Nolte: The Gloriously Offensive and Problematic ‘Freebie and the Bean’ (1974)

Warner Bros.

A good example of just how much our culture has regressed over the last half-century can be found in the joyous splendor of the nearly forgotten action-comedy classic, Freebie and the Bean.

Freebie and the Bean is so gloriously offensive and problematic that even the foo-foo critics of the day hated it. Nevertheless, it was a big box office hit and way ahead of its time.

Why such a grand piece of entertainment isn’t so well remembered today might be related to its unbridled political incorrectness. What keeps older films alive are television repeats. Unfortunately, Freebie and the Bean is the kind of movie that makes TV executives nervous. Almost everything that comes out of the lead characters’ mouths — especially the motor mouth of James Cann’s Freebie — is, uhm, problematic (and hilarious). Imagine Archie Bunker on meth.

James Caan plays Det. Sgt. Tim Walker. Everyone calls him “Freebie.” Why? Because he’s a corrupt cop who muscles free stuff, like $240 sports jackets, out of business owners.

Alan Arkin is Det. Sgt. Dan Delgado. Everyone calls him “Bean.” Why? Because he’s Mexican. He’s also a corrupt cop who enjoys beating on suspects.

So, yes, two corrupt, violent cops are the heroes of this story.

Set in San Francisco, Freebie and the Bean opens with said heroes digging through the trash of racketeer Red Meyers. (Jack Kruschen). For 14 months, they’ve been after this hood, and their motives have nothing to do with keeping the streets safe. A big, high-profile bust will help Bean make lieutenant. Freebie’s only guiding light is a transfer to vice, where the opportunities for graft and theft are so vast he pictures himself retiring in wealth and luxury.

The trash search finally yields real evidence. All Freebie and Bean need now is a corroborating witness. That’s going to be a problem. Another problem is that a syndicate hitman is after Meyer. This means they have to run all over Frisco searching for their witness while trying to keep Meyers alive long enough to achieve their mercenary dreams via his bust.

Freebie and the Bean might be the first buddy-cop movie as we have come to know them: Two wildly mismatched partners who don’t play by the rules, constantly bicker, and still love one another.

This classic is also an action-comedy that feels ten to 15 years ahead of its time—huge action-driven set-pieces filled with wild car chases and destruction. Huge laughs–and I’m talking belly laughs. If I had to compare Freebie to something, it would be Midnight Run (1988)—not just in concept, but in quality: the well-staged action scenes, the chemistry between the leads, a truly perfect blend of humor, bullets, twisted metal, bruised knuckles, and burnt rubber.

Directed by Richard Rush (The Stuntman) and written by Robert Kaufman, Freebie and the Bean is the ultimate in 70’s filmmaking, a time when America was desperate to free itself from the shackles of the self-important 60s and the restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code. By 1974, we were a country eager to have fun, laugh at ourselves, push the envelope, and just, well, feel free.

By 1974 we had evolved into a culture that was no longer offended by words. We embraced live and let live and decided that the best way to establish the virtue of E Pluribus Unum was through shared laughter at ourselves and our respective cultures as we joined forces to point and laugh at the snobs, smugs, and authority.

How audaciously wrong  Freebie and the Bean is, is what makes it so right. Here’s a shortlist…

Alan Arkin plays a Mexican. Arkin is not Mexican. He doesn’t even look Mexican.

Valerie Harper plays his Mexican wife. She looks a little Mexican, but her Spanish accent gives it away. (P.S. Harper also won four Emmys playing the very Jewish Rhoda Morgenstern for ten years on TV. Harper was not Jewish.)

Throughout the movie, Freebie has all kinds of (hilarious) things to say about Bean’s heritage and everyone else’s. It’s a tour de force, livewire, macho, physical performance from Caan, who is perfectly (mis) matched with the more subdued (until he loses it) and neurotic Arkin. As far as delivering laughs, it’s a tie. Arkin’s reactive comedic skills (see also: 1979’s The In-Laws) are a wonder to behold. It’s a credit to both actors that you believe 100 percent in their relationship.

Freebie and Bean are great characters because they are as flawed as they are likable — which is true for most of us. Human beings are complicated, and every once in a while, it’s fun to spend time living vicariously through messy, imperfect movie characters who thumb their nose at The Rules. These are also the world’s most relatable characters. It’s just a fact that most of us see ourselves as flawed and wish it were possible to live life completely on our own terms. This is why Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is so unforgettable, and Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a flat blur.

America’s shallow, low-IQ Sensitivity Nazis would look at Freebie and the Bean today, point a crooked finger and scream about how it glamorizes bigotry and police corruption. The truth, however, is the exact opposite.

You see, Freebie loves Bean. Despite their ethnic and personality differences, Freebie risks his life to avenge Bean. And that’s what the movie’s really about: how our shared humanity overcomes things that don’t matter—things like race, temperament, a little immorality, and, most importantly, our glaring flaws. It’s a lonely life if we refuse to accept people on their own terms.

Alternately, although this “message” is never spoken out loud (thank heaven 70’s filmmakers trusted their audience enough not to go woketard), through his love and respect for Bean, Freebie (and the audience) discover his prejudices are ridiculous.

This is how guys operate. This is how they test one another. They target a sensitive area to see what you’re made of. Are you cool, or are you uptight? Do you have a sense of humor, or are you a baby? Are we gonna be friends, or are you gonna be a hall monitor?

What’s more, Freebie and Bean’s crimes never pay. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s not just that $240 sports jacket that gets torn up.

Freebie and the Bean is an absolute joy from beginning to end that will have you smiling, laughing, and in awe of the mayhem. Unfortunately, it’s also a sad reminder of how much America’s dominant culture has regressed into humorless, uptight Puritanism.

BONUS: The great Paul Koslo playing another classic 70’s sleazebag. This guy deserved all the Oscars.

WARNING: Freebie and Bean was made for adults, not crybabies in need of trigger warnings.

Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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