Straw Dogs (1971)

Willimas=Straw-Dogs-mayflowerIn Hazell Plays Solomon (which I reviewed here), the eponymous London PI ducks into a Leicester Square cinema for a break during a case. Even though the title is not given we are fairly sure that what is on the screen must be Straw Dogs, which was co-written and directed by Sam Peckinpah and based on The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams (reviewed here last week), not coincidentally also co-author of the Hazell books. Our hero doesn’t think much of the movie (“it was comic-cuts melodrama”), echoing his creator’s unhappiness with the adaptation, which is a shame because, for all its changes and clear faults, this controversial film is a memorable and often remarkable ‘Adults Only’ rumination on the dangerous allure of violence.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog - you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected. I also submit it for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey – blog for links to the other participants’ reviews, click here.

“I care. This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house”

In the original book (which I reviewed here last week) the main couple are George and Louise Magruder and their marriage is clearly on the rocks right from the beginning. They try to make it through a tough winter at the back of beyond retreat that she has found for them in England while he works on his book but even their daughter’s presence can’t stop their incessant backbiting – he is an American and feels out-of-place, she is an Englishwoman who has come home except she isn’t from Cornwall so is a stranger too. He let her choose the place to try and make her happy but she just sees this as just another example of his abrogating his family responsibilities and not fulfilling his role as a ‘man’.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan George play the Magruder roles in the film, which have been changed in many ways. They are now named David and Amy Summer and are much younger than the prematurely middle-aged equivalents from the book – as a result the daughter has also been excised entirely. He is now a mathematician while Amy is a local Cornish girl who has returned home, which is a very smart idea as it focuses the drama considerably, making George / David even more of an outsider and his wife’s withdrawal from him easier to understand. The sexual politics of the film are much more outspoken than the book’s and more convincing, though neither gives a particularly enlightened perspective on the subject. The film is much subtler though and the first half of the film in particular paints a much more plausible and credible picture of an insecure young man and his dissatisfied wife who undermines him, reacting against his unwillingness to confront violent situations head on.

Hoffman-George-Straw_DogsAmy is presented right from the start as sexually provocative, parading around town bra free and with a bare minimum of clothing, becoming the object of lustful and disapproving glances all round – she is also frustrated by her husband’s occasional condescension and superior tone despite the fact that he seems to be running away from his problems (it is implied that he is trying to avoid the Vietnam draft), pushing her away even sexually. This aspect of the story becomes personalised in the shape of Charley Venner (Del Henney), an old boyfriend of Amy’s, and a new character for the film version. Other major changes include the depiction of Niles, played without credit (due to an insurance wrangle) by David Warner. In the book he is the local bogeyman, responsible for the deaths of several children almost a decade before but found incompetent to stand trial. His escape from an asylum coincides with the disappearance of a local girl and triggers the siege that forms the crux of the story. In the book he is a sad and pathetic creature, well beyond harming anyone ever again. In the film however he is actually responsible for the death of the missing girl (in the book she turns out to be fine) - this makes the decision by David Summer to defend him even more equivocal and problematic. But then, this is a film that goes out of its way to make things as uneasy as possible for its audience, exploiting our desire for straightforward issues and resolutions but taunting us instead by making the viewing experience a much more complex and morally ambivalent one.

Susan-George-Straw-Dogs

Susan George as Amy in ‘Straw Dogs’.

The plot of the book is followed fairly closely but emotionally this is a much tougher experience and with a more violent climax though, in fact, the body count is reduced. The film’s most talked about sequence however - one completely absent from the book – sees Amy raped by her old boyfriend. This is initially presented ambiguously to suggest that she may in fact be giving in willingly but this is cancelled out completely by the brutality of the latter part of the scene. The aim is to shock the audience but also render them complicit in the highly mixed signals of the story – in addition this is an event to which we are privy but David is not. This make us question further the applicability of the archetype of the man on the frontier defending his home and his wife from marauders, which the novel so explicitly evoked. Instead this raises the allegorical nature of the story by making it less clear just what it is that David is in fact defending – the man in question, the child murderer Niles, is certainly a monster while David and his wife seem to have little going for them as a couple; he doesn’t even realise the trauma she has undergone. And yet we would normally expect to be rooting for him – but should we?

“Ok, you’ve had your fun. I’ll give you one more chance, and if you don’t clear out now, there’ll be real trouble. I mean it”

Peckinpah, mainly a director of Westerns at this point, is a perfect fit for this material as his poetic and somewhat morbid sensibility is ideally suited to a story that is as much about the end of civilisation as a defence of its emblems. In the desire to make audiences really associate with the damage being wrought on the psyche of the protagonists, the film’s stance is much more ambiguous than that of the book - Peckinpah would later claim that David and Amy, as their ‘civilised’ exterior is ripped away, become in fact the villains of the piece, not Niles and not the marauding locals who are after him (led by the great Peter Vaughan) either. It is little wonder that original novelist Gordon Williams had so little love for this interpretation of his much more straightforward novel, not least for its controversial depiction of sexual violence, all the more powerful for its comparative tact in its on-screen presentation. It certainly remains the most contested aspect of the film and inevitably it created massive censorship problems - for decades in fact the film was not available on home video at all in the UK and other countries (for more on this, I recommend Stevie Simkins’ new book on the film in the ‘Controversies’ series published by Palgrave Macmillan (see here and here for more details).

When released in the UK, the film was vilified in the press and compared negatively with Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange, which was taken far more seriously as a comment on sex, violence and sexual violence in society. The lone contemporary critic to take a more nuanced view, and one that I completely concur with still, was Charles Barr who, in “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics” (published in 1972 in Screen) brilliantly dissected the two film’s approaches. While the arty-ness and icy demeanour of Kubrick made the film more palatable to the intelligentsia by providing a distancing filter through various alienation effects, Peckinpah’s more immediate take on similar material is much more troubling. By engaging the viewer in the plight of the characters emotionally but then subverting standard responses to what might be considered right and wrong (in the movies at least), it takes a much tougher (and riskier) path in my view and in this regard at least deserves recognition for taking a more ambivalent point of view. In many ways the correct film to compare it to would be Deliverance, which was released the following year and which has much more in common with the Peckinpah movie and its visceral yet complex depiction of the human capacity for violence and in its unwillingness to plump for easy answers. This is carried right through to its ending, which seemingly resolves all its conflicts in an action climax and yet leaves the destiny of its characters completely open – these are the final lines of dialogue heard in Straw Dogs:

“I don’t know my way home”
“That’s okay. I don’t either”

Straw-Dogs-1971-poster

It is a film that in this way rather than reinforce views about violence with detached and unthinking condemnation, challenges audiences by making them feel really uneasy with the depictions of sex and violence on screen, to really question their tolerance for such representations and therefore their own value system. The film is undeniably heavy-going but I believe worthwhile for those prepared to take a chance on very edgy material. It was remade forty years later, set now in America, and turned everything that was subtle and provocative in the original into a distressingly insipid and exploitative experience. I shall comment on it no further.

For additional writing on the book and the film versions, you would do well to read the articles posted over at Palimpsest, Indiewire, The Daily Rotation and Sound on Sight, as well as Martin Barker’s detailed analysis at Participations.

Straw Dogs (1971)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Producer: Daniel Melnick
Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Del Henney, TP McKenna, Peter Vaughan, David Warner (uncredited)

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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39 Responses to Straw Dogs (1971)

  1. le0pard13 says:

    Excellent examination of this film, still controversial to this day among those my age or older. I am in total agreement that ‘Deliverance’ is its double-feature companion in ‘savage cinema’. I’ve never read the novel it was based on (as opposed to James Dickey’s novel of Deliverance, which I have). I screened this last year and this Peckinpah film has lost none of its power. I’ve held off watching the remake, but now I’m curious. Great review, Sergio.

    • Thanks very much Mike, very kind of you indeed. The Dickey novel is of a different order than Williams’, not two ways about it, the delineation of the characters and the siatuation in Peckinpah’s version helping to bridge the gap (as it were). I re-watched the first half of the film before writing the review and was still enormously impressed by his handling and the brilliance of the performers – Susan George in particular just doesn’t get enough credit for how good she is as Amy, especially in handling the change in her persona before and after the attack.

  2. TracyK says:

    Emotionally tough is a good way to describe this film. Although it has been many years since I saw it, I am still reluctant to view it again. Possibly it would not seem so bad in this day and age? A very interesting overview, and I enjoyed this post and your evaluation.

    • Thanks TracyK – in some ways I think it feels even more powerful in its emotional intensity after all these years. It’s never been about the depiction of violence after all but the impact it has on the characters and how to communicate that to the viewer. It really puts you through the wringer but at least does have something to say that is pertinent about sexual politics and the mess people make of their lives and how they treat others – but I agree, you really have to steel yourself to watch it!

  3. Colin says:

    Really excellent piece of writing there Sergio, made all the more impressive by your tackling of a frankly difficult film to analyze.
    Your emphasis on the ambiguity that’s central to all aspects of the film is spot on in my view. Making Amy a returning local certainly accentuates the otherness, the outsider status of David and adds layers to the story via the fact Amy herself has a past in the area. Also, by showing Niles as a killer, albeit a somewhat unwitting one, the audience is prevented from getting fully behind David’s transformation – one can sympathize with his standing on principle but the knowledge that his reasons for doing so are flawed leaves a nagging doubt.

    An incredibly challenging movie to this day, it raises so many moral questions and offers no easy answers. Without doubt it represents great filmmaking, but it’s not an especially comfortable watch. Well done on producing an interesting, informative and literate critique of this one.

    • Thanks very much Colin for the genrous words. I really had to puch myself to watch it again but from its weird opening – credits in black over disorientating images of what turn out to be merely children ar play, albeit in a graveyard – to its kinetic conclusion, it exerts a masterly grip but what you remember are the horrible scenes of marital discord and not the attack on the house. They haven;t dated one bit (though my goodness the fashions are diabolical – the miniskirt that Sally Thomsett wears in ridiculous!
      Straw Dogs

      • Colin says:

        Those scenes of marital discord and baiting are probably among the most unpleasant and the hardest to watch – the climactic assault on the farm, in spite of its violence, is almost a relief in the way it draws attention away from the psychological warfare between David and Amy.

        The support cast, particularly the obnoxious oiks, is terrific and adds a lot to the film. The emotional immaturity of those guys is quite frightening in itself.

        • It is compelling and scary because it feels, within its own logic, to be utterly plausible in a really horrible way. I agree, it does feel as if the escalation in physical violence is almost a way to avoid the emotional battering they keep inflicting on each other. Peter Vaughan is great as the unofficial leader of the town but even Peter Arne does well – performances are just top notch all round though I am in no position to say whether the Cornish accents are accurate for instance …

          • Colin says:

            I couldn’t say about the accent business either and I don’t believe it’s much of an issue anyway. Any kind of isolated rural setting would have served equally well as far as I can see.

          • I do know people who get really cross about generic ‘yokel’ accents shall we say but it is fascinating to see how Peckinpah explores Hoffmann’s status as an outsider given that the surroundings much have been very strange to the director too after all. Having said that, and I don’t know how you feel about ‘oirish’ depictions, but it does drive me nuts when I hear bad Italian spoken in movies – you wouldn’t believe what passes for Italian even in the Godfather films though admittedly not in the scenes actually shot in Italy (well, because they only used local talent), though this is not actually illogical since these meant, for the most part, to be second generation American Italians – still hard to hear though …

          • Colin says:

            Oh I know lots of people get upset when accents are poorly done but it doesn’t trouble me too much to be honest. I suppose this is partly a result of spending years listening to Godawful attempts at Irish accents – I eventually got to the stage where I suppose I just accept them, or subconsciously tune them out perhaps.

          • You are a better man than I – when it happens while I’m watching, especially with my members of the family, it just throws everybody out for the next 5 minutes! That’s the problem with us Italians – just can’t concentrate …

          • Colin says:

            I reckon the Irish are just as bad – I’ve developed a thicker hide, that’s all. :)

          • I think we’re just dumb and overly-literal in my family – but it’s always good to have something to agree about about even when you’re complaining!

  4. Sergio – A thorough and well-written review of this film. I’ve always liked it very much, and not just because of Dustin Hoffman’s presence in it. ;-) You’ve done real justice to the film vis a vis the book, too, for which thanks. In my opinion, some very wise decisions were taken about casting and about the focus of the film, that ended up making it an intense experience (and I mean that in a complimentary way). Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks Margot – I felt quite queasy about picking this one actually to be honest as re-watching it confirmed just how bruising it is (especially compared with the more straighforward novel) – really glad you liked it.

  5. michael says:

    I saw the Peckinpah film again a couple of weeks ago. It has lost none of its power, tho’ times may appear to have changed. I saw the film in 1971 when it was released. Mr P was a hugely popular, artistically undervalued director, and Straw Dogs is one of his finest creations. Heavy-going? Not for one minute!

    • Thanks Michael – Peckinpah was a great filmmamker and here he is aided by some especially fine acting though I’m afraid I did find it hard to watch again, but then I think you are supposed to after all! Next month I’ll be posting a review of his version of The Getaway and the Jim Thompson novel it’s based on, which is a compleely dofferent order of business!

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    Although I have probably seen much more violent films, I have always avoided this one due to its reputation. Perhaps its time.

    • Good luck Patti and you need to be in the ‘mood’ most definitely – it says some pretty horrible things about people, but does it with great power and emotion.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    I still hate this film. However, the remake is even more ridiculous in every way (I went to high school with the Auteur of the remake, who has parlayed a career as a film reviewer into a career making preposterous films and tv full of the kinds of ridiculous speeches actors love to deliver)(he was exactly the guy you’d expect to do such work as an adult). And, compared to the Peckinpah version of THE GETAWAY, this is indeed a subtle and nuanced film. But I still don’t find it a convincing argument nor compelling drama, and it desperately wants to be both. I should read the novel…and DELIVERANCE is indeed this film’s natural companion, though a somewhat better film by me (inasmuch, from my perspective, it doesn’t lie as much about humanity…but this film, again, is a more honest one than THE GETAWAY, which assures us all women are traitorous punching bags). Indeed, a good review.

    • Thanks for the kind words Todd and sorry I couldn’t persuade you on the merits of the 1971 film – I think the original novel might interest you for its incredibly outdated attitudes. I remember going to see Lurie’s first outing, The Contender, and actually quite liking it (I’m a sucker for political dramas anyway) but the rest have been real dreck. Peckinpah had badly wanted to make Deliverance but after the failure of Cable Hogue was sidelined by Warners so (I think) went off to do Straw Dogs and then got his box office mojo back (sic) with the gigantic macho potboiler that was The Getaway.

      • Todd Mason says:

        I tend to think of Rod’s work as Oliver Stone without the gravitas. And if you know how I feel about Stone’s work, you know just what a double-edged insult that’s meant to be.

        • Ouch! Best conversation I’ve ever had was a 7-hour marathon about JFK (I think it’s great by the way – along with Salvador for me it’s Stone’s best work) – amazing to think that at university I had time to do that sort of thing …

          • Todd Mason says:

            I’d suggest that SALVADOR and HEAVEN AND EARTH are Stone’s least irresponsible and silly films, so far, that I’ve spent any time with…the smartass/pragmatically antiheroic protagonists of the former knock his usual machismic stuffing out, which is all to the good.

          • I haven’t seen Heaven yet, thanks for the reminder Todd – Woods is incredible in Salvador,I quite agree.

  8. John says:

    As always a thorough examination of a movie. There are too many “savage” films that have left an indeliable mark on my mind and imagination: DELIVERANCE, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, a rape sequence in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (another Argento movie I loathe), and the final scene in SHOOT THE MOON so senseless and brutal that I was left sitting numb and shaken in the theater. This was back in the 80s when I was a sensitive young man in college. I think I’ve hardened a bit in the last ten years or so, but rape on film always disturbs me. And I absolutely cannot read about it in books. It’s an all too personal reaction and I won’t go into it anymore than that. Not too thrilled to read about the rape scene in this movie that renders the viewer complicit. I have shunned STRAW DOGS for decades and I don’t think I can ever be tempted to watch it — no matter how intelligent the review.

    • Fair enough John, fair enough. My point about the comparison with the Kubrick is of course only viable if you think such an abhorrent subject i valid to represent on screen (and you may reasonably think it is not). I’ve never seen that Parker movie actually as the reviews I read art the time were so negative (not always Parker fan either though Bugsy Malone, Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart and The Commitments were great).

      • Todd Mason says:

        Wow, Sergio…you are a kinder man than I…BUGSY, BURNING and ANGEL HEART are all deeply flawed, or worse, by me…THE COMMITMENTS was less alloyed as pleasant…

        • Todd mate, you are just too tough for me – there is a lot in those films that I really think stand up, as flawed as they most definitely are (I once travelled on the tube with the three female leads from The Commitments actually and have a real soft spot for it) – and I say that as someone who worked at the BFI when Parker running the joint and proved just what a philistine he really was

          • Todd Mason says:

            I need to read FALLING ANGEL yet…then I’ll let you know how I then feel about the too blatantly telegraphed ANGEL HEART…But “philistine” doesn’t surprise me, no…

          • Actually, I prefer Parker’s movie adaptation to the Hjortsberg original, which has a great Woolrich-style plot but is told without much in the way of style (though it is infinitely preferable to Nevermore, his really poor supernatural novel about Houdini, Doyle and Poe) whereas I thought Parker did very well in bringing the fragmented narrative together (despite its excesses like that looong sequence with Rourke wearing that stupid pair of Groucho glasses).

  9. Ben Solomon says:

    “Straw Dogs” fits into the Peckinpah through-line from first to last: human kind is a brutal kind. And what the hell, I’ll take it one step further: this is Peckinpah’s noir turn: everyone’s doomed; nobody wins; everyone loses.

    • I think you’re right there Ben – I think there is a strong case that Dogs, along with The Getaway and Alfredo Garcia, forms part of a trilogy of bleak contemporary neo-noirs with a wicked sense of irony underpinning them (as all great tragedy should of course). I wish one could add Killer Elite to the mix but even after sampling the fabulous French Blu-ray release it is a film that I just can’t really engage with other than as a jaundiced chop-socky potboiler …

  10. Sergio, I wouldn’t have known this was a film adaptation of Gordon M. Williams’ book in spite of having read your review of the latter just two days ago. The two do seem apart in so many ways. You have brought out the differences between the book and film very well. I don’t know if I’d care to watch the film though, particularly in light of the sex and violence which (in a film like this) would make me uncomfortable; a mite too dark for me. I don’t know Susan George and I’m not much of a Dustin Hoffman fan either, though I’ve liked him in some films (not TOOSTSIE!). Besides, I rarely watch films for their artistic value which in any case would be lost on me. Of Sam Peckinpah’s films, I remember THE WILD BUNCH and CROSS OF IRON.

    • Thanks for the kind words Prashant. This is a very provocative film, to put it mildly, so I completely understand your hesitation and I suspect you are right. Susan George was very busy in the 60s and 70s making movies in the UK and the US and then later went into production with her late husband, the actor Simon MacCorkindale, as well as horse breeding. Hoffman’s mannerisms can grate a bit but he can be quite extraordinary,

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