Thursday, 2 June 2016
Movie Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)
It's 1932, the Great Depression has destroyed the economy, and in California hundreds of economically deprived couples converge to the La Monica ballroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean to compete in a dance marathon. With a prize of $1,500 at stake for the last couple standing, the dancers have to stay continuously on the move on the dance floor, and are allowed 10 minute breaks every 2 hours and 7 meals a day. The host is Rocky (Gig Young), who runs the contest as an entertainment spectacle for a paying audience. Some of the contestants are in the competition just for the food, while the spectators sometimes throw pennies at the dance floor as encouragement, and the loose change is eagerly scooped up by the pathetic dancers.
The entrants include the tough Gloria (Jane Fonda), who teams up with Robert (Michael Sarrazin) when her original partner is not allowed to register due to a persistent cough. Other participants include grizzled former navy man Harry (Red Buttons) and his partner Shirley (Allyn Ann McLerie); aspiring actress Alice (Susannah York) and her partner Joel (Robert Fields); and veteran dance marathon contestants James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia).
Directed by Sidney Pollack, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an almost hallucinatory experience. This is a lyrical exploration of tragic souls chasing dreams of wealth, and as staggering fatigue sets in Pollack is unrelenting in his focus on the dance floor, where bodies barely able to stand emit an overwhelming sense of sorrow. Remarkably the film maintains and builds interest over two hours, as gradually basic concepts such as winning and losing fade into the background and the theme of emotional durability in the face of the marathon's barbarity comes to the fore.
The drama comes from watching the couples subject themselves to the humiliation of the competition out of sheer despondency. The marathon is not about hours or days, but weeks and then months, and the misery of the competition is compounded by the wretched realization that the dancers have no life outside the dance hall. No children, no jobs, no loved one who care about them, no hobbies, no purpose and therefore no hope. Rarely has the human wreckage of an economic depression been laid so bare.
The other characters create a rich tapestry of desperate yet determined contestants to the show. Harry seems too old but emerges as a sturdy competitor with Navy training to fall back on. Ruby must be mad to be competing while pregnant; but along with her husband James, they have the benefit of experience and battle scars from other marathons. And Alice the actress is here to catch agents' eyes with sparkly dresses and the sinewy moves of a wannabe movie star. Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern and Susannah York leave their marks on the dance floor with committed contributions.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? literally and figuratively pushes the limits of human suffering. It seems almost impossible, but from a starting point of abject pessimism, the dancers shuffle their way into ever darker territory.
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