Saturday, 5 February 2011

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Year: 1969
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, based on the novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy
Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern
Running Time: 120 minutes
Genre: Drama

Summary: Los Angeles, 1932: Robert Syverton (Sarrazin), who once dreamed of being a great film director, is standing trial and recalls the events that led up to him being there. Wandering into a dance marathon which is about to begin in a shabby ballroom, he is recrutied by the event's opportunistic promoter and Master of Ceremonies, Rocky (Young), as a partner for cynical aspiring actress Gloria (Fonda) after her own partner drops out due to suspected illness. The rules of the marathon are cruelly simple. There are 102 couples and they have to keep dancing basically until they drop or quit until there is just one couple left who will win a $1500 cash prize. They are allowed a ten minute break every hour but otherwise they have to keep dancing. As they keep dancing for hours which turn into days which turn into weeks which approach months, they're weaknesses exploited by Rocky for the amusement of the audience (who show they're approval by pelting the contestants with pennies) the contestants find themselves reduced to little more than animals.

Opinions: Even if you've never seen this movie or read the book that it's based on, you will probably at least be familiar with the title or some variation on it as it is referenced endlessly in popular culture. The film is an intense and gruelling watch. Set almost entirely in the claustrophobic environs of the ballroom and the small dormitories and offices set off it. While a film about a dance marathon may not seem particularly dramatic it still works due to the way it depicts the exhaustion and physical agony of the event as well as the desperation of the participants. The film is set during the Great Depression and that is a very important element in the story. The crew wore roller-skates to shoot some of the derby scenes in order to try to capture the sense of frenetic motion, and the film also makes extensive use of flash-forwards to depict future events, which is not a very common technique in cinema. Pollack gets great perfomances out of the actors, with Jane Fonda being particularly impressive as the bitter and cynical Gloria and Gig Young as the monsterous host of the event (with his catch-phrase "Yowza! Yowza! Yowza!").
The film was obviously aiming at big themes, but these don't quite come across. However it is still worth watching featuring some great acting and also being genuinely disturbing. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won one (Best Supporting Actor for Gig Young).

Michael Sarrazing and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

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