1970s, 4/4, Review, Sam Peckinpah, Thriller

Straw Dogs

#3 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.

Having gained a reputation for drunkenness, cantankerousness, and massive cost and schedule overruns, Sam Peckinpah met the only thing that could get producers to stop overlooking his personality flaws: financial failure. The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a wonderful, gentle character film, was met with indifference by Warner Brothers’ marketing team who gave it an unenthusiastic release that guaranteed financial doom, and Peckinpah had to look elsewhere to find the funding for his next film. He found it in England when he chose to adapt the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams in a script by David Zeleg Goodman and Peckinpah himself. His first non-western, it returned Peckinpah to his ultraviolent reputation, gained on The Wild Bunch, and he added in some extra sexual assault for good measure.

If there’s one motif that Peckinpah kept returning to again and again, it was men out of time. Up until this point in his career that manifested as men watching the world pass them by and move forward, but here it’s a man seemingly going backwards in time. David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), given a grant to pursue his mathematical research and to get away from the violence of the modern world (early 1970s America) goes to England with his young wife Amy (Susan George) and the small rural community where she grew up. The whole town views David as an outsider, and even Amy has been gone long enough that she’s removed from the community itself. Her re-entry point is an old flame, Charlie (Del Henney), an obvious contrast to David.

David, an academic, is a small, nebbish man who removes himself from the outside world into his study where he looks for all the comforts and for Amy to bring him food while he tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to remove the distractions of the outside world to do precise, mental work. Charlie, in contrast, is a tall man who works with his hands, hired by David to help the pair of local men to finish the garage he and Amy want done. Does she harbor some kind of feeling for the more handsome of the pair? She pushes him away and makes it clear that she has no interest, but brash young men are not easily put off, especially when she never wears a bra in town and ends up blithely walking around topless inside her house in a way that she knows those outside will see in an act of defiance against her husband.

The relationship between Amy and David is one of the real strengths of the film, and it’s because it’s multi-faceted and feels very real. On the one hand, they are obviously in love and enjoy each other’s company, such as in their first scene in bed where they compete over a chess game, and the other side is some friction between the two about the nature of their lives in England, in particular about Amy’s idea that David came to England to run away. Her view of her husband is complicated. She loves him, but she obviously views him as something of a coward, maybe even less than a man. In a place like a university in America in the 1970s, that might not have been a huge issue, but finding themselves in rural England, where most people make their lives with their hands, that difference becomes more apparent.

The central parts of this film are two, and the first is the one that gives the film its reputation. After someone kills the couple’s cat and hangs it by the neck in their closet, an episode that the two have conflicting ideas of how to approach the workmen since one of them obviously did it, the four men working on David’s garage invite him out into the countryside for duck hunting where they leave him. Charlie returns to the house where he forces himself upon Amy over her objections. When he’s finished, Scutt (Ken Hutchison) shows up and, at gun point, forces himself on Amy as well. It’s not a pleasant scene, and Amy doesn’t know how to react to it all afterwards. Does she confide in the husband that she sees as a coward, who can’t even confront men about a dead cat? Does she still have feelings for him? Does she have feelings for Charlie?

She never tells David though, but he decides to fire the four anyway because of how they treated him. He sees that something is wrong with Amy through his own anger, but she doesn’t communicate with him. When they go to the church social, he protects her despite her effort at keeping things normal even with the two men who raped her laughing and drinking just over her shoulder.

The center of the final half of the film is the character Henry Niles (David Warner, uncredited because of insurance reasons, it seems), a young man with a problematic past that never gets explained but probably involves some form of sex crime, whom the town looks at with suspicion and borderline violence, especially Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughn), Charlie’s uncle and father to two young teenagers, most importantly Janice (Sally Thomsett). Janice has an unrequited affection for David, and when he rebuffs her, she goes to Henry, pulling him away from the social gathering. Her absence becomes known, her departure with Henry is told, and the young men of the town, led by Hedden, get their blood up. When David accidentally hits Henry with his car in the fog and takes him home to recover until the police and doctor arrive, we have our final showdown.

The bulk of this film is character-based storytelling about a man who ran away from conflict being forced into conflict by circumstance and the need for acceptance from his wife. He steadily stands his ground, and the key to that journey is Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner. There was apparently an effort to get Elliot Gould for the part, and I’m not sure he would have played the role as well as Hoffman did. David, as performed by Hoffman, is a man so out of his depth when confronting larger, physical men that his voice cracks at the strain of it when it’s just firing them. That makes the finale all the more harrowing as the five men zero in on the farm and demand to be let in to take Henry.

The situation escalates, and David keeps his head, finding his own strength, all while Amy demands that they simply give up Henry. This is David becoming the man she wants, and it’s unclear if they still love each other by the end.

Susan George is really pretty (it’s obvious that Peckinpah had a type, short and pretty blondes), and she’s another great performance. She balances several emotions just under the surface, and she breathes real life in Amy, a role that could have been much thinner in the wrong actor’s hands.

The actual assault on the house is one of the great sequences in the thriller genre. It’s an extended, elaborate, and easy to comprehend progression of events as things just get worse and worse, as the five get deeper and deeper into their drunken actions while David realizes that he’s reached a point of no return where it’s kill or be killed. It also has one of the most unusual examples of Chekov’s Gun I’ve seen, and it’s played really well (I’m fairly certain Edgar Wright references this all but explicitly in Hot Fuzz, especially considering the name-dropping of Straw Dogs).

This is a great thriller, Peckinpah’s best film up to this point in his career. This is the best combination of his ability to work with characters and actors and his strong handle on violence with a purpose. It’s uncomfortable at times, extremely and intentionally so, and it provides no easy answers to his character questions. There are no easily tied bows at the end here. It’s messy, brutal, and bloody, and nobody comes out clean.

Rating: 4/4


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