Straw Dogs
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Straw Dogs

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Director Sam Peckinpah has always had a perchance for exceptionally violent films. If the American Film Institute ever created a list of the most violent American films, Peckinpah would own the top ten. One of his most controversial films in his illustrious career is ‘Straw Man.' The movie remained banned in Britain for an unusually long period. The focus of the movie explored one of my favorite themes. The psychological effects of placing a reasonable man under the most unreasonable circumstances. The best examples follow his descent from a person contented in the protection afforded by society to a feral creature driven by the most primitive emotions and instincts. When the film released in 1971 when the social convention referred to as ‘political correctness’ was just gaining momentum. A corollary to this was women’s liberation that women must be treated equally and given the same respect afforded a man. That made filtering this story through the misogynist eyes of Mr. Peckinpah considered even more reprehensible. Such reactions not only did not deter the filmmaker, but he also viewed it as validation. Even in this politically correct society we live in, it stands as a film classic. This film has recently been recognized by the Criterion Collection inducted as one of their latest Blu-ray releases. Of course, that means that this will represent the most faithful reproduction of the audio and video possible, faithful to the filmmaker’s vision. Criterion continues with their standard of providing additional material tantamount to a course in cinematic studies.

David (Dustin Hoffman), an American mathematician moves to a small rural English town with his young wife Amy (Susan George). Amy is particularly excited as this was her hometown she has not visited for a considerable amount of time. For David, the move represents a significant paradigm shift from the familiar and orderly world of academia. He hopes the rural setting will provide the peace and tranquility he needs to continue work on his latest treatise. David is a pacifist and as with many theoretical types needs little from the world at large.in stark contrast Amy is very much an extrovert especially fond of using her considerable attractiveness to tease the local men. She walks around the house in various stages of undress knowing the workmen are watching. The group of workers has little more than disdain for the Yankee David. They see his reluctance to defend himself against their taunts as an unforgivable weakness. This group of testosterone riddle misfits led by Charlie (Del Henney), a man who needs to bully others to justify his existence. Things pick up when David and his wife hit a mildly retarded man, Henry (David Warner) who is suspected by the town as being responsible for the disappearance of a young local woman. When David brings the injured Henry home the workmen storm the home demanding they turn over Henry to them. What follows is a slowly escalating ride of terror for David and Amy. David has always prided himself for a logical mind and passive nature. Soon it becomes evident that these qualities, while admirable, will not be of any use to him in his current situation. He finds himself a man proud of his reason pushed beyond any reasonable means of resolving the conflict.

Casting is always important, but in this case, it is exemplary. Even with characters intended to be rather two dimensional the actors selected instilled their contributions with the necessary pervading tone of menace. It forwards the overall emotional environment considerably more than the stereotypical generic thugs that found work in every gangster flick ever made. Peckinpah is not known for creating female characters of any significant depth. Amy, as played by Ms. George is Peckinpah’s concept of a young, pretty woman, sexual but lacking the strength shown in men. Ms. George is a much better actress than this role shows. It provides little opportunity as a proper showcase for her talent to show through. Amy is naïve, seemingly unaware of the consequences of walking around in skimpy outfits while a group of men pushes each other into a frenzy of explicit sexual remarks. In a self-reinforcing group on the precipice of a mob mentality. The audience gets to know a little about David. He is a quiet man who just wants to be left alone to work. This exclusion often affects his wife who feels her marital needs are not satisfied by her husband. As the story progresses, we see a visible change in David. With an actor, the caliber of Hoffman this transmogrification occurs slowly, one degree at a time. We can see the external pressures build in David as Hoffman slowly changes his inflections and body language. Hoffman gets into the skin of his character, as few actors can achieve. Henney also suffers from the lack of character development afforded by his role. Here, a bully is a stick figure, driven only by the conflict between his macho attitudes and his insecurity. Warner fairs a little better in the role of Henry. His performance is reminiscent of Duval in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.' Henry is gentle and misunderstood without a clue as to why the world is against him.

Some sensible people would find great disdain if they were forced to live in a world created by director Sam Peckinpah. It is prone to sudden fits of extreme violence. His world is full of misogynistic attitudes and men are divided into two basic classes, real men, and wimps. Unlike other Peckinpah classics like ‘The Wild Bunch’ and the remake of ‘The Getaway,' this film does not rely on pervasive violence. In ‘Straw Man’ the violence slowly builds until it explodes at the end when David has exhausted all reasonable options. The audience sits by watching a fuse deliberately work its way to the explosives. Peckinpah takes great care in building the suspense slowly, pacing the film to perfection. Since most of the knowledge that Peckinpah films are violent, we needn’t guess at the outcome. The difference here is he forces us to wait as the tension mounts. The film starts off very slowly. The audience begins to feel uncomfortable. This feeling builds as the antagonism between David and Del grows. The view is a ride that we know ends in sudden and complete annihilation of values. We watch as the humane David becomes what he hates the most, an animalistic, violent man.

This is one of this filmmaker’s stylistic trademarks, his work best known for excessive violence, and in retrospect, fans may think they remember an unending string of violent acts with little letup. In a similar was that Hitchcock fans might convince you to see Marion slaughtered in the shower the scene is almost devoid of showing it. Mr. Peckinpah is a master of controlling the perception of the audience. During your viewing, there is the escalating violence but not the explicit necessity to flaunt it to the viewer. Peckinpah meticulously crafts an environment that is psychologically opposite to the physical appearance. The home is sufficiently ample, more than enough room for a couple. It is set on a comfortable plot of land yet as the animosity, and sexual tension escalates it feels like a claustrophobic cell. As you watch the story unfold there is a growing sense of dread on a visceral level inexorably enveloping you. This is one on the most notable differences between the violence as used by this director and the out of control violence that defined the grindhouse movies. Peckinpah is a master chef able to use violence as means to the argument the complexity of a fine meal. The typical grindhouse filmmaker comes across as someone drowning a perfectly marbled steak with ketchup. This is quite evident in this film. The principle motivation for the story is found in the character development. This pertains not only to David as he devolves from a cerebral man governed by high sensibilities and logic into a creature of rage and vengeance. There is also an important transformation seen in the antagonist, Charlie. Always the local bully he lived by his fists to the point that in most instances his reputation was sufficient to achieve cowering submission. Now he is challenged by a milquetoast, someone usually beneath his notice. His manhood was on the line, unproven by home invasion and rape Charlie realizes that this mild manner doctor has a formidable Mr. Hyde.

bulletAudio commentary from 2003 by Stephen Prince, author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies
bulletMantrap: Straw Dogs The Final Cut, a 2003 documentary about the making of the film, featuring cast and crew
bulletSam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, a 1993 documentary about the director featuring actors Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, Ali MacGraw, and many others
bulletNew conversation between film critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode, who worked as one of the editors on the film
bulletNew interview with film scholar Linda Williams about the controversies surrounding the film
bulletArchival interviews with actor Susan George, producer Daniel Melnick, and Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons
bulletBehind-the-scenes footage
bulletTV spots and trailers
bulletPLUS: An essay by scholar and critic Joshua Clover

Posted 3/22/03            06/22/2017

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