd. And the best cop buddy picture ever. I like most of them, I own the Lethal Weapon box set and some other buddy cop movies, but they don’t add up to being worth one Freebie And The Bean. See it.