Thursday, 2 June 2016

Movie Review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969)


A depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a grim descent into the psyche of despair. The story of desperate couples competing in an inhumane dance marathon is both brilliantly captivating and utterly exhausting to watch.

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).

Her unforgiving life to date means that Gloria brings a caustic, negative attitude to the dance floor. She refuses to respond to Robert's attempts to get to know her, and manages to antagonize James by continuously questioning Ruby about the wisdom of bringing a baby into a life of poverty. The hours turn to days and then weeks, the test of endurance drags on under Rocky's watchful business-focused eyes, and Gloria will have to survive more than one setback to stay among the competitors.

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.

Entirely set within the mostly windowless confines of the La Monica ballroom, the cameras stay with the contestants as they push themselves through the endless marathon, a test of mental sanity as much as physical endurance. Before long Robert is struggling in vain to catch a glimpse of the outside world, as night and day meld into each other, the bands play on and the dancers shuffle their feet unenthusiastically.

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.

Gloria emerges as physically and mentally strong, but also the catalyst for most of the trouble that happens between the dance sessions. She starts the marathon already at the end of her rope, quite fed up with her raw deal out of life, and unwilling to shut-up about it. She approaches her opponents and Rocky as compounding everything bad in her world, and it does not take her long to establish herself as the most derided contestant on the dance floor. She endures, turning every situation to her advantage, but Rocky knows that every contestant has a breaking point, and it is his job to find it. Fonda brings Gloria to life with a powerful, defiant performance.

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.

Hovering over them all is Gig Young as Rocky the master of ceremonies, dishing out encouragement, torture and schmaltzy showmanship in equal measures. Young won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, and his "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!" proclamations are the stuff of film legend. Rocky is putting on a reality show, and distinct personalities, prolonged suffering, melodramatic in-fighting and couple meltdowns keep the audience coming day after day, buying tickets are lining his pockets. Some injuries along he way are par of the course, and Rocky's cadre of doctors and nurses are trained to never show any concern even when a contestant checks out forever.

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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