Tuesday 16 March 2021

Movie Review: The Day Of The Locust (1975)

A Hollywood drama, The Day Of The Locust is an acerbic yet listless condemnation of an industry's sordid underbelly.

It's the 1930s, and Tod Hackett (William Atherton) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of making it as a set design artist. He finds an apartment at the rundown San Bernardino Arms and meets his neighbours, a collection of wannabes at the margins of the movie industry. He quickly falls in love with Faye Greener (Karen Black), a vivacious extra striving for greater roles, but she rejects him. 

Faye's father Harry (Burgess Meredith) is a former small-time vaudevillian and now a door-to-door salesman in poor health, peddling a miracle cure. He collapses in the apartment of inhibited accountant Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), which leads to Faye and Homer starting a muted relationship.

Tod secures a job in the studio art department run by Claude Estee (Richard Dysart) and Ned Grote (John Hillerman), and never loses hope of winning Faye's heart. He meets her friends Miguel (Pepe Serna), who is involved in cockfighting, and cowboy Earle Shoop (Bo Hopkins). Tod and Faye attend a fake healing church sermon run by Big Sister (Geraldine Page), and survive a spectacular on-set calamity while filming a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo.

An adaptation of the 1939 book by Nathanael West, The Day Of The Locust attempts to shine a light on the victims of Hollywood's unforgiving culture. But the film is an overlong and momentum-free effort, a suffocatingly boring journey through the gutter of the boulevard of broken dreams. 

The riffraff characters are a collection of down-and-outs lacking self awareness and pathetically still pursuing the bright lights. They are uniformly unappealing and one-dimensional in their capacity to hit the same notes and achieve the same outcome, director John Schlesinger unable to generate sympathy or trace engaging arcs.

And so Tod expresses his love for Faye early, she makes it clear he's not good enough for her, and this dynamic remains unchanged, much like their careers are stalled in the same place. She gravitates towards accountant Homer, who may have some wealth but compensates with a vacuous personality. Donald Sutherland sleepwalks through the role with a startled, deer-in-the-headlights look, except that a deer may have more to say than Homer does.

Elsewhere the cockfighting subplot and stag film interlude offer crass symbolism about Hollywood's sex-obsessed and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, while too much time is invested in Harry Greener before he mercifully expires. Other characters including studio executive Claude Estee, excitable cowboy Earle Shop, madame Mary Dove, foul-mouthed dwarf Abe and child actor Adore (Jackie Earle Haley) may have been more prominent in early drafts, but in the final product they barely register and simply add clutter and bemusement.

The set designs are attractive, and if nothing else The Day Of The Locust is always gorgeous to look at. The drama ends with a gargoylian opera of stampedic violence, fantastical puss popping into the oblivious eye of a movie premiere. As metaphors go its an appropriately overripe ending to a bloated yet dreary spectacle.

All Ace Black Movie Blog Reviews are here.

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