Friday, June 29, 2012

Sydney Pollack: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of Horace McCoy’s Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is as engrossing and affecting as I’m sure it was when it was released in 1969. The existential look at the celebrity machine and the producers (here in the form of a dance competition coordinator) that exploit the hopeful masses of one day “making it” differs from the source material (the film is definitely a little more frenetic than the book), but what film doesn’t take liberties with its source material? The fact the film is a little noisier and busier and kinetic than the sparse prose of McCoy’s novel doesn’t equate to it being a bad, ineffective, film; no, the film is still able to resonate and acts as an easy marker in Pollack’s career for one to point to and say, “this is where Sydney Pollack arrived as a filmmaker.” 


Set in 1933 during the craze of dance competitions, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? opens on images mirroring the existential tone of the novel: a lonely figure on a Santa Monica beach, our main character (and narrator of the novel) Robert Syverten (Michael Zarrazin). The dream imagery that follows is of Syverten’s childhood:  he as a young boy, his grandfather, and their farm horse. In the flashback, we see the young Robert witness his grandfather shooting the horse to put it out of its misery; a haunting presage – although we don’t know it at the time – for the end of the film.  After this hazy, dream imagery dissipates, we’re back to Robert wandering around the seemingly deserted Santa Monica pier until he stumbles upon a dance hall being decorated for a big dance competition.

Staying out on the margins of the dance hall, Robert – a loner that dreams of being a great director – converses briefly with dance coordinator and head emcee Rocky Gravo (Gig Young in an amazing performance that he, deservedly so, nabbed himself an Oscar for) where he learns about the opportunity to make some money by partaking in a dance competition marathon where the last couple dancing wins $1500. Rocky tries to get Robert to act as a substitute dancer, but he continues to simply observe the dressing up of the dance hall until the contestants begin filing in to register. Amongst the contestants that we’re introduced to are: Alice (Susannah York), a Jean Harlow wannabe, and her partner Joel (Robert Fields); James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia); Harry (Red Buttons), a retired sailor; and finally, there’s Gloria (Jane Fonda in the performance that pretty much altered her career, but more on that later), a cynical – bordering on nihilistic – actress that is weary of the whole enterprise, yet she cannot seem to let it go because it’s the only thing she’s ever known. Gloria dances out of habit, almost, instead of necessity; oh, she comes across as being very much in need of the prize money, but she doesn’t necessarily come across as someone that needs the fame. In other words, for Gloria, this is a competition not a form of entertainment. Gloria’s the wildcard – the person that Rocky and some of the others seem to already have a bead on – and is left without a dance partner. Eventually, Robert is convinced to act as her partner and the two begin a partnership as Gloria ingratiates Robert into the spirit of the competition.

The dance competition, of course, is just one big ‘ol metaphor for the state of the country – whether that’s the 1930s (when the novel was written), the 1960s (when the film was made), or today; the story’s central thesis still holds up incredibly well all these years later. The dance, I should say, is not so much a competition as it is entertainment (Rocky continually refers to the contest as “the show”) for the audience to see people at their nadir so that they can feel better about their own lives – relevant to the context of a depression era drama, sure, but it’s this aspect that makes the film age so well. As the competition wears on, so too does the patience and niceties of the contestants as they all begin turning on each other – beat down by the exhaustion of dancing non-stop – and try to sabotage other contestants. Soon, Rocky is eyeing carefully these happening, and he begins implementing obstacles to separate the weak from the strong; he then sees how to exploit the strongest of the contestants for his “show.” Ruby aspires to be a great singer; she’s also pregnant: this is perfect for Rocky as, deep into the competition now, he sends Ruby on stage to sing in front of the packed house. Sleep deprived and pregnant, she still jumps at the opportunity and belts out a tune as her husband, James, looks on. A proud moment for her, perhaps, but one that is totally rooted in exploitation as Rocky knows exactly what he is doing by “showcasing” this pregnant woman: this will get people talking about his dance marathons (this was a surprisingly competitive business during the Depression era).

As the marathon wears on, the contestants’ psyche begins to erode and relationships begin to fray even further: Gloria eventually ditches Robert because she doesn’t like the way he looks at Alice (and those two share a heartbreaking moment in a supply closet that is one of the standout scenes of the film); Gloria takes on Joel as a partner and Robert partners with Alice in light  of the two of them being seen exiting the supply closet together; Gloria is left alone because Joel leaves to take a job; Alice freaks out because someone steals her dress (we later find out it was Rocky, further adding to the whole “reality TV” feel of the competition); Harry’s partner is no longer able to compete, so he partners up with Gloria; the derby races cause Harry to have an heart attack leaving Gloria one day to find a new partner. It’s all just downer, downer, downer, and then the end of the film – with the title of the film becoming apparent – takes us even further down. The film certainly beats its characters down and down and the effect is felt on the viewer; however, it should be noted that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is never, not even for a moment, a depressing, ugly viewing experience. As Roger Ebert loves to say, “no good movie is depressing, all bad movies are depressing.”

Pollack stages all of this – this claustrophobic, exhausting hell – extremely well considering the film is essentially confined to the dance hall. The camera (shot by Philip Lathrop) whirs and whooshes around the contestants as they dance, struggle to stay on their feet, and in the cruelest component of the competition, are forced to race in a derby with their partner attached – acting as a kind of dog and pony show as the camera pans across the crowd like fans at a dog track. It’s filmed with an intensity that was akin to the cinema of the ‘60s, and the exhaustion and desperation of the contestants permeates through the screen. It’s quite an effective bit of filmmaking by Pollack, something that could not be hinted at by his previous films.

There are all kinds of deeply sad, ironic moments throughout the film. In one of the film’s most powerful shots, Gloria, left alone (after nearly 1100 hours of dancing) stands slumped trying to find a partner; Rocky sees this for the opportunity that it is and shines the spotlight on her and begins to narrate her plight to the audience. These characters so desperately want to be in the spotlight – and like the way modern “reality” TV works – they can be in the spotlight as long as we’re allowed to ironically shine it on them for our own entertainment. Another sad exchange comes when one of the female contestants wakes screaming during one of the ten minute rest breaks; she’s claiming that there’s something crawling on her, and Rocky comes in and calms the situation down and then sends her off with the nurses. Gloria then accosts him, wondering why he didn’t just send her out in front of the crowd and squeeze a few more bucks out of her situation; Rocky’s response is one of the more potent pieces of commentary in the film as he simply responds, “it’s too real.” Simply put: the dance “show” is nothing more than escapism for the audience, and the second a bit realism – a bit of the reality of the horrors of the Depression era – seeps in, he must eradicate it immediately for the sake of the future of his “show.” The last moment I want to mention that is powerful punch to the gut – and one that I absolutely love – is that great shot that juxtaposes Rocky happily announcing the 1,000 hour mark being reached and shooting a starting pistol in the air for celebration (with streamers and everything) as the band plays a celebratory tune – Pollack then pans over to the dance contestants (the shot works best because it doesn’t cut, but uses a whip-pan instead) who are the polar opposite of Rocky’s exultation and glee at hitting such a “landmark.”

The performances in They Shoot Don’t Horses, Don’t They? are uniformly strong and effective – something that, no matter how bad the film, would be a staple of Pollack’s work throughout his career. I’ve already mentioned Young’s Oscar winning performance as Rocky, but allow me to highlight one more moment of this tremendous turn: there is a scene at the end where he pulls the curtain back for Gloria and Robert and lets them in on what the whole “show” is about: how he manipulates, constructs, and essentially produces a piece of entertainment for the live crowd. When Gloria learns from Rocky that he doesn’t plan on giving the winners all of the prize money (he explains because there are costs for the hall, employees, coordinators, etc.), she is disgusted with the whole enterprise. In order to win her back – and this is the part where I just love Young’s performance – and get her, the fan favorite of sorts, back out on the dance floor is to offer her more of the cut than he would the other contestants should they win. There’s a caveat to all of this, though, as he further explains that he wants Robert and Gloria to have a public wedding – something that will really set his “show” apart from the other dance marathons across the state. It’s just a brutal, wonderful bit of acting by Young, and I just love how he comes off as the sleazy hypocrite producer-type (I love when he tells Gloria that he isn’t here to “cheat anyone out of money” since the losers don’t have to pay anything for being in the “show”); the only thing he seemed to be missing was him chomping on a big cigar.

The other performances are all quite good: York is quite good as Alice and playing her as a character that may know deep down there’s no hope of a movie producer being in the audience at the dance hall, but isn’t deterred and is always willing to give her “greatest” performance for the crowd. The saddest thing about Alice is how – when juxtaposed to the much more cynical Gloria – endlessly optimistic she is about one day “making” it. Red Buttons and Bruce Dern are more than servicible in their limited roles. And that pretty much leaves the two leads: Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. Sarrazin surprisingly never did much after this film as his opportunity seemed to be there when he was offered the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy; however, he was unable to get out of a prior contract and wasn’t able to take the role. It appears that his career was never the same after that popping up here and there in some horror films and on television. The real breakthrough of the film, as is well documented, is Fonda’s performance as Gloria. 

The story goes that her then-husband Roger Vadim liked the book a lot even though Fonda didn’t care for the screenplay adaptation; Vadim – a fan of the book’s connection to the French Existentialists – urged her to reconsider taking the role. Fonda had really only ever starred in light comedies and films like Barbarella – which came out a year prior to They Shoot Horses; two films that couldn’t be more opposite – so the role of Gloria was a stretch for her considering the films she was known for. Pollack, always the diplomatic director when it came to asking the actors for their input on the script, met with Fonda to ask her how she wanted to shape the character. Fonda has gone on record as saying that this was a pivotal moment for her career and allowed her to see potential in future roles that allowed her to seamlessly marry her personal passions with her work.

When Gloria utters the line, “I’m tired of being a loser,” during one of the final derby races, the tension and the desperation in her voice is almost unbearable as she picks up and pushes the collapsed Harry to the point where he dies and her unrelenting will to win as once again left her all alone. Another sad Gloria line, “I want to get off this merry-go-round” is nicely juxtaposed with Rocky, the last thing we hear in the movie, talking about how the dance marathon “never ends,” and it still packs a punch. Sure it’s a bit obvious, but I much prefer this kind of on-the-nose melodrama than that which is found in Pollack’s previous film This Property is Condemned. The ending – with the powerful coup de grâce – still packs a punch, especially with that great final line that is the inspiration for the title of the movie. It is after this powerful moment that we realize the flashbacks of Robert’s story were actually not hints about his past, but were flash-forwards letting us know that he’s about to receive the death penalty for helping Gloria commit suicide. Both Sarrazin and Fonda are just tremendous in those final moments.

Pollack actually almost never got the chance to direct the film. The rights to McCoy’s novel were purchased for $3,000 by Norman Lloyd with the intent to produce the film alongside Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin liked the story and thought it would be a great vehicle for his son, Sydney, and relative newcomer Marilyn Monroe. However, on a family vacation (and I believe during some promoting of his film Limelight) in Europe, Chaplin, accused of having Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, Chaplin learned that he would be denied re-entry into the United States unless he faced the “charges.” We all know how the story goes, for Chaplin, so Llyod and Chaplin’s version of the film never was shot, and it wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later that Sydney Pollack was asked to finally put McCoy’s novel to celluloid.

It seems after nearly 2,500 words I’ve really reviewed more of the movie and the performances than Pollack’s directing. Really, that’s kind of the thing with all of Pollack’s films that I’ve seen (and even though I can’t say for sure on the films of his that I have yet to see, I assume that there aren’t too many outliers hiding in there): he’s almost an inconspicuous director – getting out of the way for the most part so that his actors can shine. The aesthetic of a Pollack film can easily go unrecognized as it almost always takes a backseat to the performances. After seeing his first four movies, They Shoot Horses is certainly the most stylized of the bunch, but considering other films of the late-‘60s that acted as a catalyst for the new Hollywood the era that was about the unleashed on the studio system, They Shoot Horses, stylistically, comes across as pretty plain. Thematically it packs a punch and is right in line with those films that changed the game back in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, but it certainly doesn’t scream out, “auteur!” like other films of its time did. 

As I go through Pollack’s career and (re)watch his films, it will be interesting to see if anything stands out beyond what I already think I know about Pollack in regards to his style. The non-stop excess of Oliver Stone and Ken Russell (the other directors I’ve covered so far in this series) wore on me a little bit and at times got a little monotonous; whether or not Pollack’s restrained style will bore me in an entirely different way remains to be seen. With They Shoot Horses, though, he is in full command of his actors and adds nice little artistic touches that underline the themes of exasperation, desperation, desolation, and hopelessness. There’s something to be said for the hallucinogenic, hyperkinetic, batshit insane aesthetic of Stone and Russell, but there’s also something to be said for the classical American style of a director like Sydney Pollack. Now, whether that is something that stands out as exciting – a breath of fresh air from all of the craziness I previously covered – as I move through his oeuvre is something that I’m most looking forward to with this retrospective. The style of Pollack isn’t showy, and it may not have exhilarated me in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but the themes and the passionate acting (especially Fonda) were just as energized and visceral as the hyperactive aesthetic of a Stone or Russell film.


  1. James Poe, the screenwriter, was at one point going to direct the film. I recall an interview where he said he would have had Shirley Knight in the role played by Fonda. Also, Poe's wife, Barbara Steele was to have had the role played by Susannah York.

    1. Thanks, Peter. I didn't know that. I mean I know Jane Fonda is beautiful, but Knight was a different kind of beauty, and it would have been an interesting to see her try and throw herself into such an intense role of designed around desperation and exhaustion.

  2. Wow, what a great, in-depth review! I have never seen this film... just clips but I was always intrigued by what I saw. Your review really has me curious to check this one out. I do like Pollack's work and you're right, he does have a kind of invisible style of directing - real meat and potatoes type, which works well for him.

    1. Thanks, J.D.! I appreciate it. Pollack acknowledged his lack of visual flare himself, but I think there's something to be said about the way he was able to work with so many mega-stars and was able to get pitch-perfect performances out of them. He was a master at getting male and female leads to have great chemistry together, and this film is probably the first film where he's just in complete control of every frame of the film and every amazingly intense performance. I think his style is better suited for films like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and doesn't really work all that well on films that aspire to be more, like his next film Jeremiah Johnson.

      Thanks for checking this out.

  3. Really great write-up, Kevin. You pulled out many of the things from the film that I felt but couldn't really articulate. I found it a fascinating experience to watch it, but unlike you, I actually did find it quite depressing. In fact, I've rarely been as viscerally affected by a movie as I was by this one, to the point that I was almost contemplating suicide myself by the end (I am not depressed or suicidal by nature). I admire the film greatly for being able to affect me that strongly, but it's one of only a few films that I will never, could never, watch again.

    1. Thanks, Jandy. Don't get me wrong, the film definitely affected my mood the day I watched it. It's a film that still packs a punch. And I'm with you: I don't know that I could (or would want to) watch this again. I had to revisit it for this retrospective, and that was hard enough, hehe.

      Thanks for checking this out!