Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Straw Dogs (1971 film)
Based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams, Straw Dogs is the story of an American mathematician who moves to a small English town with his wife where they’re later terrorized by locals that includes a former flame of his wife as it leads to trouble. Directed by Sam Peckinpah and screenplay by Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, the film is a study of a man trying to live a peaceful life only to be confronted by the darkest aspects of humanity in a world he has very little clue about. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. Straw Dogs is a harrowing yet visceral film from Sam Peckinpah.
Set in this small town in England, the film revolves around a couple who move into the place where it’s the hometown of the wife as she and her American husband become terrorized by some of its locals that would include a former flame of hers. It’s a film that isn’t just about a home invasion but a man being tested to do whatever it takes to protect himself and his wife as the former is seen as an outsider who has managed to rub the locals the wrong way without intending to. Especially as he’s just this mild-mannered mathematician that is more concerned with living a quiet life and writing a book. Yet, his attempts to socialize and befriend these locals only cause troubles in his marriage as the reappearance of his wife’s old flame would be the catalyst for chaos. The screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman isn’t just an exploration of what a man will do to fight back but also deal with being a total outsider in this strange world. The protagonist David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is this intellect that is trying to escape from the world of conventional society for something that is simple and with very little distraction.
By going to the hometown of his wife Amy (Susan George), Sumner thinks he’s made the right choice but a series of small incidents would come into play as the men he’s hired to build his garage and do things around his home would be troubling as one of them is Amy’s former boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney). While Sumner would gain a few friends in a former officer and a mentally-handicapped villager in Henry Niles (David Warner). His encounters with some of the locals that include the local drunkard Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) is suspicious about Sumner because he’s an outsider. The Sumner character is also someone that isn’t keen on being confrontational while he does get frustrated with what is happening around him as he and Amy start to bicker. Even as things start to happen towards the course of the story where it is clear Amy is hiding something from him that eventually leads to this home invasion led by Venner and Hedden over an incident that doesn‘t relate to the Sumners.
Peckinpah’s direction is restrained at first for the most part though it does have shots of blatant sexuality as it relates to Amy’s beauty and the fact that she often never wears a bra. Peckinpah makes no qualms in how he would present women as sexual beings even though he doesn’t see Amy as just that but a full-fledge character who is just attractive and manages to get men to look at her. Still, Peckinpah is more about that sense of this outsider arriving into a world that he has very little clue about where he uses some wide and medium shots to play into that sense of disconnect as well as Sumner’s attempt to be part of it no matter how awkwardly he tries to socialize with the locals. Peckinpah’s approach to the drama is very simple while he also would play into the suspense as it relates to a series of small events that would shake up the Sumners. One notable sequence in the film’s second act that involves an encounter between Amy and Venner as well as a friend of Venner while Sumner is at the countryside for a hunt. It’s a moment that marks a major plot-point for the film where a lot has changed as the tone of the film would get darker.
Notably in this harrowing climax as it relates to the home invasion that the Sumners would endure as well as what Sumner would learn about what happened to his wife that would eventually drive him to the edge. It is definitely one of the scariest and most violent climaxes Peckinpah has created with its array of camera angles and compositions that play into that sense of terror. Overall, Peckinpah creates a riveting and terrifying film about a mild-mannered man being forced to the edge to protect his wife.
Cinematographer John Coquillon does brilliant work with the film‘s low-key yet hazy cinematography with its usage of the fog for some of the scenes at night as well as the grayness in some of the locations set in England as it help sets the eerie tone of the film in its interior/exterior settings. Editors Paul Davies, Tony Lawson, and Roger Spottiswoode do amazing work with the editing with its stylish usage of jump-cuts, slow-motion cuts, superimposed dissolves, and montages to play into the sense of memory and violence that the Sumners would encounter. Production Ray Simm and art director Ken Bridgeman do excellent work with the look of the Sumners home as well as the pub where many of the locals socialize at.
Sound editors Garth Craven and Norman Savage do superb work with the sound from the quieter moments in the film as well as some of the tense moments involving guns and breaking glass. The film’s music by Jerry Fielding is wonderful for its low-key orchestral score that play into the drama and suspenseful moments while some of the music is mainly traditional as well as a Scottish record that Sumner owns.
The casting by Miriam Brickman is fantastic as it include some small roles from Colin Welland as the local bishop, Peter Arne as Niles’ brother John, Cherina Schaer as the bishop’s wife, Len Jones as Hedden’s son Bobby, Sally Thomsett as Hedden’s daughter in the flirtatious Janice, T.P. McKenna as Major John Scott who befriends Sumner, and David Warner in an un-credited performance as Henry Niles as a mentally-handicapped man whom Sumner befriends and would later try to protect. Ken Hutchison, Donald Webster, and Jim Norton are terrific in their roles as three men who would work for Sumner only to do some very bad things as they would later try and terrorize the Sumner home as one of them is a friend of Venner. Del Henney is excellent as Charlie Venner as an old flame of Amy who wants to rekindle their love only to cause some trouble and later take part in the home invasion.
Peter Vaughan is brilliant as Tom Hedden as a local drunkard who doesn’t really like Sumner as he thinks Sumner is better than everyone while also have some disdain towards Henry Niles because he’s different. Susan George is amazing as Amy Sumner as this woman who is trying to make sense of what her husband wants as well as do things to antagonize some of the locals where she would eventually put herself in serious trouble. Finally, there’s Dustin Hoffman in an incredible performance as David Sumner as this mild-mannered mathematician that isn’t keen on confrontation as he tries to conduct his life without bothering anyone until he is being pushed to the edge where he is forced to act and defend himself and his wife anyway he can.
Straw Dogs is a phenomenal film from Sam Peckinpah that features a great performance from Dustin Hoffman. Along with a great supporting cast, eerie visuals, and some intense moments that isn’t for everyone. It’s a film that explores not just some of the dark aspects of humanity but also what it would take for a man to venture into that world. In the end, Straw Dogs is a spectacular film from Sam Peckinpah.
Sam Peckinpah Films: The Deadly Companions - Ride the High Country - Major Dundee - Noon Wine - The Wild Bunch - The Ballad of Cable Hogue - Junior Bonner - The Getaway - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - The Killer Elite - Cross of Iron - Convoy - The Osterman Weekend - The Auteurs #62: Sam Peckinpah
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