Saturday, June 18, 2011


I know of several parents who indulge their young children — always sons, for some reason — by allowing them to watch PG or R-rated horror films and aggressive, comic-book action movies. In each instance the parent is quick to point out that it's always at the child's insistence, and (being the good parents they are) should things on the screen start to get hairy, they're at their kid’s side, reminding him it's all just fakery and only a movie. A sort of Parent's Magazine reversal of The Ludovico Technique from "A Clockwork Orange," I guess. Terrific. More kids desensitized to, and made tolerant of, depictions of violence and brutality.

Since a great many of the films that have meant the most to me were films deemed "mature" for my age when I first saw them: "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - age 11,  "Midnight Cowboy" - age 12, I obviously don’t have a problem with young people seeing so-called "age inappropriate" movies. However, I do have two problems with the above scenario:  1) Movies are one of the few realms of fantasy that life still affords us after we reach post-Santa Claus/Easter bunny adulthood. It seems a shame to rob a person of the transgressive magic of film by hammering them over the head with reminders of its artificiality. Yes, movie images are indeed "fake," but the emotions those fake images evoke are not, and that's ultimately what's most real about the filmgoing experience. To watch something and be encouraged not to feel anything about what you see suggests training a child to be impassive and cut off from his feelings. 2) Why are the mature films these kids allowed to see always these loud, brainless, ADD inducing, explosion-a-thons and never movies that promote empathy and sensitivity to the human condition?
Films like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (which I saw when I was 12) should be mandatory viewing for all adolescents and a great many adults. A gut-wrenching contemplation on the fragile durability of hope in the face of life's ostensible futility, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" uses the allegorical setting of a grueling dance marathon set in Depression-era Hollywood (all the participants seem to be wannabe movie stars) to look at the devastating ways in which the human necessity to connect is so often thwarted by the equally human need to erect walls of defense to shield ourselves from the pain of living.
Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
Michael Sarrazin as Robert Syverten
Gig Young as Rocky
Susannah York as Alice
Red Buttons as Sailor
 "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is framed around a deceptively simple, character-driven plot: two dissimilar dreamers in 1932 Hollywood are thrown together by fate (the embittered, pessimistic Gloria and the naively good-natured Robert) to tragic effect. By placing the action within the unfamiliar, almost freak-show atmosphere of a dance contest whose chief requirements are desperation and a masochist's tolerance for pain, the film gets to make many perceptive, still-relevant points about the pursuit of unmerited fame and the public's insatiable appetite for hollow myth.

Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and Horace McCoy's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" both cast 1930s Hollywood (as embodied by the movie industry) as a Lilith leading men to their doom, but the films adapted from these novels differ significantly. While I love both movies, there is something so humane about director Sydney Pollack's approach to the material that makes it the more compelling piece. The penny-ante aspirations of the protagonists are never belittled, nor are their character flaws looked upon with anything other than empathy for the suffering that lay at their core. 
If the characters in "The Day of the Locust" are rendered grotesques due to the surrender of their souls to valueless dreams, the dreamers in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" are guilty of little more than being misguided in their fruitless, potentially hopeless, quest for something to believe in.
Before Reality-TV: People are the ultimate spectacle
"The crowd has got to have something to believe in. Once they stop believing, they stop coming."
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" represents the best film work of virtually every member of its talented cast, but the recent deaths of co-stars Susannah York and Michael Sarrazin add an extra layer of poignancy to two performances that already tug at the heartstrings pretty strongly. Portraying two Candide-like innocents left broken and disillusioned by what could best be called the neutral cruelty of life, the impossibly young duo are agonizing in their vulnerability and both give memorably moving performances.
Alice on the Edge: York's haunting breakdown scene
Robert...always seeking the sun
 Gig Young, whom I had heretofore only known as an annoyingly glib presence in several smirky sex comedies, gives one of those naked, laying-it-all-on-the-line performances (like Ann-Margaret's in "Carnal Knowledge") that feels borne of years of frustration in being professionally underestimated.
 The same can be said of Jane Fonda who functionally changed the course of her career with this film. Though perhaps a tad too beautiful and angularly delicate to physically embody the life-hardened heroine of McCoy's novel (imagine Ann Savage from 1945's "Detour"), Fonda is nonetheless emotionally right on target and gives off an edgy electricity that jumps off the screen. She's just flawless here.

The only movie I know of to use America's short-lived marathon dance phenomena for a dramatic backdrop, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" confines itself almost exclusively to a single indoor set, yet still manages to be vividly cinematic. Employing an intimate, if not invasive, shooting style that makes imaginative use of hand-held cameras, a stiflingly claustrophobic environment of precise time and place is evoked that never once feels stagy or set-bound.

I have seen hundreds of films over the years so it doesn't surprise me that I've forgotten so many. But what does surprise me (as the years pile up) are the films that have never left my mind and the images that remain as clear to me now as the day I first saw them.  
Which brings me to the incredible "derby" sequence: a virtuoso bit of filmmaking employing music, fast cuts, and dizzying hand-held camerawork to create one of cinema's most powerful visual representations of hopeless desperation. It's my absolute favorite scene from the film. 
In 1969 the use of slow motion hadn't yet become the movie cliché it would eventually grow into, so the agonizingly protracted sequence depicting a cluster of overfatigued individuals racing in a circle to a discordant calliope arrangement of the optimistic anthem, "California Here I Come" (thus rendered a perverse, human merry-go-round), was an image so poetically unique, yet hypnotically horrific, that I never forgot it.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is my idea of a truly "adult" film; a film of ideas and insight that compels you to be sensitive to the frailties of others. I can't attest to whether or not my youthful penchant for R-rated films ultimately did me more harm than good, but I'm glad that the mature films I did seek out were indeed that, films of maturity. I had cried at movies before; at some sad action like Bambi's mother being killed or some hero shot trying to save his best friend, but "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was the first film that made me cry just because the characters onscreen were so wounded and in so much pain.
"Maybe it's just the whole damn world is like Central Casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up."


  1. yowza, yowza, yowza! another one of my favorite movies! i love that there is no enemy in the characters - no true antagonist. the enemy is the situation itself (not to mention all the other stuff that gets me into an existentially angst-ridden mood). though all the actors are perfectly cast and give impeccable performances, it is gig young's rocky who carries the whole movie - a little like george sander's addison does in 'all about eve' - subversively. his cynical, cold and all-too-knowing, already-tough-from-abuse portrayal is somehow the most devastating - perhaps because all of the others do get out of the cruel game, whether from death, craze, giving up or by elimination. not him. he's stuck. it is his living, his identity. though he's safe from elimination and seems to be on top of things (ignoring his boozing, his cheap clothes apart from the tux, his equally sleepless nights), he is mired in the hell of the consciousness of the whole trick.

    the camera work is one of my favorite parts! i was mesmerized by the first derby shots -taken through the eyes of the participants, then passed off to rocky, held there on him, then passed back to the participants and so on. when i watch the film i usually treat myself to at least three playbacks of this scene. the last derby scene i can only watch once. it's just as mesmerizing, but much too painful.

    when gloria and robert leave the hall in the final scene, i feel like i too have left the hot, suffocating room. camera work like that is so impressive. i can nearly feel a change in the temperature of the air around me.

    i love that you ended the post on that last devastating quote. another big thanks for another fantastic and insightful review!!!

  2. wow, sorry, that is sooooooo long!

  3. Kathrynnova
    I'm repeating myself, but thanks for your ever-thoughful comments. You inevitably send me back to the movies I've just reviewed to observe some aspect of the film brought to my attention by your perceptive gaze. Your comments on Gig Young's Rocky, and his place in the narrative, is spot-on.
    I, for one, get a kick out of your responses (the lengthier, the better). They feel like mini-blogs that I follow.

    As many times as I've seen this film, I cannot bring myself to watch the final scene very often. A little to painful for me. Ah, but that second derby sequence...morbidly beautiful.
    Thanks for always sharing your thoughts!

  4. This film broke my heart and un-nerved me! The ending still haunts me. Hell, the whole movie still haunts me. Not an easy one for me to watch on a regular basis. It really gets under my skin. But a great movie nonetheless.

    1. Thanks for sharing your observations. I think many people (myself included) find the film very heartbreaking. As pleasurable as it is for its performances and atmosphere, its themes can really get to you. But I like when a film is tough because it's humanistic rather than tough because it's cynical.

  5. Having watched this movie again, it's even better the second time that you see it, as you know what shall happen at the end, and numerous clues are apparent throughout the film. Minor details are afforded greater relevance.

    It's terribly fitting that Alice, the character played by Susannah York, models herself on Jean Harlow--and Alice has more than a little of Marilyn Monroe about her. There must have been a million like Alice in those times, with a grand sense of entitlement and unflinching belief that they were among the "chosen" who would "make it" in Hollywood. Alice's belief in her so-called destiny as a film starlet far outweighs her utter lack of dramatic talent. Then again, maybe Alice should've been born seventy years later--it seems like any joker can get a gig in Hollywood these days, but that doesn't change the fact that fame and wealth do not guarantee happiness. Even if Alice had made it in show business, one could just see her life being ultimately empty and devoid of lasting satisfaction. There's also a great shot of Alice as she sees her reflection distorted in the shower head before she experiences her breakdown. This really is a brilliant film.

    Gloria, the character played by Jane Fonda, seems to realise what Alice does not, the fact that by definition, "winners" only exist because there are "losers", and that contrary to what generations of shool teachers and parents have told children, not everybody will grow up to be the President or a millionaire. Gloria isn't driven by delusions of grandeur--by the time she reaches the dance marathon, Gloria has already been to Hollywood--Gloria is now looking to merely survive.

    Even the promoter-emcee, Rocky, portrayed by Gig Young, seems to have it little better than the dance marathon contestants. Rocky shills the contest like his own life depends on it--probably because it does. Rather than seeming genuinely happy and jovial in his role as host, Rocky comes across as the sort of aggressive promoter-emcee who would be barely able to conceal his anger if he were to see spectators walking out in the middle of the contest. Gig Young gets one of the best lines in the film: “There can only be one winner, but isn't that the American way?” Indeed it is. Also steeped in truth is Gloria's line about the whole world being like "central casting". This film has a level of honesty that is extremely rare for a mainstream film.

    The poster art for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" was made back when poster artists really were artists. The gigantic mirror ball, with tiles peeled away to reveal the desperate dance marathon contestants inside, points to the false glitz and glamour of the contest as a veneer for the human misery concealed within. In just one image, the poster affords a profound visual synopsis of what sort of movie it is. That's especially important when your film is entitled "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" And I'm glad that they kept the title from the book, because the film wouldn't have been the same without it--it's just one more thing about the movie that keeps you watching or makes you want to watch it in the first place. "Why does the movie have this title?" Well, watch the movie and find out!

    It's a 1960s movie set in the 1930s, but it has more to say about today's society than most if not all feature films made last week. It's the only movie that I know about that's set in the world of dance marathons, and these days, dance marathons have been replaced by idiotic "reality" TV shows full of wannabe celebrities (just like Alice!) whose egomania exceeds their "talent", and are willing to debase themselves in the quest to become "famous".

    1. In-joke spotted: one of the contestants has the sponsor name "Winkler Travel Agency" across his back. Look quickly as he passes behind Jane Fonda in one scene. Irwin Winkler, along with Robert Chartoff, produced the film--ironically, this is the same team that went on the produce the inspirational feel-good movie "Rocky"!

    2. hi Mark
      Really loved your astute observations and comments on a real favorite of mine. You make a good point about its enduring relevance and how the promises held forth by the dream machine that is Hollywood is as much predicated on winners and losers now as it was when McCoy wrote this. I like your taking note of the movie poster too, which has always been one of my favorites.
      You've tapped into one of the main pleasures of revisiting a film- the unearthing of more information-and your thoughtful and well-expressed comments give us all a few things to think about when we see this film again. Thanks!

  6. Another thing that I noted well after a second go-around: the "seven meals per day" fed to the contestants. There's a scene where the Sailor (Red Buttons) and others can be seen putting away as much food as possible from a big dining table. What might seem like one of the great perks of the contest (free food!) is nothing more than human cattle being fattened for the slaughter. It goes back to what Sailor and Gloria were saying before the contest, how they don't have it much better than cattle. Also, every contestant is numbered, too, and there's something to be said about people as commodities in this film, with all of these pitiful human billboards swaying about on the dancefloor, adorned with sponsorship names (e.g. Jonathan's Iron Tonic). What's changed in the world since the Great Depression? Perhaps not as much as we might think.

    1. You bring up many excellent, well-observed points that I am sure were intentional and that loom larger on repeat viewings. I think smart well-constructed films do this. The first time you see it, you're following the plot and these little details work on you in subliminal ways; you see it again, aware of it's themes, and all those little thoughtful details the observant director included now come to the fore, enriching the experience. What you detail in your comments speak well for filmmakers not underestimating the intelligence of their audiences. Nice details cited, Mark!

  7. I just read the book this morning--it's a great read. It's strange to see Alice Faye and the Sailor as such minor characters (cameo appearances, really) in Horace McCoy's book. I have even greater admiration for the film now, because it is a spectacular example of expanding upon a book to make a tremendous motion picture (particularly what they did with the Alice Faye character). Rocky, the emcee, is also very different in the book (the novel has somebody named Socks as the promoter).

    What really comes through in the book is that Horace McCoy was a huge film buff (and in fact worked in films a little bit back in the 1930s). My only regret, having both read the book and seen the film, is that Mr McCoy wasn't around long enough to see the great movie that his work inspired.

    1. That's wonderful that you read the book! It's among one of my favorites, like "The Day of the Locust." I used to have a paperback copy (often available on Ebay) that contained both the novel and the screenplay...and, as you point out, the differences between them are fascinating to examine.In almost every instance the changes they make for the film help the narrative a great deal. I think it is one of the rare film adaptations that is as good as or better than the source novel. So cool that you have been so into this film lately!

  8. 'They shoot horses' was the movie that gave my Disneyan fairy tale image of America a final blow. Yes, in certain ways my first adult movie, too, even with having seen 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf' a year prior.
    The 'Horses' story is actually so gruesome that I see it as a Saw/Hostel avant-la-lettre, albeit more psychologically so.
    All actors were tremendous, but I felt most for Susannah York's dumb blonde character. She is basically kept in the background, until her shower scene. A gripping moment.
    The movie is definitely better than the novel, simply because camera and editing enhance the madness of the 'human merry-go-round' in a way words could never convey. It thus belongs to a rare breed: movies that turn out superior to the book. Well, not so rare, if you include European cinematic efforts, but I treasure them anyway because many people feel that movies with their smoothing-over scripts and often straying too far from the original concept, are per definition inferior. Not to forget the 'disadvantage' of seeing your own idea of how the characters look like taken from you. Liz Taylor was totally miscast for Cleopatra but her image (those awful garments and wigs!) can no longer be erased.
    "McCoy's novel was received poorly in the U.S. in the 1930s." - wikipedia
    The novel is cleverly interspersed with court case fragments for which McCoy employed an almost filmic gimmick. But it clearly was released at the wrong time, bankruptees were still splattering the street pavement.
    The author did not live to see the belated interest in his novel, I read. But how much of an interest was there really? Who would want to read the book after Sydney Pollack's dazzlingly defining interpretation?

    1. Hi Willem
      Thank you for such a well-written reverie about this magnificent film. And I agree with you, it doesn't happen often, and it's rarely discussed, but some films are definitely improvements upon their source material (I always go to Robert Altman's adaptation of "That Cold Day in the Park"), and in "They Shoot Hoses: I love what they did with McCoys novel.
      I have always liked the way that films can infiltrate our concepts of how characters in literature look (Ali MacGraw IS Brenda Patimkin in Roth's "Goodbye Columbus"). I don't know that everyone feels that way. And yes, sad but rue, if you say Cleopatra to me I see first and foremost Elizabeth Taylor. In this era of remake mania, I would love to see a new Cleopatra to take up the mantle, but for my generation...Mrs. Burton is it.
      Before I end, can't tell you how much I love this sentence: "The 'Horses' story is actually so gruesome that I see it as a Saw/Hostel avant-la-lettre, albeit more psychologically so."

      An observation worthy of my favorite 60s film critics! Thanks, Willem!