The Day of the Locust
John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathanael West’s novel is one of the best ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ pictures ever, even if it soaks everything about The Golden Age of Tinseltown in an acid bath of cynicism. The perverse dystopia of dreams and vice is beautifully rendered in every respect, and culminates in a finale that caught ordinary audiences by surprise. Is this an indictment of the shallow aims of America’s Fantasyland, or one misanthrope’s vision of self-loathing and apocalyptic wish fulfillment? Don’t look for anyone to root for, as even the benign characters are moral freaks. Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Donald Sutherland and William Atherton give utterly original performances; [Imprint] has a secured a great new interview extra with Atherton.
The Day of the Locust
Viavision [Imprint] 13
1975 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 144 min. / Street Date November 6, 2020 /
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton, Geraldine Page, Richard Dysart, Bo Hopkins, Pepe Serna, Lelia Goldoni, Billy Barty, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria LeRoy, Natalie Schafer, Paul Stewart, John Hillerman, William Castle.
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Film Editor: Jim Clark
Production Design: Richard Macdonald
Original Music: John Barry
Written by Waldo Salt from the novel by Nathanael West
Produced by Jerome Hellman
Directed by John Schlesinger
Forty-five years after its premiere The Day of the Locust still amazes us with its excellence and originality. Just two features beyond his similarly pessimistic Midnight Cowboy, John Schlesigner went for broke with this expensive, uncompromised slice of ‘director’s cinema.’ He’d never again be set loose on a project this daring, although his 1981 Honky Tonk Freeway became a much bigger career debacle.
Writer Nathanael West imagined Hollywood as an apocalyptic nightmare. He’d had some personal work experience with the jungle of abuse faced by many film writers. The film adaptation amplifies West’s caustic vision, imagining the ‘dream factory’ industry as a spiritual sickness. Dreams of movie grandeur suck the souls from normal human beings, and offers up starlet wannabe Faye Greener as a sacrificial offering.
After his caustic look at Times Square in Midnight Cowboy cultured filmmaker John Schlesinger and writer Waldo Salt would seem the perfect duo for this almost indigestible story. Schlesinger does as well as any mortal could in turning it into a movie and succeeds in almost every department. But no matter how well he nails the difficult moods and attitudes, The Day of the Locust was too calculated and cold to be broadly accepted as entertainment in 1975. A story of hopelessness and soul-sickness needs to make us care about its characters. We instead spend our time watching them with a mixture of fascination and horror.
That’s the right angle, right there. The Day of the Locust is really a low-key horror film.
Yale grad and aspiring film art designer Tod Hackett (William Atherton) rents an apartment in the Hollywood bungalow called the San Bernardino Arms. His career takes an upswing when he gets the attention of art director Claude Estee (Richard A. Dysart) but his personal life is complicated by his infatuation with the Greeners next door. Elderly ex-vaudevillian Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith) sells snake oil door to door and is increasingly afflicted by bouts of deranged fury, channeling his bitterness for his lost career into weird performances. His aspiring actress daughter Faye (Karen Black) is trouble looking for a place to happen. A vain tease and poser incapable of simple honesty, she strings along two Hollywood cowboys living up in Griffith Park, Earle Shoop (Bo Hopkins) and Miguel (Pepe Serna). Faye’s best friend is a high-class call girl (Lea Goldoni), who Tod sees ‘on the job’ when he and the adventurous Estee visit the Hollywood brothel of Audrey Jennings (Natalie Schafer of Gilligan’s Island). Harry’s buddy is the diminuitive Abe (Billy Barty), a feisty, manic actor we meet as he is locked out of his own apartment by a woman he has picked up. But Faye’s oddest conquest is Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), an awkward, emotionally constricted man with clumsy hands and a severe inferiority complex. Always eager to please, Homer is easily swept away by the manipulative Faye. She takes terrible advantage of him, much to Tod’s dismay.
Without resorting to exaggeration The Day of the Locust turns 1938 Hollywood into a sunshiny, cheerful circle of Hell. Tod Hackett is doing quite well in a Paramount art direction job that seems to be going somewhere. But he’s fascinated by Faye Greener’s side of the city, where the has-beens and wannabes collide in unhappy denial of reality. Faye is the sickest of all, a beauty so consumed by delusions of stardom that she’s negated her own personality, whatever it may be. She’s too much like the suicidal starlet that leaped from the Hollywoodland sign, as gleefully reported by a tour guide. Faye strings along her two Gower Gulch cowboys, losers that can only pick up a few dollars as extras and must camp in the hills. She gives Tod grief because he wants a more serious relationship; she’s saving herself for her dreams. When strapped for cash, Faye turns some tricks through madam Audrey Jennings. She cruelly abuses the meek misfit Homer Simpson in an asymmetrical ‘business arrangement’: He provides for her and does all the work, and she spends his money.
Once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt is far gentler with Hollywood than he was with Times Square but there’s still plenty of acid under the diffused California sunshine. Peripheral characters tend to be grotesques and the featured characters are denied sentimental embellishments. Burgess Meredith’s old vaudevillian Harry Greener is a blithely bitter joker who knows the difference between the big time and oblivion. ↑ Never really pathetic, he’s the closest that American films have come to equalling the character Schigolch in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box — we suspect he’d not be above pimping out his own daughter. Unlike some of the Hollywood monsters on view — Harry seems to have a soul. He can be gentle, as when he asks Tod to read one of his old reviews. Meredith got supporting Academy nominations twice in a row, for this film and his hammy contribution to the next year’s Rocky.
Billy Barty’s little guy Abe can be vile; he becomes a thoroughly horrible monster when showing his expertise in cockfighting with Miguel’s bantams. Bo Hopkins’ inoffensive cowpoke Earle is the kind of Guy Tod knows how to trump. When costumed as an 18th-century French nobleman, he’s still twirling his lariat. Tod keeps trying to bed Faye, but when she does decide to get carnal, she chooses the Latin ranchhand Miguel.
Salt and Schlesinger do their best to recast Nathanael West’s ominous text in visual terms, seemingly using Tod Browning’s Freaks as a guide. That’s what we really have here, a morbid sideshow as observed by Tod Hackett (Browning?). Tod is no standard-bearer for better values, as to keep his job he’ll play along with whatever weirdnesses he encounters. Faye is the monstrous female worshipping the false idols of Tinseltown. Homer Simpson is Frankenstein’s monster, a gentle but crippled soul trapped in a body he can’t seem to control and lacking any form of self-confidence. In the book Homer obsesses over his alien, oversized hands but here we just see him stare at them once or twice. Faye sympathizes to the extent that she’s capable but spends most of her time exploiting, taunting and teasing Homer, in much the same way that Fritz the hunchback tortured Boris Karloff. In the end Homer (the Monster) revolts, killing a horrible taunting child (a vision of Faye) and paying for it at the hands of an angry mob (villagers with torches). Even the kid is perverse — he seems to be male, but his mother promotes him as a moppet actor named Adoree. He/she is played by none other than Jackie Earle Haley, who 34 years later would play Rorschach in the feature film Watchmen.
The world of Golden Hollywood is accurately evoked by this lavish production. For period verisimilitude it outdoes Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon. Interesting studio recreations of film sets are offered, as are real Hollywood locations. Only a tourist stop (with an ice cream stand) next to the Hollywoodland Sign seems an invention; there’s nothing up there. Waldo Salt wisely moves the book’s set piece on-set ‘Waterloo’ disaster from the story’s opening to the beginning of the final act, heightening the feeling of impending doom. The director of this film-within-a-film is William Castle, a nice touch. Extras exiting a battle scene rush up and onto a shoddy construction that only looks as though it can carry their weight. The spectacle of Tod’s beautifully researched and reconstructed Waterloo set collapsing, with many injuries, is a perfect metaphor for the aloof cruelty of the studio system: executive Helverston (Paul Stewart) quietly entreats Tod to affirm that warning signs were posted on the treacherous set. His acceptance of this unspoken contract is sealed with a symbolic free haircut. (Top Image ↑ )
The precedent for this willingness to put extras and studio employees at risk must have been the legendary disaster at Warners in 1927 when a number of extras were (allegedly?) drowned in a flooding scene for Michael Curtiz’s Noah’s Ark. The case of flagrant endangerment was a reminder that connected PR men with ‘downtown influence’ could sanitize practically any sin that might stain a studio’s image — sex crimes, involuntary manslaughter, the works.
The Day of the Locust is beautifully acted. It has to be Karen Black’s finest hour. Faye Greener could easily be a stereotyped Harlowesque tramp, but Ms. Black consistently finds a way for us not to condemn her out of hand. She’s a stupid woman, basically, leveraging her attractiveness with teases that can only get her into trouble. Faye does her nonexistent acting career no favors by putting on airs with Richard Dysart’s big wheel. Out of control in a sad, sordid way, the woman says she’s saving herself for Clark Gable yet ends up the center of lust at a cheap party in the Hollywood hills. Black had been breaking hearts ever since her teenaged darling in You’re a Big Boy Now, and she doesn’t let this big-break role down. The Golden Globes recognized her with an acting nomination but not the Academy.
← Donald Sutherland extends the ‘hulking simpleton’ characters he played in Die, Die My Darling! and The Dirty Dozen with the much more sympathetic, tragic Homer Simpson. Sutherland can play so tender and inoffensive, I’m surprised nobody ever thought of him for Frankenstein’s monster. William Atherton is fine as our observer-conduit into the story. Audiences in need of an identification figure surely looked to the Tod Hackett character to straighten out the crooked story. He instead is compromised just by his presence, even if he retains more psychological liberty than some of his down & out colleagues.
The title of West’s novella suggests a reference to the Book of Revelations, where demonic insects represent omens of destruction. Geraldine Page’s revivalist charlatan stirs up some wholly convincing Jesus fervor, adding to the film’s heady ‘end of days’ vibe. The scene in the revival tabernacle is much more convincing than the theatrics of Elmer Gantry. Are these fringe entertainers such suckers for this hucksterism because they recognize it as a more lucrative form of show biz?
The Day of the Locust winds up in a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater that goes completely nuts when a terrifyingly chaotic riot breaks out. Like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead, the premiere gawkers seem primed to explode, and express their non-celebrity rage in violence. They’re really a vicious mob, all come to Hollywood Blvd. to quench some unfulfilled inner desire. It’s a wanting of something that can’t be possessed, a glamour greater than ordinary life. When the riot commences they’d just as soon kill the stars they see as adore them. Hearing screaming, the announcer whips up the crowd even more because he thinks they’re excited about the show being premiered, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer. The scenes of palm trees collapsing in flames and mobs trampling people underfoot are so overblown that one has to remember that it’s straight from Nathaneal West’s novella. Seven years before, Robert Aldrich had concluded his The Legend of Lylah Clare with a frightening scene seemingly inspired by West’s apocalyptic vision — the noted ‘dog food commercial finale’ that also interrupts a Grauman’s premiere with an explosion of dream-fury.
At the height of the riot carnage we are given visions of Tod Hackett’s ‘mural of terror’ artwork he was assembling back on the wall of his apartment. The ghoulish faces from his art studies show up among the rioters, and for a moment The Day of the Locust does indeed become “Night of the Living Studio Premiere of the Dead.” The visions come straight from the book, and only serve to make the riot horror seem more unpleasant. The characters in which we are so heavily invested are mowed down like so many extras hit by Noah’s flood.
Schlesinger’s adaptation was accurate, but I can see where ordinary moviegoers would leave the theater making faces and wondering what it all meant. Back in 1970, the same reaction of “I didn’t expect a horror movie” had likely confronted another Paramount audience, when they were shocked by the frightening excesses in Mike Nichols’ ‘comedy’ Catch-22.
Viavision [Imprint]’s Blu-ray of The Day of the Locust is an acceptable but likely not very new transfer of this polished studio production. Most of the show is sharp and bright, but some early scenes appear to have been filmed with more diffusion, and come off as soft. The transfer follows the look of original prints, giving afternoons at the San Bernardino Arms the appropriate warm-baked hues. The cameraman was Conrad Hall; his colors are muted and the exposures are tweaked to achieve precise, expressive effects. The complex soundtrack weaves in many bits of period songs, without succumbing to random jukebox syndrome.
Paramount had no extras for this show, but Viavision has conjured up three worthy items. Producers Constantine Nasr and Alan K. Rode have obtained a terrific interview with actor William Atherton, likely captured under Covid-wary conditions. Atherton gives a fascinating 22-minute talk about his experience on the film. Then we’re back in the library corner space of U.K. film expert Kim Newman again, for a nice lecture on the literary and cinematic legacy of Nathanael West. Newman holds up a single pocketbook and says that it’s the eccentric author’s entire output. Still held in high regard today, West died along with his wife Eileen (of her own movie fame) in a hellacious car accident that sounds like something he might have written about — he was just a very poor driver.
Kat Ellinger takes on yet another marathon Viavision commentary (she was good on this one), scarcely taking a break across the entire 144-minute length of the show. She keeps the banter lively and interesting throughout, marveling at this very pricey film’s willingness to put across characters and situations bound to turn off half the audience. The audacity of making Jackie Earle Haley into a ‘Shirley Temple from Hell’ — a child of indeterminate sex — is perversely brilliant. Ellinger evaluates these scenes well, and has an even deeper appreciation for the cast’s willingness to take on such grotesques.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Day of the Locust
Supplements: Martini Shot William Atherton speaks about The Day of the Locust; Kim Newman interview, Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 26, 2020
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