There is a little obscure film that was released in 1974 known as Freebie and the Bean. Stanley Kubrick named it his favorite film of 1974. Peter O’Toole was so fond of the film he instantly accepted the offer to star in director Richard Rush’s next film, The Stunt Man. It isn’t difficult to see why Freebie and the Bean is the very definition of an obscure cult film – and unless I am missing something, I don’t know why this isn’t loved more. I personally had not heard much about it, which is bizarre considering this is a pretty groundbreaking film for a very strange reason (but more on that later)
Freebie and the Bean is about the titular characters – Freebie (James Caan), a Jewish cop and his partner, Bean (Alan Arkin) who is supposedly Mexican. Together they have a simple task – keep Red Meyer (Jack Kruschen) alive until Monday. It is Superbowl weekend, and the infamous racketeer is apparently about to be the target of hitmen, and it is up to the titular cops to make sure that he doesn’t get killed. It doesn’t help that both the characters are seemingly very inept at doing their jobs but are chasing promotions – Freebie trying to get into the vice squad, and Bean attempting to rise to the ranks of lieutenant.
The tagline to Freebie and the Bean is “Above all…it’s a love story” – and that is definitely one way of looking at it. The film may not be excellent, but it is entertaining based only on the charismatic chemistry of the two leads. The rest of the film can pretty much be forsaken and forgotten about, because quite honestly, it is Arkin and Caan that make this film worth watching, and absolutely nothing else. They have an old-time charm that makes them absolute dynamite together, and they just seem like real-life crime-fighting partners, and that’s absolutely deligtful because they managed to sell the often very thin premise of Freebie and the Bean. It is the kind of chemistry between leads that we don’t see very often anymore, and regardless of whether or not you think Freebie and the Bean is a terrible film, you can’t deny that Caan and Arkin are absolutely wonderful in it and really work well together.
I feel bad for James Caan. He always had to live in the shadow of his contemporaries like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. He couldn’t even get in on the Jewish tough-guy roles because Harvey Keitel had a monopoly on those. Caan is a talented actor, but he just seemed to be a little bit lacking as compared to his peers most of the time. We often forget that Caan has had some tremendously strong work over time, such as memorable performances in Misery, Thief and Rollerball. I just wish Caan could get the roles that Pacino and De Niro are getting, because he certainly deserves a comeback. He may even have been able to prevent Dirty Grandpa from being a complete wreck, because I think most of us would just be happy to see Caan on screen again. If anyone has a role for Caan, I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. In Freebie and the Bean, he actually plays into his naturally cool charisma, and the final act sees Caan showing off both his comedic chops and his action star talent. It may not be an all-time great performance, but it certainly gives Caan a great character to work with. Something tells me that if Freebie and the Bean had been a bit more successful, it could’ve resulted in a few sequels which would’ve given Caan the star role that he needed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to happen – but it doesn’t detract from the fact that Caan is really good in the film.
Unlike Caan, Alan Arkin has been pretty steady with work since, and has found a late-career resurgence come his way, where he is given the role of grumpy old men who are either overly sarcastic or just plain cynical. It is interesting to see Arkin in one of his earlier performances, because it is clear that he is trying very hard here to be a movie star – and despite having the movie star quality and talent, there was always something missing. Nowadays, not having a clear movie star quality qualifies you to be an indie darling or character actor – but in the 1970s, it was a life-and-death situation for any actor – everyone needed to be a Hollywood star or else they wouldn’t have a career. I just know a younger Alan Arkin would thrive in the current Hollywood system, but back then, in films such as Freebie and the Bean, he is very good, but I can understand why he became known more for his character work rather than ascending to be a big star. There’s nothing actually bad about his performances, and he has so much talent, I just understand that he just lacked that spark. Freebie and the Bean is the best I’ve seen him in his earlier days, but I just wish we could’ve explored his character a little bit more.
The supporting cast of Freebie and the Bean is utterly forgettable. I don’t even need to talk about them because they aren’t particularly special or noteworthy enough to qualify even being mentioned – with the sole exception of one person, who gives one of the best performances of 1974 in Freebie and the Bean – sitcom legend Valerie Harper, who plays Consuela, Bean’s Mexican wife. Harper is clearly having a ball playing a sometimes excessive, yet often hilarious, stereotype. She does the rare thing of making an impression purposefully distasteful, but not really offensive. It is a silly and overdone performance, but Harper is great. The entire movie clearly makes no qualms regarding the making of anti-politically correct humor, which in itself speaks to how remarkably progressive Freebie and the Bean actually is.
I mentioned earlier that Freebie and the Bean is actually impressively groundbreaking – and what I mean by that is that it was a precursor to the buddy cop genre, which was popularized in the 1980s. For a film set in 1974, where most cop films were either about lone-rangers (Dirty Harry and Bullit for example), or dour and often bleak police stories (such as The French Connection), Freebie and the Bean dares to be funny – and thus films like Lethal Weapon, 48Hrs, The Heat or The Nice Guys (all the definition of successful buddy cop films), all owe their brilliances to Freebie and the Bean, a film that helped set the road for a very popular and beloved genre that would be defined by films that owe their successes to this film.
Unfortunately, Freebie and the Bean and is a film that has somehow been forgotten with time – other better films with similar themes came along, and honestly, outside of the great chemistry between the leads, Freebie and the Bean doesn’t have much going for it. Yet, I would still seek it out for anyone who is enthusiastic about these kinds of films. It is still a truly fun, exhilarating and daring film that may be somewhat dated and cheesy, but it is still wonderful in many ways and a lovely discovery for those who have a passion for obscure buddy cop films.