Cult Movies: Freebie and The Bean

Alan Arkin and James Caan in Freebie and The Bean
Alan Arkin and James Caan in Freebie and The Bean

ALAN Arkin, who died last week aged 89, was an actor with more than his fair share of fabulous film roles to his name.

From his fine big screen debut in the Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming in 1966, through to perfectly judged turns in productions as varied as The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1968), Catch-22 (1970), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), he crafted some truly unforgettable big screen characters in his time.

For the purposes of this tribute, though, I'd like to focus in on one of the man's less appreciated performances. It may not be the Brooklyn born actor's greatest ever cinematic achievement, but Freebie and The Bean was the first film I ever saw him in and I've loved his work ever since.

Released during the festive season of 1974, it feels like the blueprint for all the cosy cop buddy movies Hollywood would deliver in the following decade. The likes of the Lethal Weapon franchise or Beverly Hills Cop simply wouldn't exist without this basic, but hugely effective and undeniably entertaining flick. Even something like The Blues Brothers owes a huge debt stylistically, and in terms of its obsession with madcap motor car mayhem, to this amiable banter fest from director Richard Rush.

Alan Arkin and James Caan in Freebie and The Bean
Alan Arkin and James Caan in Freebie and The Bean

Arkin is Bean, a fairly straight-laced cop of Mexican descent who starts to feel that his attractive wife (Valerie Harper) could well be cheating on him. Alongside him is the great James Caan as Freebie, the devil-may-care, gun-toting, law-breaking opposite to Bean. Together they banter, ramble, talk over each other and generally dodge and weave their way through life like two frustrated comedians who've been forced to be cops against their will.

Arkin is, as usual, quite brilliant as the put-upon straight guy, bickering constantly with the laid-back and carefree Caan. A master of playing comic scenes with a straight face, he's superb in the endless interaction with his partner as they seek to bring down a big city crime boss, and his performance is perfectly judged throughout.

This may be little more than one audacious multi-car crash after another, but while the vehicles pile up on the city streets and the next crazy set piece arrives with almost unseemly haste, it's Arkin who roots the film back into the real world.

It's a frantic mix of slapstick comedy, occasionally offensive dialogue and often full-on gun violence, but it's that on-screen chemistry between the two leads that keeps you hanging in there.

Sneered at by critics at the time – like many a future cult classic, of course – Freebie and The Bean may be a minor moment in Alan Arkin's remarkable cinematic CV, but it's a fun and fresh example of what made the man and his work successful for so long.

It may not be as obvious a choice as some of those big Oscar-winners in his locker, but if you ask me, it's as good a way to remember the man and his legacy as anything.