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USA 1969
Directed by
Sidney Pollack
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

Although older than the young Turks, like Coppola, Scorsese and Friedkin whose names define this rich period of American film-making, Sydney Pollack’s first major film is one of the best of the era. Jane Fonda who had just starred in Barbarella (1968) shifts gear dramatically to play a desperate young woman, Gloria, who enters a competitive ballroom dance marathon during the Depression emceed by a fairground huckster played by Gig Young who won an Oscar for his troubles.

Made at the height of the counter-cultural 60s the film, scripted by Pollack with James Poe and Robert E. Thompson, is a deeply gloomy allegory of the dehumanising potential of capitalist machine as the contestants sacrifice what little they have in order to win the $1,500 prize money. Pollack delivers with some striking effects particularly in the first half of the film which really needs to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. The way in which he introduces Fonda, first heard as a voice then seen in close-up as the camera pans to the left is superb. Pollock also introduces some monotone flash-forwards into the tawdry carnivalesque proceedings, clearly intended to add to the fatalistic tone but these are less effective

The film belongs very much to Fonda who would go on the next year to star in another iconic film of the period, Klute. Michael Sarrazin, an actor who slowly faded from view after this, plays her young farmboy drifter partner whilst Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons and Susannah York deliver the main support performances.

They Shoot Horses Don't They? is a film some will dismiss as pverly tendentious. Certainly it unfols more didactically than organically but if you are in chime with its sensibilities you will appreciate its critical view of Western democratic materialism.

 

 

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