Film Reviews

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Sydney Pollack

Rating - 7/10

Although a well-made film in its own right, Sydney Pollack's adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? takes too many progressive liberties with Horace McCoy's succinct narrative text to be considered of equal stature.  In complete fairness, however, any cognizant literary or film critic must assume the unfortunate position of scrutinizing of the classic existentialist novel in direct relation to James Poe's busier and renovated screenplay. Each is an important factor in the development of the art of translation; when analyzing resonance on the individual level, one should attempt to understand the limitations and advantages of the mediums in hopes of acquainting fellow audiences with the ultimate value of each form.

Occurring in 1933 Santa Monica, CA, at the peak of the marathon dance craze (where married couples and unacquainted social dancers alike would arduously swing and sway for hundreds of continuous hours for a cash reward), the film version of They Shoot Horses Don't They? begins in backwards correlation to the structure of the novel.  The opening frames accentuate lone main character and novel narrator, Robert Syverten (Michael Zarrazin) and the lucid dream-reminiscence of his childhood, his grandfather, and their farm horse Nellie.  The ambiguity of these scenes possess a daydream haziness, produced from a lens filter and a touch of ambient music, which provides a slight insight into the parallels to follow.  This sequence is recurrently intercut with a pensive Robert strolling along the shoreline listening to the auctioneer-like magniloquence of the master of the marathon dance ceremonies, Rocky Gravo.  Unlike McCoy's text which deliberately unravels the story in a more self-conscious past tense, Pollack's introductory methods are actually more beneficial to the amateur viewer.  In an attempt to raise the immediacy of events, the director adopts an historical present tense, a momentum more suited to the film format and kinetic events of the marathon dance itself.

Most noteworthy and apparent about Pollack's adaptation is the disregard of nearly all text subplots, particularly any concerning brawls and violence, the public wedding or disqualification of contestants, in favor of its own character development of aspiring actress Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York) and reinforced tension between Robert and the novel's most famous nihilist Gloria Beatty (a riveting Jane Fonda).  Although York's portrayal of the Alice character is engrossing and sympathetic, Pollack would have benefited from downplaying her role, instead utilizing a selection of those heated text-derived moments to enrich the morose thematic representations.  That isn't to say that the uneasiness is entirely absent, as it is effectively recreated during a couple "derby" montage sequences.  Split-second superimposition, jittery camera movements, and circular pans nourish audiences with a similar delirium of the marathon dance participants.  Related to the matter of preferential integration is the establishment of cohesive atmosphere, an obvious trade-off in adapting the written word to moving picture.  In text, McCoy needn't explain every detail of a scene or provide smooth segues between chapters, because his words can fixate on a singular frame, then leap to another effortlessly and break at will.  As a director, Pollack is forced to concurrently showcase the multifaceted minutiae of the entire dance.  His figurative operation of deep focus is often transferred to literal terms, and it consequently provides a film of this nature with verisimilitude.  In the 1969 Avon release of the McCoy's novel, Pollack has actually written a forward to the screenplay where he discusses the challenges of the conversion:

When a filmmaker stands a person on the screen, that character has breadth and depth simply by virtue of being seen, and those dimensions must be filled in with action and dialogue for the character not to seem hollow. So, invention was needed to make the characters fully three-dimensional without violating the spare, simple flavor which McCoy intended and which does contribute so much to the work's success.

In many respects, his confession would explain the reduced focus on the number of characters, expulsion of more haphazard events which exile contestants, and the primary expansion of Alice.  To complement the compact emphasis, Pollack retains and even amplifies the contrast of disposition between Robert and Gloria with scenes of physical separation as Gloria bitingly trades partners with Alice.

Other unfortunate changes to the film include the nonexistence of the Mother's League of Good Morals who attempt to disband the dance, dismissal of Robert's interest in the film industry, and lack of explanation to initial contest rules.  As a contrary supplement, further insight given to Rocky's fixation on Gloria, ravenously eyeing her in the film's more isolated moments.  Recognizing Gloria as a sharp contrast to the other pervasive "happy-go-lucky" women, Rocky cunningly pursues her dejected soul.  These added exchanges strengthen a subplot toward the end of the film that prominently reveals Rocky as a shyster, charging the winners laundry and medical fees.  While absent from the novel, this creative adjunct contributes to Gloria's grand realization, or more appropriately, fatal epiphany.  In highlighting the antagonism between Rocky and Gloria, Pollack extracts the more subtle emotions of Gloria's character, adding dimension as Jane Fonda assumes the role well for such a seemingly one-note resentful presence.  In many circumstances, the application of stark misanthropy would border of self-parody but Fonda maintains a steady contemptuous disposition and characterization throughout the film without any pretense of happiness.

In either format, They Shoot Horses Don't They? represents a specific period in the Great Depression, a time of severe desperation when society remained in a seemingly perpetual disoriented state; both the film and novel are effective in delivering a reciprocal existentialist philosophy.  The marathon dance acts as a central metaphor for the "dance" of life, and through the motions exists an everlasting berating, conspiracy, and competitive animosity.  Pollack concludes his dissertation on the screenplay with a profound quote concerning the worldwide influence of the novel and his adapted film.  "It is the perfect allegory, a perfect microcosm of existence as seen through McCoy's eyes."  With a previous narrative renaissance evident in films like Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, and currently in a time of recession in America, McCoy's novel and Pollack's film may resonate stronger with today's literati and philosophers than it ever has before.