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Wednesday, 15 January 2014

They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969)

I'm sure I've said it before, but that won't stop my saying it again. There are many films that I 'know', i.e. that I can recall having seen and can just about remember the 'important' bits, as opposed to the many, many movies I watch which are increasingly nearly instantly forgettable. The film above is a good case in point, as I have certainly seen it at least twice previously, but would not have suspected that a third viewing would alter my perspective and evaluation. 

It is in fact a very good and in its way a very bitter film from director Sydney Pollack, based on the 1935 novel by Hector McCoy. He extracts the madness of that era's dance marathon phenomena and shapes into not just a haunting portrait of the Depression years, but also an allegory on the America of his own period. In his worldview, the great American Dream is rotten at its core. To readers not familiar with the craze, desperately poor couples would enter the dancehall for the initially important seven meals a day and the ultimate jackpot, here l500 silver dollars -- a fortune in their eyes -- payable to the last couple left standing after a gruelling sixty or so odd days on their increasingly shuffling sore feet, with only ten minute rest breaks every two hours. They are cheered on by a paying audience, each with their own favourites, who have come to enjoy the 'show'.

Among the participants are a hard-faced and disillusioned Jane Fonda, who when asked why she has come to California, replies that at least you don't freeze while you starve. When her obviously ill proposed partner is disqualified from entering on health grounds, she pairs up with drifter Michael Sarrazin (a handsome but slightly vacant actor whose career became less and less interesting). Then there is glamourpuss Susannah York with her Jean Harlow platinum bob and slinky dress, who hopes some passing talent scout will see her and her equally dead-keen-to-succeed seedy at the edges partner and whisk them away to stardom. A young Bruce Dern has entered with his heavily pregnant wife, Bonnie Bedelia, two stockcar drifters yearning for some security for the expected 'bundle of joy'. Red Buttons is an aging ex-sailor and a marathon veteran who is hoping for a last success with his similarly mature partner. The rest of the crowd is comprised of less well-known actors who appear more and more familiar as the days march on and the numbers dwindle.

Overseeing these pairs is the ex-fairground barker Gig Young (who won an Oscar for his role) as the goading MC with his cries of "Yowser, yowser, yowser". He is assisted by a ghoul-faced Al Lewis (formerly Grandpa of the Munsters), a roller-skating steward Michael Conrad (later familiar from Hill Street), and a gaggle of 'doctors' and 'nurses'. To Young and his team the gruelling procedure is far from being a contest, but more a series of gimmicks to keep the punters entertained. Every so often the slow drag of weary couples, usually with one of the pair asleep on the other's shoulder, is interrupted by a frantic 'horserace' around a painted circle with the last three couples across the line to be eliminated. The sick determination on the participants' increasingly strained faces is painful to behold. When any of the contestants fall by the wayside with exhaustion, psychosis, or indeed death, they are carried off by the 'caring' crew and the audience assured that the 'kid' will soon be fine.

Fonda and Sarrazin fall out when she suspects him of canoodling with York and they switch partners. But when the York's would-be superstar boyfriend leaves Fonda for a 10-day offer of work on a Western oater, she has 24 hours to find a new partner or to be disqualified. First she latches on to Button's sailor when his partner falls aside, but is left on her own again when he in turn collapses after one of the gruelling races. Later when York too needs to be carted off after her breakdown under a streaming shower, Young shows a surprisingly understanding and tender streak (despite his having previously 'stolen' her spare dress and make-up to make her seem more pathetic to the audience). So Fonda and Sarrazin are forced back into each others' arms; "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl", crows Young. They decline his suggestion that they get hitched on the floor (to score lots of congratulatory loot from the crowd) and in fact drop out of the 'contest' when they discover that the hard-fought for grand prize will be proportionately reduced to cover Young's many expenses supposedly on the winning couple's behalf. We never do discover which couple 'wins' as they are all losers and the charade goes on and on and on.

The film is slightly flawed in my mind with its flash-forward and flash-back structure. We are aware that Sarrazin has been arrested and tried for some crime, but we don't yet know the whys and the wherefores. Apart from an introductory reminiscence from his childhood, which is important to the narrative, the other short sequences only detract from the picture's continuity. Still Pollack's puppet-master shows great skill in manipulating his large cast, making us feel that we know each of them better than we might wish. Also his use of music -- obviously important in a dance competition -- is wonderfully fluid and timely; it's amazing how many songs of this sad period have become classics in their own right, and how moving they remain. This is a major exercise in motion picture-making and perhaps deserves its own classic status. 
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