They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

****

Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

In the dark days of the Great Depression desperate souls would drive themselves to the limits of human endurance in dance marathons.

Some contestants hoped against hope that they would be spotted by a Hollywood talent scout. Others just focussed on the cash prize that would be theirs if they were the last left standing.

All the while, contestants were driven on by ruthless MCs and the cries of the crowd, many briefly escaping from their own misery by enjoying the contestants' even greater despair.

Adapted from Horace McCoy's novel - said to be an influence on Albert Camus's L'Etranger - They Shoot Horses, Don't They? tells the story of one of these contests through four couples.

Gloria (Jane Fonda) and Robert (Michael Sarrazin) have only just met, Robert stepping in when Gloria's partner was barred from the marathon due to illness. Gloria is hard-edged and bitter, Robert aimless and idealistic.

Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields) look like movie stars - Jean Harlow and Ramon Navarro respectively - and hope to use the contest as their ticket to the big time.

James (Bruce Dern) and Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) are expecting a baby and need the prize money.

Sailor (Red Buttons) and his partner are older than the rest, but hope their greater experience will see them through.

Goaded by the cynical, venal Rocky (Gig Young), the contestants are driven to breaking point, with tragic consequences...

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is the sort of film you can't imagine being made in Hollywood nowadays. Existential angst, a story arc that's clearly heading downwards and a caustic view of our voyeuristic, even sadistic, impulses, don't make for feel-good eye candy.

Yet, in spite of this and other deliberate unpleasantness - such as the harsh dancehall lighting that makes anyone in the spotlight into a sickly grey apparition, or the limited, almost expressionistic colour palette, with greens and blues almost entirely absent from the dancehall scenes that make up the bulk of the picture - They Shoot Horses, Don't They is a compelling film.

The performances are uniformly excellent, the actors - desperate, hungry, fraught, close to breakdown - live their roles.

Director Pollack's pacing is deliberate. Just when you've had enough of the dance hall sequences, he throws in a disarming flash-forward, chronicling a death foretold, or pulls out all the stops for a bravura "derby" dance-sprint, as exhausting for the viewer as it must have been for the participants.

Not a happy film but a good one, worthy of its nine Oscar nominations.

Reviewed on: 07 Jun 2001
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Depression dance marathon drama.
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Director: Sydney Pollack

Writer: James Poe, Robert E Thompson, based on the novel by James McCoy

Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Al Lewis

Year: 1969

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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