When Al Schwartz went to Vegas with his pal Joe Turkel (Paths of Glory, The Shining) in 1960, the friends only had $50 between them, but they gave it to a guy who, Turkel claimed, could “beat” blackjack. The guy then turned the $50 into $3,000. The incident stuck with Schwartz for years, and two decades later, it formed the basis of Lookin’ to Get Out, a screenplay he co-authored with actor Jon Voight.
Voight and Schwartz developed the episode from Schwartz’s life into the funny, moving tale of Alex and Jerry (played by Voight and Burt Young), two hapless gamblers desperate for a big score. Fleeing from mobsters to whom they owe money, Alex and Jerry leave their home in New York for Las Vegas, where they reconnect with Alex’s ex-lover Patti (Ann-Margret) and try to stay afloat via various ill-conceived scams.
The script’s affectionate but brutally realistic portrait of misfits and hopeless dreamers made it a perfect fit for Voight’s Coming Home director, Hal Ashby, who agreed to helm the project as his 1979 follow-up to Being There. Ashby enlisted frequent collaborator Haskell Wexler, ASC (with whom he had made Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Second Hand Hearts), to photograph the film.
Together with production designer Robert F. Boyle, they crafted a unique vision of Las Vegas that perfectly expressed the dichotomy of the characters’ lives. Juxtaposing lush surroundings with noir-ish lighting and compositions that entrap the characters — one important scene is shot almost entirely through a crack in a bathroom stall door, Lookin’ to Get Out conveys the extreme highs and lows that characterize the life of a compulsive gambler and the desperation of men who can glimpse a better life right in front of them but are unable to attain it.
Unfortunately, what should have been a success to rank alongside Ashby’s The Last Detail and Harold and Maude turned into a disaster because of bad blood between the director and executives at Lorimar, the company that financed Lookin’ to Get Out. Although Ashby’s contract stated he had final cut, Lorimar took the film out of his hands and released a choppy version that severely compromised the movie’s delicate sense of behavioral comedy. Exhausted from years of battle with Lorimar over this and other pictures, Ashby did not have the energy to take legal action, and the version of Lookin’ to Get Out that reached screens in 1982 received mixed reviews and meager box-office returns.
Years later, when writer Nick Dawson was interviewing Voight for the biography Being Hal Ashby, the film scholar mentioned Lookin’ to Get Out was his favorite Ashby film. Voight was surprised until Dawson explained he had seen an alternate edit Ashby donated to the UCLA film archive shortly before his death.
Voight took a look at the print, realized it was indeed Ashby’s original director’s cut and lobbied for Warner Bros. to release the superior version on DVD. Now, 27 years after its initial theatrical run, Lookin’ to Get Out is finally available in all its seedy glory. It is a vindication for Ashby as well as an elegiac farewell to the American cinema of the 1970s, for although the movie came out in 1982, it is much more characteristic of the era that produced Ashby’s earlier masterpieces. Eschewing the Reagan-era sense of mindless triumph that defined the most emblematic movies of the 1980s, Lookin’ to Get Out is a melancholy but very funny celebration of beautiful losers.
Throughout the film, Ashby, Wexler and Boyle find elegant but understated visual metaphors for the characters’ emotional and psychological paralysis, as in a chase scene in which they find themselves in an enormous space with no exits. Wexler undercuts the Vegas glitz that surrounds Alex and Jerry by employing low-key lighting that engulfs both the characters and the sets in shadows. Even in the movie’s happier moments, one gets the sense doom is waiting for the characters, hiding in the dark pockets of the frame. Yet there is also an old-fashioned classical elegance in Wexler’s portraiture, which finds soft beauty in the face of an aging prostitute as well as nuance in the emotional shifts in Voight’s eyes as he veers between optimism and terror.
The subtlety of Wexler’s cinematography is impeccably preserved in this DVD transfer although the source material itself is not perfect — the print is occasionally marred by minor scratches and other artifacts, none of which are significant enough to detract from the overall viewing experience.
The disc includes an enlightening 16-minute featurette, “Lookin’ to Get Out: The Cast Looks Back,” which contains interviews with Schwartz and the three principal actors, along with a theatrical trailer. Lookin’ to Get Out is the latest DVD in Warner’s “Director’s Showcase” series, which also includes excellent special editions of David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, John Boorman’s Beyond Rangoon and Hugh Hudson’s Revolution. All of the discs contain fine transfers (and, with the exception of the no-frills Zabriskie Point, illuminating extra features). They, like the extended version of Lookin’ to Get Out, allow the viewer to rediscover great but unheralded works by important filmmakers.