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USA 1969
Directed by
Sydney 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 during the Depression enters a competitive ballroom dance marathon 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 exploitative potential of capitalist machinery as the contestants sacrifice what little self-esteem they have in order to win the $1,500 prize money. Pollack delivers 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 and could have been omitted without loss.

The film belongs very much to Fonda who gives a touching performance and would go on in her next film to star in (and win an Oscar for) another iconic film of the period, Klute. Michael Sarrazin, an actor who slowly faded from view after this, plays her young farm-boy drifter partner whilst Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons and Susannah York deliver, besides Young, the main support performances.

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




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