Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Forty-Five

#45 — They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969)
Sydney Pollack knew how to put together a movie. He was a favorite director of mine, despite the not insignificant detail that he didn’t make all that many great movies. By evidence of his work, he was more of a craftsman than a driven artist, beholden to the strengths and weaknesses of his chosen material rather than able to transform a script through imposition of his own simmering creative inclinations in the manner of a rough contemporary like Robert Altman. He didn’t transform cinema so much as honor it, building his films with visual ingenuity that was often deceptive in its intricacy, always managing to make the complicated appear simple. He got out of the way of his films, the way the dedicated artisans of a previous generation did. All those qualities led to a shrewdness and attention to detail that made most of his projects a little bit better than they likely would have been in other hands. And when he got a really good one, he was unlikely to fumble it. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is one of the really good ones.

Based on a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, Horses is set at a dance marathon contest during the Great Depression. The top prize is $1500, an enormous sum given the destitution spread across the nation like spilled motor oil, and the screenplay credited to James Poe and Robert E. Thompson mercilessly digs into the needling desperation inspired by the dangling fiscal bait. Pollack carries it to the viewer with a commitment to letting the film’s authenticity come from the performances, undoubtedly a remnant of his Hollywood beginnings as an actor. It’s a fine cast–Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Bonnie Bedilia, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons–but there are two clear standouts. One is Jane Fonda, already something of a veteran with about ten years of film work to her credit, including hits like Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park (not to mention the still-infamous Barbarella, released the year before), but the the levels of charismatic star power she brings to role are still thrilling to see. If Barbarella is the film that helped her decisively escape ingenue parts, then Horses can reasonably seen as one of her first opportunities to play a real adult, the sort of person hardened by life that would develop into her specialty in the next decade. There’s an even more memorable turn–an Oscar-winning performance, in fact–by Gig Young as the villainous, almost Mephistophelean master of ceremonies.

The ferocity of Young’s performance is instrumental to the film’s thematic heft, with his character standing in for the forces of authority that are always poised to grind younger generations (or any that are below them in the social pecking order, really) into oblivion, sometimes for apparently no other reason than their own amusement. It’s tempting to look at the copyright date and extrapolate They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as a commentary on the seismic battles between the insurgent counter-culture and the ossified establishment that took the election of Richard Nixon as a vote of confidence to dig in their heels against the onslaught of all these peacenik hippies. That may be exactly what Pollack and his collaborators had in mind, but I think the finished product offers far broader insights. On that dance floor, the participants are reflecting a more common experience, that of any life spent in toil, which is to say most of them. For a reward that seems sizable but is actually fairly meager in the larger scheme, they subject themselves to the seemingly unendurable, just like countless people out in the real world, away from mirrored balls and simulated folly. Pollack makes this clear, but he doesn’t hammer it home, operating with confidence that his storytelling will suffice to make the points. Like I noted at the top, he knew how to put together a movie.

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