Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

A Sam Peckinpah Film
Dustin Hoffman
Susan George
Peter Vaughn
T.P. McKenna
Del Henney
Sally Thomsett

“Heaven and earth are cruel.
They treat all living things as Straw Dogs”

From the Book of Changes by Lao Tzu

Sam Peckinpah is a god. At least he is to me. He directed three of my favorite films from 1969 to 1972, The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, and Straw Dogs. Okay, he also directed the crapfest known as Convoy but let’s not quibble over annoying details.

One of his films, The Getaway, was reassembled in 1994 as a vehicle for Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who had only been married for about a year at the time. I saw the remake once, and it was practically a shot for shot blow by blow carbon copy of the original which starred Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. So why bother making it at all? It seems to me like a pretty expensive reason for conjuring up some time on the set with the new wife while making the big bucks. And what good did it do to solidify Mr. & Mrs. Baldwin’s relationship? Not a damn thing. Just look at them now.

Forty years later, Hollywood has once again decided that the time is ripe for another Peckinpah extreme makeover so on September 16th, Straw Dogs the remake hits the cinemaplex. This time around writer director Rod Lurie brings us James Marsden and Kate Bosworth substituting for Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, Mississippi substituting for rural England, and David undergoing a career change from mathematician to screenwriter.

But in order to be fair, we’ll reserve judgment on Lurie’s warmed over hash until we actually see it. Nevertheless, I have decided that it would be a good idea to get a review of the original film posted, just in case the crappy remake turns out to be, well, you know, really crappy. I wouldn’t want you to get totally disillusioned and never see the original because of a bad remake. Then again, you went back for Transformers III after Transformers II laid a stinky egg, so I guess I need not worry. Or even care.

I suppose there’s a chance you won’t like either film or maybe you’ll even prefer Lurie’s to Peckinpah’s visionary tale. Ebert didn’t care for the original at all, only giving it just two stars which I suppose would be the equivalent of my own C grade. But he’s not alone. Pauline Kael said that Peckinpah’s film had a fascist viewpoint. But what the hell do they know? They’re just critics. There is no doubt however that the film is just as controversial now and Peckinpah’s vision is still argued about within film circles some forty years later.

Straw Dogs will always be one of those films you either love or you hate or you just don’t get what all the fuss is about if your film expectations go no further than the latest Transformers extravaganza It raises as many questions as it answers, and some of the conclusions it draws about humans and their tendency towards violence may not sit well with you and convince you that Peckinpah was nothing more than an alcoholic, sadistic, male chauvinistic pig. Well, I’ll grant you one thing. He was an alcoholic, continually beset by his own demons that were often translated into what he put on the screen.

Straw Dogs is loosely based on the novel, The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams, although these days you will more than likely find the book by the name of the film, or if you want to download it for Kindle look for The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (small print) The Novel That Inspired (medium print) Straw Dogs (very large print.) I’ve not read the book, so I really have no desire to compare it to the film, although Wikipedia does say the book is entirely a horse of a different color.

In the movie adaptation, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mathematician, and his young wife Amy (Susan George) are in Amy’s old stomping grounds of Wakely, Cornwall, in the southwest corner of Bum Fuck England.

They are there because David wants to formulate a few equations that nobody will ever be able to decipher for a book he is writing that only those with a PHD in addition and subtraction would want to buy. That excludes you, me, and a good percentage of everybody else out there along with David’s wife Amy.

David needs the seclusion of Jolly Olde England to work out his equations, because back in the states there’s a lot of protesting and rioting. David doesn’t want to get involved because this is the late sixties and apparently this anti-war crap is happening on every street corner. There’s just no backwoods or backwards village within 3,000 miles to escape from those long haired dirty stinkin’ hippies, so where else are you going to go?

He should have tried my hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio. Most of my classmates didn’t even know there was a Vietnam War back then, and after meeting up with a few of them on Facebook recently, they still don’t. Worse than that, one of my old buddies was absolutely dumbfounded to learn that Lincoln had freed the slaves. Now that’s isolation.

There is no real reason given as to why Amy and David decided to stay at Trencher’s Farmhouse. We can surmise that having been brought up in the area, Amy convinced David that it was just the seclusion he needed and maybe being alone will help them work on their marriage, something that we also gradually learn is sitting on the edge of the toilet seat, headed for the shitter. And her father may have lived in the house but whether he owned it or rented it is never made clear. But that’s not important. It’s just the kind of minutia they would use for the millionaire question on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? So if they ever ask, remember where you got the answer.


Having once lived in rural England does not necessarily mean you’ll be welcome back with open arms, especially after you’ve not only married one of those damn American Colonists, but you haul him back to the British version of Hooterville with you. I guess they’re still pissed about the Revolutionary War in really old English towns where every building seems to be made of stone as some sort of half assed homage to Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, Bam Bam and Dino. 

Having stopped in town to get some supplies, David is awkwardly introduced to Amy’s ex boyfriend, Charlie Venner (Del Henney). Since he’s the awkward odd man out, even though Amy is his wife, David heads into the local tavern to get a pack of cigarettes where he meets a few more of the local yokels.


Charlie was obviously not too happy when Amy left, and Amy sure as hell wasn’t too happy with Charlie, made obvious by the fact that she high tailed it across the Atlantic. Or maybe she just wanted to see how we colonists over here were making out after almost 200 years of fending for ourselves, didn’t like what she saw, so dragged David’s sorry ass back to Wakely.

But old flames die hard for some, and memories of old flings die even harder for others although the bond between these two ex lovebirds seems to have had more to do with Kama Sutra than Stupid Cupid. And although Charlie may give every indication he’s willing to pick up where he left off, Amy indicates he can shitcan any thoughts of that nonsense.

As for David, it does appear that he wasn’t feeling like the odd man out at all. It seems he just wanted to secretly and creepily view the interaction between the two by peering at them from the window of the pub.

Peckinpah wastes no time in these opening scenes laying on the the tension that is a byproduct of the distrust that builds within each and every character on the screen.. The fine outstanding citizens of Wakely (or at least the ones we meet here) are a tight knit group. When Charlie Venner says, “We take care of our own” we know exactly what he means.

It’s one thing to have disdain for outsiders, it’s another thing to loathe them completely. The patrons in the pub view David as a rather useless twat, one to be scorned, ridiculed, and taken advantage of whenever possible. It’s not that they openly display their hostility. They kind of let it seethe underneath the surface. And David, who does nothing at all to dispel that viewpoint, is quickly indoctrinated into the ways of the Wakely Pub by Thomas Hedden (Peter Vaughn), who becomes violent over the bartender’s refusal to sell him one more drink.

David may be startled by the violence, but this seems to be just a typical afternoon at the Wakely pub for the Hedden gang. David takes it all in stride. He’s just surprised at witnessing a mean drunk wanting another shot of booze and trying to get it the only way he knows how. David’s only been around drunks with PHD’s, and I guess they are a more fun loving bunch when the alcohol level of their blood streem shoots up to about 10.0. You’d never catch David in some of the bars I used to patronize in my younger carousing days. Oh yes, I was quite the carouser.

The liquor establishments I frequented were full of patrons such as Thomas Hedden. The drunker they got, the meaner they became. But I gave those places up when some girl (How are you, Jane?) I was dating got shot in the leg at one of those establishments one evening while I was at work. Heck, it could have been my night off, I might have been with her, and it would have been my leg. I never did thank her for taking that bullet for me though. Anyway, I digress.

While driving away from town, Amy playfully chases Charlie and his friends off the road. I think she lives by the motto if you don’t like ex lovers anymore, antagonize them.

When they pull up into their driveway, Amy can visibly see handyman Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison) leering at her from the garage roof that he is supposed to be repairing. She kisses David, not to tease him, but to let Norman know that if he were the last man on earth and Amy was the last woman, it would leave Amy only two choices: Suicide or Murder. And the Rat catcher Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton) would have even less of a chance than that. But David, who is not prone to public displays of affection, and unable to grasp the purpose of her passion, gives Amy the brush off. For David, sex is only for the bedroom at night and in the dark, a fact that is made obvious throughout the film much to Amy’s chagrin but to the delight of Bobby and Janice Hedden.  More about that in a moment.  We’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Once David and Amy are inside their home, Chris Cawsey questions Norman as to whether he would “like to have a crack at that.” Norman answers him negatively.

“Ten months inside is enough for me.” he replies. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an American Mathemagician like David to know that Norman has spent time in the slammer, and it may or may not have been for some kind of a sexual assault.

Seconds later, Cawsey twirls a pair of lace panties he has stolen from Amy’s bedroom as a sort of “souvenir.” It is the only item in the house he sees as worth stealing, something which doesn’t forebode well for Amy’s future or David’s for that matter. Nor is it a good sign that these fine outstanding citizens of Wakely feel they can come and go inside David and Amy’s home as they please.

If you thought that once they were inside their home, the undercurrent of on screen hostility would ease up, you were sadly mistaken. David and Amy are constantly struggling to make their disintegrating marriage work. He views her  as a child, and not up to his self-gratifying intellectual standards. Most of the time, he shows little regard for her. She is supposed to be there to serve whatever his needs are at any given moment. Cleaning house, doing laundry, fixing dinner are okay for her, but such mundane chores are beneath him and what he views as his superior intellect. We get the distinct impression that he views Amy as not being deserving of any better treatment than the British version of Norm Peterson, Cliff Clavin, and Frasier Crane sitting down at the local watering hole. If this were the set of Cheers, the world would be topsy turvy. Amy would be Sam Malone, and David would be Diane Chambers.

Later, John Niles (Peter Arne) arrives at the pub and is confronted by the Hedden gang because his brother Henry (David Warner) was playing ball with the village children. Henry (David Warner), who is mentally challenged, has been in trouble before, and although it is never specifically mentioned what the incident was about, we can surmise that it undoubtedly involved a minor and was sexual in nature. In Wakely, a mentally deficient like Henry is something to worry about. A guy like Norman with a record for assault is a friend to be cherished forever. As if that weren’t enough, tensions within the Hedden gang itself escalate when Norman antagonizes Charlie with the pair of Amy’s panties they have stolen from her bedroom.

From there, Peckinpah keeps us off balance even further by directly cutting to another argument between Amy and David. We don’t know what started the argument, because when Peckinpah cuts to the scenethe disagreement is already in full throttle. It doesn’t matter.  The hostility between them is a replay of everything that is wrong with their marriage. Amy only wants David to let her be a part of his life beyond being chief cook and bottle washer. But David is on an island by himself, an island in which the gulf between him and Amy is as wide as the Atlantic. She is in anguish, yet all David feels is annoyance at her longings for intimacy.

But it’s not the physical closeness of sex she desires. David is more than willing to have intercourse as long as it’s on his terms more or less. During an earlier scene, after some playful fooling around in bed, they begin to make love. But David stops to first remove his glasses, then to remove his watch, and to still yet set the alarm clock. Amy becomes visually frustrated with his lack of spontaneity, and its as if he does it just to antagonize her.


When Amy returns home from the supermarket and notices the workers on the garage leering at her as she checks a runner in her stockings, she stares back at them in defiance. But when she informs David of their lechery, his response is to first congratulate Scott and Venner on their good taste and then to suggest that Amy should be wearing a bra. After they argue, Amy heads up stairs to take a bath, removing her sweater in front of an open window and offering up a full view of her breasts to the workers outside. Although it’s easy for some to pass this off as Amy provoking those on the garage, it is in fact her moment of defiance towards David’s suggestion that she wear a bra and his inclination to simply overlook the problems being caused by the men on the roof. She does not stand at the window as a tease, she does it with about as much of a “You can all go to hell” look that one can muster.

Amy’s cat comes up missing. Her constant search only serves to aggravate David who heads to the pub to get drunk. In town, he witnesses Janice Hedden first teasing Henry Niles, who is then smacked around by his brother John, while a faint smile crosses Janice’s first.

She knows every time that she interacts with Henry, it will lead to his punishment or cause trouble between John and her father. But she doesn’t care. She’s a trouble maker, and she does it for kicks. Janice is a product of her environment. She is as much a part of the Hedden gang as the adults.

And by now we also know that eventually this will lead to trouble, even more than young Janice could have anticipated. To her, everything in life is a game including her crush on David which is why she and Bobby once spent the night watching David and Amy having sex through their bedroom window. Janice is not an adult, but she wants to be one. Ironically, Amy on the other hand is an adult, but David treats her as a child which is probably the real reason David feels so uncomfortable around Janice when she flirts with him.

After a tense scene in the pub with hardly a word being spoken, David is retrieved by Major Scott who has been sent by Amy to bring him home where visitors in the form of the local pastor and his wife who have come to invite David and Amy to a church social later in the week. This time, it is David who acts childish and Amy is left to control the situation when David does his best to piss off Reverend Hood.

>Later that evening, Amy confronts David about his rudeness, but he proclaims his innocence. When he goes to the closet to hang up his clothes, he discovers Amy’s cat has not only been killed, but has been tied to the light cord and is hanging from it.  David walks silently to a chair and sits down . It is only the look on his face that gives him away. But instead of stopping her, David allows Amy to go to the closet, and make the discovery for herself.

After psychologically beating us on the head for the first 45 minutes wasn’t enough, Peckinpah has now upped the ante. The tension between all the major characters in this film, whether it’s between Amy and David, between Charlie and Amy, Charlie and Scutt, the Heddens and the Niles, or even the Hedden gang and everybody else including Major Scott are is like a boulder rolling down Mt. McKinley with nothing to stop it until it finally hits the ground below with a thunderous explosion.

I’m not sure how much further to go with this analysis. I could talk about the rest of the film and would love to talk and discuss my thoughts regarding what happens from this point on. But if you’ve never seen Straw Dogs, no matter how you feel about it, doing so would ruin it for you.  The last half of the film is one that can only be seen and then discussed afterwards.  The conclusions I have given here come only after having watched the film numerous times in the past. I remember that coming out of the theater after my first viewing, I was so unnerved, I was almost shaking.

But like so many others, I was mistaken about why I felt the way I did. But now I understand it. It wasn’t just the last half hour to forty five violent minutes that finished the film that had an unnerving effect on me. It was the underlying psychological tension that permeates this film from the opening frame to the closing moments. There is not one second of this film where one can sit back,  relax, and enjoy the scenery. The conflict between the major characters is never ending, and as each day passes it only intensifies until we reach the bloody conclusion and it’s aftermath. David and Amy are in a sense a young version George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf without the the cursing and drinking. Their marriage has been disintegrating before we even meet them.  When we first enter the Wakefield Pub at the beginning of the film, Peckinpah has already set the clock on his time bomb, which is always hidden underneath the surface ticking away as if we are viewing an elongated scene from Village of the Damned.

Most of the characters in this film are  hardly likable and mostly despicable. That includes David. When the film was released and even to this day, some view his stand at the end in an attempt to protect his home from an invasion as an almost heroic gesture. What they don’t realize is that as the story played out, David was as responsible for the out of control series of events as much as the Heddens were. With a little effort on his part, what happens at Trencher Farm could easily have been avoided.

They view him as the outsider, as sort of an Ugly American if you want to go that route. And David takes every opportunity to perpetuate that notion, whether it’s something as simple as refusing an offer to pay for his “American” cigarettes, or buying the Hedden’s a drink but not sticking around to drink with them. When Amy informs David of the leering and taunting stares of the worker, we at first think he doesn’t confront them because he is a coward. But the fact is, he just doesn’t give a damn or care enough about Amy, which makes him almost personally responsible for the attack she is to endure. Later in the film when he is made a fool of by the Scutt, Causey and Venner on a hunting trip, it is then and only then that he fires the workers. It has nothing to do with anything that came before that.

Peckinpah described David Sumner as the heavy in the film. It’s something many critics still don’t understand to this day. I myself, upon initial viewing, wouldn’t have understood what he meant. But after many viewings, I began to see the dark true nature of David’s character. 

David is not the weakling who suddenly finds his manhood. David is the baby who only throws a temper tantrum when things don’t go his way, or when they aren’t to his liking. He is oblivious to the effects his actions have on anybody but himself, and none more than the only real victim in this film. And that of course is Amy.

She is the victim of David, who degrades her mentally at every opportunity and rebuffs her attempts at repairing their relationship. He has no more use for her than he does for her cat. When he throws fruit at the cat, he is just not tormenting the animal, it is his own sadistic way of proving that he is the lord and master. He hates the cat not because he hates cats in general. He hates this cat because it belongs to Amy.

It’s almost a necessity for David to surround himself with those he sees as mentally inferior, because he views his intellectual superiority as his trump card. His relationship with Amy is more about lust than love, and having her around somehow validates his manhood. She on the other hand, had to have been wowed that someone with such intelligence would choose her. Initially, her attraction to him had a lot to do with the fact that he was as far removed from the life she had left behind in Wakely as one could be.

Amy is also the victim of Charley Venner, who had little use for her beyond the bedroom until he drove her away. All he sees though is a woman who cut his balls off, and when he later assaults Amy, it is in fact an attempt to recapture his manhood, to prove to her that he was the best she ever had or at the very least, a better man than David. When Scutt joins in on the attack, it is true that he initially holds a gun to Charley’s head, but Charley in all his cowardice does nothing at all to help Amy, and in fact becomes Scutt’s willing accomplice thus justifying our view and Amy’s that the relationship between her and Charly was nothing more than a convenient way for him to bed her whenever he felt the need arising. Despite what some see as a bit of ambiguity in the initial confrontation between Charley and Amy, you cannot deny the brutality and it’s effect on Amy throughout the remainder of the film.

It is odd that there are still those who say that this film degrades women.  But Amy is the only one in the movie with any redeeming qualities. What happens to her has more to do with Peckinpah’s own inability to cope with his personal relationships than anything else, as it is a commentary on other men who abuse women both physically and mentally. He reaffirms this with Amy, who is a better person than any man in this film and suffers because of it.

All the performances in Straw Dogs are remarkable. The actors are not just acting. They are so enmeshed in the roles they are playing that they become those characters. But Susan George gives the performance of a lifetime here, and deserved way more in accolades than she received. This had to be one of the most difficult films for any actress to endure, but she was more than up to the task.

To this day I think the film deserves way more attention than it has received. But with the controversy surrounding it and the fact that many critics, Ebert included, never made any attempt to understand what Peckinpah was really trying to say, it has often been overlooked. They, like many, only saw what they wanted to see on the surface, and perhaps the film made them more uncomfortable then they realized. They just didn’t know why. And while Ebert and others will always consider The Wild Bunch to be Peckinpah’s masterpiece, I think he far surpasses it with Straw Dogs.

Whether it’s his direction, the intense editing done throughout the film, the dialogue, or the way each scene is carefully set up to make the statement that Peckinpah wanted to make, there is not a single misfire within the film. In fact, Peckinpah’s editing in this film, especially during the intense final scenes, may be some of the best work ever done. 

The conclusion in the film may be violent, many of Peckinpah’s films were. But it helped opened the door to more on screen  realism.  It used to be that violence was sanitized to such a degree that it was artificial. With Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, the door was opened for the kind of brutality in cinema that would soon become commonplace, so much so that these days we have become so desensitized by it, that we have more or less become blasé when it comes to torture, murder, and mayhem.   Peckinpah thought that when there was violence on screen, we should abhor it.  He wasn’t trying to make it palatable.

Peckinpah told the story the way he wanted to, hoped those critical of the film would understand that viewpoint instead of what appeared to be on the surface. The film was reviled by many on it’s release, and shunned during awards season. But in my book, he exceeded way beyond expectations, multi layered, multi faceted films I have ever seen and for that I have no choice but to give Straw Dogs a very rare A+.   Update:  My review of Lurie’s remake is now posted.


1 comment:

  1. Extraordinary film by a director of genius - Sam Peckinpah.