The road trip is part of the American psyche dating back to the young men (and women) who took Horace Greeley’s famous advice—“Go west young man!”—to heart and left the east for the frontier. Hollywood saw the allure early on, recognizing that road movies offer opportunities to inject exciting secondary characters and interesting scenery into stories each time the leads stop in a new town. Add to that the sexy appeal of two people running for their lives and you have a new genre—the fugitive couple movie.
Whether it is the doomed Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney on the lam in 1937s You Only Live Once or Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz’s worldwide trek in this weekend’s Knight and Day, the idea of runaways on the open road has been irresistible to filmmakers.
On early fugitive road movie is Persons in Hiding, a nasty 1939 film based on J. Edgar Hoover’s best-selling book of the same name. J. Carrol Naish stars as a small-time hood on the run with Dorothy Bronson (Patricia Morison). Together they rob banks and even kidnap a hapless stranger all to appease Ms. Bronson appetite for champagne and furs. Of course, this being based on Hoover’s book, the pair isn’t mythologized à la Bonnie and Clyde. No, the heroes here are the FBI who use their “infallible” methods to bring the couple to justice.
Better known is The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah’s violent love letter to criminal behavior. Based on a 1959 pulp novel by Jim Thompson, it stars Steve McQueen as a cocky safecracker who hits the road with Ali MacGraw following a botched holdup. Panned on its original release—Roger Ebert called it “a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy”—it was a box office success, partly because of the ruckus the tabloids made when MacGraw left her husband, producer Robert Evans, for McQueen during production.
More recently crime and scandal were at the heart of Natural Born Killers, a satire of media sensationalism and America’s love affair with violence. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis play married murderers—“the best thing to happen to mass murder since Manson”—on a cross country killing spree. Named the 8th most controversial movie of all time by Entertainment Weekly it earned mixed reviews—Movieline called it “mindless” while Peter Travers named it “one of my all time favorite movies.”—and may be the wildest fugitive couple movie ever made.