Saturday, December 31, 2011

 

"I never claimed to be one of the 'involved'" — Straw Dogs Part II


(WARNING: This post contains spoilers throughout for Sam Peckinpah's original 1971 film of Straw Dogs, which marked
its 40th anniversary Thursday. If you haven't seen it and plan to at some point, best not to read this.)

By Edward Copeland
We left off Part I of my Straw Dogs tribute as I was setting up the main players. If you're starting here by accident, click here to go back to Part I first. I also should note, which I failed to do in Part I (though I doubt its specific omission confused any reader) that I'm writing about Sam Peckinpah's 1971 original, not the recent remake which I haven't seen and don't plan to since it violates my rule on remakes: Don't remake films unless the original contained such big flaws that it allowed for improvement, but people seldom remake the bad or the mediocre. Two rare examples where filmmakers remade mediocre or OK originals and ended up with superior versions are Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and the Coens' True Grit. Of course, the most famous case belongs to The Maltese Falcon which they didn't get right until the third try directed by John Huston after the awful 1931 version and the strange 1936 adaptation called Satan Met a Lady that changed nearly every detail of the story. Warren Beatty redid Here Comes Mr. Jordan as Heaven Can Wait and it ended up almost as a draw. The most unique case of all happens to be when a very good movie, 1931's The Front Page, got transformed by Howard Hawks into one of greatest comedies of all-time, His Girl Friday. I have to admit — I've enjoyed immensely watching the unnecessary remakes of great films such as Arthur and Fright Night sink like a stone this year. You're probably wondering why I'm wasting so much space in an article about Straw Dogs discussing these other films. That's because despite the spoiler warning at the beginning, some of the art will give things away as well and I wanted to put as much distance between the beginning of Part II and the important stuff as I could since I know how hard it is for some people to use willpower to avoid ruining things they shouldn't know about in a film before they've seen it. Now, I feel I can get back to Straw Dogs after the jump. (FYI: According to IMDb, the 1971 Straw Dogs had an estimated budget of $3,251,794 and worldwide gross of $11,148,828 (and that's largely 1971-72 ticket prices); the 2011 Straw Dogs, according to Box Office Mojo, had a production budget of $25 million and a worldwide gross (at 2011 ticket prices) of $10,324,441.)


Straw Dogs contains few light-hearted moments as it is, but as the film progresses they grow scarce as the tension tightens. The players have arrived, but we aren't sure how they figure in the game yet. Who is Henry Niles and how will he figure into anything when he shows up in the form of actor David Warner? Should we be wary of more of the villagers than just Norman Scutt, Chris Cawsey and perhaps Tom Hedden? Is Charlie Venner trying to be friendly or does he want to rekindle whatever he used to have with Amy? That will happen, but for that first night, the Sumners continue to have a playful marriage as Amy yells for David to come to bed already, since he has spent hours at work in his study. He doesn't notice that outside the study window, Janice Hedden spies on him, The teenage girl gets surprised by her brother Bobby, who wraps his arms around her. (The two have an unusually close relationship it seems to me.) "Do you fancy him?" Bobby asks his sister, who admits she thinks David is "sweet in a way." As David takes a cup and teapot to the kitchen, the Hedden siblings hike onto the roof. In what may be the most purely comical bit of physical acting Dustin Hoffman (or anyone for that matter) gets to do in Straw Dogs. As David shouts up to Amy, inquiring if she wants him to bring her anything, he throws, tosses and flings fruits and tomatoes at their cat who he clearly disdains. Some pieces he rolls as if he's bowling and as he's leaving the kitchen, he even lobs one behind his back. It's funny since the cat never gets hurt and Hoffman's expression never changes while he's doing it.



The cat beats David to the bedroom, taking refuge in her bed. Amy lies under the covers, a miniature chessboard on her lap and a book on chess tips in her hands, contemplating what move she should make next against David. He bets her that he can get undressed and do his bedtime exercises (which consists of jumping rope 100 times) before she makes her next move. As she notices how fast he strips, Amy accuses him of cheating so he speeds through his rope jumping and leaps into bed. Amy doesn't believe he did 100, but David says he was using binary numbers. It doesn't matter because Amy makes her move and puts David in check. His response is to close the chess set and start some foreplay — unaware that the Hedden brother and sister hold each other creepily close as they act as voyeurs. David disappears beneath the covers, telling Amy he's looking for a chess piece. "I think I found a rook," he tells her. Peckinpah does another quick insert here as we very briefly pay a visit to the pub where Scutt taunts Venner with the panties that Cawsey stole. We then return to Amy and David's bedroom where they continue their love play, which Amy certainly seems to be enjoying.

Starting at this point in Straw Dogs, characters begin to act without confirmation while the film deprives others crucial information that the audience knows, but they don't. Peckinpah seems to echo this in the editing style as well as events begin to happen that make the viewer feel as if he or she has missed some scenes. The night before, when we last saw Amy and David, they were enjoying each other when the screen faded to black. The next morning, we find them arguing in the studying. "I was just trying to help," Amy tells her husband. David's tone indicates the fight has been going on awhile as he suggests that if Amy wants to help, she'll get her friends to finish the work on the garage and leave him to his work. She gets up and draws a line with a piece of chalk through his formula, pissing David off further. "Don't play games with me. Don't do it, Amy," David threatens as she finally sticks a glob of gum on the board and leaves. The scene comes as a shock since nothing seems to have foreshadowed it, but the fragmentation has a purpose as we will see as more things develop. For we'll see that pretty much everyone plays a game of some sort. The movie goes from that scene to yet another cut of omission with Amy driving back to the farmhouse. No setup had been given to explain when she left or why — she just storms out of the study and then returns to the farmhouse. What occurred in between remains a mystery, but the scene does call back to the opening one with that inexplicable close-up of her walking braless down a village street. When she parks the car, we get a scene that could be interpreted two ways. Amy notices that her panty hose have developed a run and examines them, unwittingly giving Venner, Scutt, Cawsey and Riddaway a glimpse of her panties. Then again, perhaps she showed her legs and underwear purposely. It earns a tip of the hat from Cawsey, but it causes her to go inside and complain to David in a very important piece of dialogue.
AMY: They were practically licking my body.
DAVID: Who?
AMY: Venner and Scutt
DAVID: I congratulate them on their taste.
AMY: Damn rat catcher staring at me.
DAVID: Why don't you wear a bra?.
AMY: Why should I?
DAVID: You shouldn't go around without one and not expect that kind of stare.

It's illustrative in this case only of the Sumners, but all the characters in Straw Dogs want to have it both ways. Those who viewed the film as being about how men must embrace their inner beast to be real men got the underlying message wrong. People who thought that because Amy parades around without a bra and does other exhibitionist activities meant she secretly wanted to be raped got that wrong as well. First and foremost, Straw Dogs is a thriller, but it is a thriller with a message — that everyone's a hypocrite. Each character — from Dustin Hoffman's math professor to Susan George as his flirtatious wife, from the mischievous teen Janice to the various thuggish locals — wants to have it both ways on almost everything. The figurative straw dogs in Straw Dogs believe that's what's good for the goose is only good for the goose and the gander should back the hell off. That's how a thug such as Norman Scutt can rape Amy, but then help lead a lynch mob to find Henry Niles because they suspect he has molested or hurt Janice Hedden. The David-Amy argument goes on, as Amy accuses David of refusing to commit to anything, though they eventually make up but then, as if she hasn't learned a thing, she goes upstairs to take a shower, dropping her shirt down to David. He tells her to shut the curtains, but she doesn't, given Venner and the other workers a nice look at her naked bosom.

It isn't really mocking intellectuals either because every character belittles someone to prove their superiority. In one scene, Amy asks David what binary numbers are and he starts to give an explanation, but she figures out the rest, to which he responds, "You're not so dumb." With the exception of Henry Niles, who is mentally challenged in some way, every character in the movie finds someone to taunt. Even Reverend Hood (Colin Welland) takes a potshot at Tom Hedden during the church social.
REVEREND HOOD: And now for my next trick, the piece de resistance, I present to you an empty glass. I will now fill this glass with milk.
CAWSEY: Would it work better with whiskey, Vicar?
REVEREND HOOD: Nothing works better with whiskey.
TOM: I do.
REVEREND HOOD: You've never worked a day in your life, Tom.

That really, I believe, was Peckinpah's intention in using the title. Everyone selects their weaker argument (in this case, person) to knock down so they substitute themselves as the superior. Occasionally, it takes the actual form of arguments as when Maj. Scott bring Rev. Hood and his wife to the Sumners and David tries to describe his work and it turns into a discussion of the bloody record of the church that gets them to leave quickly.

DAVID: I'm an astral mathematician.
HOOD: Never heard of it.
DAVID: That's because I just made it up. I have a grant to study possible structures in stellar interiors and the implications regarding their radiation characteristics.
HOOD: Radiation. That's an unfortunate dispensation.
DAVID: Surely is. Yes, indeed.
HOOD: As long as it's not another bomb.
[beat]
HOOD: You're a scientist — can you deny the responsibility?
DAVID: Can you?
[beat]
DAVID: After all, there's never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Christ.



Peckinpah's direction and his editing team ratchet the tension up to a boiling point, especially during the film's most controversial sequence. Venner and the other workers take David out on his first hunt (though you have to ask why he's willing to go since at this point he knows that one of them hung their pet cat to death and left her in their bedroom closet.


While David sits bored silly out in the country alone like a fool holding a shotgun, Charlie Venner sneaks back to the farmhouse to see Amy. The scene definitely begins as a rape as Amy resists Venner who smacks her around and rips her clothing. Somehow during the course of this, her attitude changes — they did have a past after all — and she even seizes part of the initiative. (It's interesting though that while they have their encounter, she has flashbacks to her encounter with her husband.)


The sequence becomes a sexual assault when Scutt enters with a shotgun. Venner shakes his head, silently urging him not to do it, but Scutt forces him to pin Amy's arms as Scutt sodomizes her, What's happening to Amy gets intercut with David who actually successfully kills a bird, but the act repulses him and he tries wiping the blood off. After they left him stranded, David decides to fire them all the next day — Amy never tells him what happened, so David doesn't realize what an inconsiderate asshole he comes home and starts attacking her over the conduct of her "friends," the workers.













They go to the church social where Amy starts having flashbacks and David decides to take her home. At the same time, Janice, who constantly teases Henry Niles, has left with him, causing an uproar. She takes him to a place and asks if he's ever kissed a girl and he says no and she kisses him. Henry gets frightened when he hears the mob searching for him and accidentally kills Janice, in a way reminiscent of Lennie with Curly's wife in Of Mice and Men and Frankenstein and the little girl by the pond. Niles flees and what brings everything together happens when David strikes Henry with his car. Feeling responsible, he takes the injured man back to the farmhouse and tries to find the doctor. The lynch mob laid siege to the farmhouse (even though they have no idea about Janice's fate) and Maj. Scott arrives to try to bring things to an end but gets shot to death by Tom instead. What's truly amazing about the climactic siege is that it lasts 35 minutes. As great as Jerry Fielding's score is, most of the climax actually plays without any music. David doesn't have any usual weapons (except Chekhov's mantrap hanging on the wall) and as the mathematician begins thinking of ways to fight back, it's difficult not to think of Walter White and Breaking Bad. At one point, as Scutt tries to break in through a window, David puts a knife to his throat as he binds his hands to the window with wire. He asks Scutt if he's hurting him. My neck's on some glass," Scutt tells him. "Good. I hope you slit your throat," David tells him. He boils alcohol on the stove and flings it on some of the marauders. When you see some of the villager's actions, especially when Cawsey takes to wearing a fake red nose, it's difficult not to picture them as droogs out of A Clockwork Orange. Amy stays torn, wanting to just give Niles to them.

AMY: David, give Niles to them. That's what they want. They just want him. Give them Niles, David!
DAVID: They'll beat him to death.
AMY: I don't care! Get him out!
DAVID: You really don't care, do you?
AMY: No, I don't.
DAVID: No. I care. This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house.

When, against the odds, David has offed all the intruders, he looks at Amy and says, "Jesus. I got 'em all!" It's clear though that he and Amy probably are finished. As a viewer, you breathe a sigh of relief that one of tensest 30+ minute sequences on film have come to an end. David gathers Niles and puts him in his car to drive him to a doctor and lead to a perfect summation.

HENRY: I don't know my way home.
DAVID: "It's OK. I don't either.

While The Wild Bunch remains Peckinpah's lasting achievement, it's unfortunate that Straw Dogs, which may be his second best film, languished so long as a turkey, not because the movie failed to meet basic standards of good filmmaking but rather because Straw Dogs became a victim of its time. It was attacked unfairly for having attributes it didn't but those diatribes prevented its assessment purely as a film instead of a polemic. If I'd had more time, I'd be curious if Dustin Hoffman ever spoke at length about the film. Can anyone imagine that he would have agreed to appear in Straw Dogs if it truly were the film its 1971 critics accused it of being?

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Comments:
Excellent examination of this Sam Peckinpah classic, Ed. You certainly gave it a thorough and thoroughly keen interpretation. I happen to be old enough (high school), barely given its rating at the time, to have seen this first-run. A few weeks back, I teed up the Blu-ray Disc of this and remained mesmerized by what transpires on the screen. The film's has lost none of its power in the four decades since its landing. Spot on point you made regarding Walter White and 'Breaking Bad' and this. Kudos. Well done, my friend. Thanks.
 
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