One of the best pictures to come out of Hollywood in the late 1960s, Sydney Pollack’s screen version of Horace McCoy’s hardboiled novel is a harrowing experience guaranteed to elicit extreme responses. Jane Fonda performs (!) at the top of an ensemble of stars suffering in a Depression-Era circle of Hell – it’s an Annihilating Drama with a high polish. And this CineSavant review ends with a fact-bomb that ought to start Barbara Steele fans off on a new vault search.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
KL Studio Classics
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen 1:37 flat Academy / 120 min. / Street Date September 5, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Allyn Ann McLerie.
Cinematography: Philip H. Lathrop
Production Designer: Harry Horner
Film Editor: Fredric Steinkamp
Written by James Poe, Robert E. Thompson from the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
Produced by Robert Chartoff, Theodore B. Sills, Irwin Winkler
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Seeing the trailer for Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? early in 1970, I decided right away not to go — in my last year in High School I was overdosing on movies with negative themes. Maybe it’s better that I didn’t see this beautifully crafted epic of souls in torment in a man-made showbiz torture pit — I already was predisposed to too many fatalistic ideas about life. Seen now, (finally) in an excellent HD encoding, the show seems a thoughtful and responsible microcosm of The Human Condition, where the haves prey on the have-nots. Add a bit of rotting show-biz glamour, and what began as a hard-bitten novel written during the Great Depression, becomes a stunning emotional marathon.
The picture was nominated for nine Oscars but only scored one; watching it, we see so much good work and so many arresting performances, that perhaps all the noms cancelled each other out. It wasn’t up for Best Picture, which may have been a reflection on the show’s relentlessly grim tone. Another death-and-misery saga with hotter actors was nominated and did win: Midnight Cowboy.
Hardboiled writer Horace McCoy’s novel rates right behind Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts as the top achievements in the vein of ‘American existentialism.’ As does the book, Pollack’s film uses a nightmarish Depression-era dance marathon to construct a dark allegory for life. Bitter Kansas transplant Gloria (Jane Fonda) sees the dance as yet another rigged arena that keeps people like her from getting anywhere. A failed actress, she’s frustrated because Central Casting is a closed shop, and she doesn’t even know which ‘big shots’ to approach to find work. The horror contrasts human desperation with the cruel nature of showbiz, which will manufacture entertainment out of anything, even death. The starving contestants don’t have time to question the cruel circus that kills them to provide cheap public entertainment.
Down and out transients in Los Angeles flock to the last hope of the unemployed, the Monster Marathon out on Santa Monica Pier. The endurance dance show runs 24 hours a day with only ten-minute breaks every two hours, and is periodically interrupted for a walking footrace to eliminate the slowest couples. Many contestants sign on simply for the meals. The marathon has two-hour rest periods and seven meal breaks in a 24-hour day — but the dancers must eat standing up, while moving their feet. Volunteering for a chance at $1500, drifters, vagrants, and unemployed actors turn up for the ‘audition.’ The sick are turned away.
When her intended partner is disqualified, Gloria (Jane Fonda) latches onto another aimless drifter Robert (Michael Sarrazin of The Flim-Flam Man). The marathon veteran Sailor (Red Buttons) thinks he can make up in experience what he lacks in youth. Show-biz failures Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields, The Incident) overdress in hopes of attracting the attention of talent scouts in the audience. And the homeless James (Bruce Dern) urges his pitiful, pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia of Die Hard) to compete in spite of the obvious health risks.
This is what happens when people have no options. The desperate participants volunteer for a sideshow of blood, sweat and tears, a marathon that grinds up the optimistic and the cynical alike. The contestants allowed in are policed ruthlessly. Nurses and a doctor are on hand, but they intervene only when people collapse or freak out. ‘Going squirrely’ happens when sleep-deprived dancers suddenly begin to hallucinate. Under these conditions one might expect dancers to go mad, succumb to physical ailments or simply die of exhaustion.
Marathon Dance contests began in the 1920s, before the onset of the Depression. Is the phenomenon comparable to today’s ‘Reality TV,’ where the audience cannot tell fantasy from reality? Is the contest a stirring expression of the American Spirit, or is it a rigged spectacle, an exploitative disgrace that encourages participants to degrade themselves? The dancers deteriorate physically and mentally over almost two months of grueling torture. Outwardly, the marathon is a genteel spectacle with a smiling emcee (Gig Young) to praise the musicians and promote phony ‘personal interest’ backgrounds for the various dancers. As he puts it, the customers that fill the bleachers are paying to see someone worse off than they are, and he encourages the spectators to pick a couple to cheer for. Dancers with specialty acts can perform and keep the nickels and dimes thrown from the stands. Some of them become advertisements for local businesses by wearing shirts emblazoned with messages like “Western Bill Collection.” A few contestants are tempted to cheat and others are manipulated by the management to add drama to the show, which pays lip service to their noble effort while waiting to exploit them when they finally collapse or go crazy under the stress. The Day of the Locust imagines a near-fantasy apocalyptic Hollywood, but this is a circus of cruelty, a Roman Circus in a ballroom.
Despite its horrors They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a rewarding entertainment. Sydney Pollack’s first prestige success is an exacting drama that keeps its symbolism in check and concentrates on the human cost of a shameless historical phenomenon. Pollack filmed on one very large and ornate set, and it’s quite a technical achievement. The contestants must appear to deteriorate as the show progresses. As an orchestra plays at all times, the scoring and synchronization of the soundtrack is not easy. And then there’s the basic problem of what is a mostly repetitive ordeal. The participants dance, they rest, they race and dance again for endless days and weeks. Pollack and his cameraman Philip Lathrop’s wise plan varies the filming without resorting to the trendy gimmicks of the day – no overuse of zoom lenses, for instance. The two or three montages are classical in nature, with slow dissolves. Slow motion is used only once, and brilliantly. Graced with impressive production values and excellent ensemble acting, the show is quite an emotional meat grinder. The persistent image is of people in torment, at the end of their physical and mental endurance, bent and straining as they try to keep on their feet.
As a viewer one thinks, ‘I’ve had rough jobs but never a situation like that.’ The show also makes one wonder if today’s homeless and down-and-outs are as shamelessly exploited. Just seeing the pregnant, homeless and starving Ruby was probably too disturbing for some viewers – it’s like a vision out of The Grapes of Wrath. Although there is a measure of sympathy among the contestants, survivors must turn a blind eye to the problems of The Other Guy. Our main heroine Gloria is so disgusted when she contemplates Ruby’s condition, that she criticizes the blameless woman. Without a single political tirade, They Shoot Horses underscores the Depression-era subversives’ mantra of economic oppression: the haves maintain the system by keeping the have-nots busy fighting each other.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was begun, planned and prepared by screenwriter James Poe (The Big Knife, Lilies of the Field, The Bedford Incident) as his directing debut. Poe wrote the character of Alice for his wife Barbara Steele, but the role eventually went to Susannah York. (Be sure to read the review addendum, below.) Sydney Pollack stepped in after the major casting was done, making changes to the screenplay and adding players of his own like Michael Conrad. The result was nominated for nine Oscars but the only winner was Gig Young as Best Supporting Actor. When the time came for voting, the movie was probably just too depressing for its own good.
This is possibly Jane Fonda’s best movie, as she seems to inhabit Gloria from the inside out. Gig Young’s complex emcee is indeed an impressive cap on a career mostly spent playing smiling second banana parts. Today we marvel at the film’s wide canvas and the orchestration of so many effective players — Pollack gives most of them stirring moments. He keeps individual stars from upstaging others — even though some of them play characters desperately trying to elbow their way into the spotlight. Red Buttons was often criticized for being an acting lightweight, but with a clever agent who found him flashy roles tailored to nab award nominations. Here Buttons more than earns his keep, suffering with the other actors and not grandstanding. Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York and Red Buttons command our respect — they excel under the film’s rough demands. Bruce Dern exerts masterful self-control, while Bonnie Bedelia makes a stunning impression. That’s a lot of strong acting here, without a single false step or stumble.
The supporting players are drawn from every corner of the show-biz memory. Terrorized contestant Shirl is Allyn Ann McLerie, who can be seen looking incredibly gorgeous years before in Doris Day’s Calamity Jane. Audience member Madge Kennedy is a once-famous silent movie actress. Perfect casting for a ghoulish producer is Al Lewis, of The Munsters. Other actors with strong earlier associations are Paul Mantee, and Felice Orlandi of Bullitt. Severn Darden steps in momentarily as a nervous competitor. And an award should go to the person who can spot Cynthia Myers as a marathon dancer.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? rescues this impressive picture from the pain inflicted by a terrible flat-letterboxed MGM DVD back in 2004. The new HD image is rich and detailed, showcasing the film’s excellent set designs and art direction, and particularly the brilliant costumes, hair and makeup. It really makes a difference in this picture, which is less a collection of separate scenes than a steady progression of visual deterioration. We can feel the sense of desperation mount.
Proof that the makers of They Shoot are proud of their work comes in the two audio commentaries included, both of which were originally produced for a laserdisc release. A group track gives us stars Jane Fonda, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Sarrazin and Red Buttons recalling the show. None of them resorts to weak praise; they all know that it’s a special movie that they were fortunate to be a part of. The producers Martin Baum, Irwin Winkler and hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff are heard as well.
Even better is a track recorded by director Sydney Pollack, who really opens up with solid backstories to explain how everything came together: the James Poe connection, the casting and especially the conceptual and physical challenges in making the movie. Pollack talks about the technical limitations of what was a ’60s era picture — limits on film speed, lenses, effects capabilities. Hearing Pollack’s explanations, we soon realize how well organized the direction has to be when the action is so repetitious. To make everybody look right for each shot in the footrace elimination sequences, Pollack first had them race around the track several times to become seriously winded. It was a real ordeal, not fake. He voices concern for the older performers.
Sydney says something to the effect that he couldn’t have made the film without musical director and orchestrator Johnny Green’s collaboration and vast experience. The film’s scoring is nearly wall to wall. In many ways it’s a musical without vocal performances. I agree. And Green’s tune “Easy Come Easy Go” gives the film its soul.
An original promo shows some behind-the-scenes images, and the package ends with four or five trailers, including the original for They Shoot.
I know several people that will simply not watch movies that are not upbeat and ‘happy.’ Does They Shoot have to end the way it does, in total degradation and defeat, with no hope in sight? Pollack makes good use of a flash forward/flash back visual motif to enforce the inevitability of the grim finale. Fidelity to the original author’s vision is important, but audiences would have been grateful for any scrap of mercy. Pollack and McCoy aren’t heartless, just consistent.
An interruption to the review:
I’ve worked for years with a producer who did many special projects for film directors and celebrities, often involving the restoration of movies and TV shows. He restored They Shoot in 1994 for Sidney Pollack and had to reconstruct the theatrical version. ABC had long before cut it down for a TV version. The producer wrote me, first praising the transfer on the new disc:
“The new transfer is very faithful to the restoration we did in 1994, to coincide with the film’s 25th anniversary. At that point in time the film had virtually disappeared because the pictures produced by ABC weren’t being marketed well at all. The only way to see the film was in the edited TV syndication version, which had made it to VHS and early Fox laserdisc looking quite poor. And the original IP had faded terribly. Sydney Pollack funded the restoration himself. To reconstruct the theatrical version we went back to the original camera negative as well as the 3-track mag print that had played in a couple of theaters.
Critic John Simon was the guest director that year at the Telluride Film Festival and had asked to run They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? because it was always one of his favorite films. He had been told, of course, that there simply wasn’t a decent print. We didn’t know about this, but by chance contacted the festival late in the summer to offer them the restored print, hoping they’d find room to run it. Simon was thrilled. The restored version had an informal premiere at Telluride — Sydney presented the film himself onstage with Simon.
All the commentaries were done for the Special Edition Laserdisc, on a shoestring budget. So again those materials exist because Sydney, Jane Fonda, Irwin Winkler, et al. cared enough and wanted the film to be revisited.”
— So They Shoot on this impressive new disc is an important addition to a fairly long list of films rescued by my producer. But that’s not all. He ended his note with a real surprise:
“This is probably really deep in the weeds. Before Sydney was hired to direct They Shoot and took over casting, actress Barbara Steele did a screen test with Jay Sebring. She was up for the Susannah York part, and Sebring was being considered for the part played by Robert Fields. It may be the only film that exists on Jay Sebring, I don’t know. I don’t think he really pursued a career as an actor. I tried to include the tests on the laserdisc but Fox Home Video wouldn’t clear them because Steele and Sebring weren’t in the film.”
— Glenn here again. So there you have it, confirmation that the They Shoot Horses, Don’t They — Barbara Steele connection is real. Isn’t film history strange, the connections that are made? Jay Sebring was of course one of the victims of the infamous Manson-Tate murders. The Bugliosi Helter Skelter book says that it wasn’t odd for a variety of friends-of-friends to drop by the rented house on Cielo Drive in the summer of 1969. The mantra of Hollywood success has always been, ‘being at the right place at the right time.’ It was just bad luck that determined the specific group that was there the night of the murders.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Supplements: Audio commentary with Director Sydney Pollack; second commentary with actors Jane Fonda, Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Sarrazin, Red Buttons; producers Irwin Winkler & Martin Baum, and hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff; Making-of Featurette, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 28, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson