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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
(1969)

Did Sydney Pollack’s film about a Depression Era dance marathon inspire Derek and Clive’s Non-Stop Dancer sketch (“I said, “All right, you non-stop dancer, start dancing”)? It would be perversely appropriate if it did, as They Shoot Horse, Don’t They? is Hollywood cinema at its most banal and self-important. Its characters wear their pain on their sleeves and the film does the same with a subtext so blatant it could only have come from an era when a strong message could be mistaken for depth.

It’s 1932, and a selection of hopefuls assemble under a big top to dance (and race) their way to a promised $1,5000. Hours turn into days and days into weeks. It’s a metaphor for life under the American capitalist system, geddit? The commentary is so overt that it is unsurprising to learn Jane Fonda only came on board after she was promised script input (the film is based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, and was once lined up as a Charlie Chaplin vehicle, until he was labelled a Commie and refused re-entry to the States). With lines like, “Maybe it’s just the whole world is like Central Casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up”, nothing is left for the viewer to intuit. Indeed, given the distance between how important the filmmakers think this is and the actual content, one has to lay the charge of pretentiousness at their door.

And yet, Horses appears to be held in consistently high regard; certainly in its home country. Or perhaps it’s that those who love it, really love it. I readily admit that although I knew the title (as I’m sure most people do) I had no advance awareness of the story. As realisation dawned that the entire film would constitute the dancing competition, furnished with woefully theatrical scenarios, and in the company of characters who elicit little sympathy but really suffer (and who, consequently, are dream roles for actors), I had that sinking feeling. Because the film becomes an endurance test for the viewer not dissimilar to the one for the characters. I even wondered if it was based on a play, as the confined setting and indulgent character vignettes lend themselves more to the stage than cinema. You could almost see the flip side of the pitch for the film as a Producers-esque disaster-waiting-to-happen (Leslie Nielsen would have been great in the Red Buttons role).

As it is the film just goes on and on and on, resistant to structural forms such as acts or dramatic turning points. To be fair, the last fifteen minutes do engage. But the rather clumsy gimmick of the flashback structure has already telegraphed this (early on we see that Michael Sarrazin’s Robert has been arrested).

Pollack isn’t as relaxed a storyteller at this point, or maybe he’s just indulging in the more experimental impulses of the era. Some of his choices, particular in an opening flashback to the childhood of Robert, are downright clumsy (such that, when the film’s title is finally uttered, it comes across more as a laboured punchline than a profound insight into the state of things). He’d directed TV for a number of years, and his first couple of features were jobbing director ones. But, in 1969, things changed. He’d just come off extensive reshoots on (arty, political) Burt Lancaster fable The Swimmer. His wannabe WWII art film Castle Keep was a bit of a mess but, like Horses, shows a desire to explore big ideas but without the required restraint or judgement to do so successfully. The success of Horses gave him the cachet to pursue his own projects, which tended to be much less ambitious in content and theme (but, invariably, quite successful) than either of these films.

Horses was highly acclaimed and garnered nine Oscar nominations (the highest ever without a Best Picture nod). Gig Young won Best Supporting Actor for his jaded compere (the actor died in a murder-suicide in 1978). The performances are strong across the board, albeit some are expectedly indulgent. Sarrazin is the reactive, reserved centre. Accordingly, it is Fonda’s brittle, caustic Gloria who invites the attention. This isn’t such an unfamiliar type for Fonda during that period, and neither is Susannah York’s Alice; both are expectedly accomplished and both received Academy nominations. York’s breakdown scene, in particular, is a moment where the film escapes its all-encompassing despair and becomes something more; alive. Also appearing are the great Bruce Dern, a very young Bonnie Bedelia (she seems to have spent most of the next 20 years on TV, until her late ‘80s rebirth) and Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis.

It’s been interesting discovering (or revisiting) a few of Pollack’s films of late, especially since he is one of those seamless storytellers who doesn’t tend to betray himself with stylistic touches or particular narrative obsessions; you might not be able to tell one of his movies just by looking at it, but if you were told he had directed a given film you might well connect it to his trait of assured handling of material and the confidence to let it breathe. And while, of the four of his films I have looked at in the last few months (Horses, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman), I would praise only one of them unreservedly (Condor) all of them have strong themes and accomplished performances, sufficient to make them worth investigating.

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