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Straw Dogs: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George

Written by David Z. Goodman and Sam Peckinpah
From the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm
by Gordon Williams

Directed by Sam Peckinpah

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Review by Damon Houx                    

Prominent and perky nipples rubbing against a white wool sweater.

This is how the audience is introduced to Susan George's Amy Sumner in Sam Peckinpah's 1971 film Straw Dogs. It's somewhat shocking, feasibly erotic, and inarguably provocative. Is she a sex object, a tease, or merely cold? All we know is that she is quite obviously bra-less and married to David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman). But crossing the boundaries of "good taste" and provoking his audience was nothing new to Sam Peckinpah. With this — his most insightful and inciting film — he took audiences places where they would not feel comfortable.

Straw Dogs was made when Peckinpah's was at the height of his power and popularity as an artist. Having begun his career in Hollywood as a production assistant and dialogue director, he found a home working as a writer and director on TV westerns like "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman." In 1961 he made his first motion picture with The Deadly Companions, but it was his next film — 1962's Ride the High Country — that made his reputation as a western director and set the tone for all of his later genre work. It's about the end of the era of these gunslingers, and this theme carried over to 1969's The Wild Bunch, which has become renowned as his masterpiece and remains one of the most influential westerns ever (it took 20 years for anyone to come close to replicating the beauty, chaos, and horror of his action scenes — that person being, in this reviewer's estimation, John Woo).

The Wild Bunch was followed by the mellower Ballad of Cable Houge in 1970, with Straw Dogs arriving the next year. Peckinpah found commercial success with his adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Getaway in 1972, followed by a brief partnership with Steve McQueen leading the same year's Junior Bonner. Like The Wild Bunch, 1973's Pat Garret and Billy the Kid was re-edited to get an R-rating, and at some point it was taken out of Peckinpah's hands (like many of his films). Peckinpah was known as a troublemaking director, a man who often got into fights with his producers. During the '70s he also developed a drug problem, compounding his rampant alcoholism. The next couple of years led to some interesting but minor films and gun-for-hire projects, but the drug abuse and growing paranoia lead to a decline — and eventually his early death in 1984 at the age of 59.

Trouble followed or was invited by Peckinpah at every step of his career. Straw Dogs was no exception — it was trimmed to get an "R," banned in England for 30 years, and Pauline Kael most famously called it "the first American film that is a fascist piece of art." This is due not only to the subject matter of the piece, but because of two key scenes, one featuring rape (or violent sex) and the other featuring murder (or justifiable homicide), depending on how we look at it.

*          *          *

Straw Dogs follows David and Amy Sumner as they relocate to a small Cornish village — where Amy grew up — so David can research experimental mathematics. Upon their arrival, Amy runs into Charlie Venner (Del Tenney), whom she used to date. Though Amy feels at home, David is out of place among the more masculine men in town, in particular local trouble-maker Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan). He also finds it hard to address things that bother him — like how long it's taking Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchinson) to finish the garage roof. And when David and Amy are alone together, it's obvious that their marriage is not healthy. He doesn't respect her intelligence and often exhibits passive-aggressive behavior with her (and others, like Scutt). When Amy wants to have sex, David finds himself easily distracted.

Noting that Venner has an interest in his wife, it seems odd that David invites him and one of his friends to work on the roof. But he does (one might interpret this as a classist way to invoke authority), joining Scutt and Chris Cawsey (Jim Norton), the ratcatcher. But once the boys start working together, Amy's cat is found hung dead in their closet. And when she wants David to question the boys on who did it, he instead gets them to help hang a bear trap in the living room. The turning point for everyone occurs when David accepts an invitation to go hunting — meanwhile, Charlie goes back to the house to seduce/rape Amy.

There are pleas, denials, and some slapping — but Amy has sex with Venner, only to have Scutt show up and insist (at gunpoint) he get his turn. Amy never addresses this to David, but she seems in great emotional distress about it and soon connects the rape to her sexual encounters with David. As the two try to go about their lives, Amy suffers but keeps quiet. Things get even worse after David accidentally hits the town pedophile Henry Niles (David Warner, in an unbilled performance) with his car and brings him home. What David doesn't know is that Henry disappeared with Tom Hedden's daughter, and she's now missing. And once back at the Sumner home, Tom and the boys show up, insisting they be given Henry to deal with as they may. It's at this point that David (finally) takes a stand.

*          *          *

It is this third-act violence in Straw Dogs that most closely ties into Peckinpah's other work, though there are hints and connections throughout, particularly with westerns, that are hard to ignore (the film opens — in a similar vein as the opening of The Wild Bunch — with children playing in a cemetery). Dogs features much of their furnishings: There's the "other" (in this case the locals) and the sexual threat associated with them, the pacifist called to violence to protect himself and his own (a common western theme since Destry Rides Again), and the siege that forces the innocent to protect the homestead.

However, although they're the films that made Peckinpah's career (and perhaps this is what was so objectionable at the time of it's release), Straw Dogs shouldn't be interpreted as a western. In fact, it can be a tenuous connection: Genre elements may be apparent, but Peckinpah mercilessly undercuts the heroics of them. In this case. the true "other" is obviously David. He's the outsider; he's the thing that upsets the social code of the village, and the social code of marriage. And the conclusion, which has David protecting a man (that only the audience knows is guilty) from a mob (who also doesn't know that he's guilty) is an odd collection of moral rights and wrongs, especially when, in one of David's final acts of violence, he is no longer defending his home but rather his role as husband/protector.

What strikes many viewers is that David accepts violence, and it's violence that makes him "more of a man." When he's introduced, it's as someone who shirks away from violence — he witnesses a belligerent Tom Hedden take what he wants by force (in this case, a beer), and his response is to cower and cross his legs. But David's pacifism is a front; he is mean and belittling to his wife (one suspects that their relationship was formed in the classroom), and to the local priest as well. His violence is usually verbal, but it is a facet of his character. Once he engages in the hunt, he is able to kill. Yet when he's made aware of the reality of violence (in handling a dead duck), he's ashamed. David realizes that proving one's virility is something done not to appease women, but other men — which is what alienates him from both his wife and the other villagers, who are lewd and a bit intimidating but not all that "other." Does the violence make him a man?

It would be easy to take one's cues from what Peckinpah has said: For all the bad things Venner and Scutt do, Peckinpah has described David as the heavy of Straw Dogs. But because of the events of the final section, and the violent actions of Tom Hedden, it's hard not to sympathize with Dustin Hoffman's character — especially after he has made a career out of complicated roles who are sympathetic in spite of themselves (Benjamin Braddock, Ratso Rizzo). Which turns back to idea of the last act as a rite, although the final event has so much pathos, and the idea that murder somehow makes David an iron man seems absurd. Like a lot of his previous actions, his breaking point isn't caused by the problem at hand but rather by issues that lie just under the surface.

*          *          *

Because of the rape scene, some have argued that Straw Dogs is misogynist (though one could just as easily argue that Peckinpah is an equal opportunity misanthrope), a point of view bolstered by the introduction of Amy via her nipples. But Amy, like David, is invested in appearances. She wants his attention and approval. At one point she flashes Venner, but it's more to get back at David than to turn Venner on. When Venner finally does get her alone, she protests and get slapped around. It's hard to watch, in particular because her protests have as much to do with the violence of the act as they do for the sake of her marriage. But there is no denying that part of her wants Venner, which, for some, makes her (and Peckinpah) complicit.

In her famous review, Pauline Kael described the rape scene as proof of the "old male barroom attitude: We can see that she's asking for it." But that seems a bit simplistic, since Amy goes through many emotions during the scene (and it points out that Susan George was under-appreciated for her work in this; her performance is a marvel). One could look at the scene in several ways. For some, a certain violence to sex can be appealing. Charlie's an ex-boyfriend, and since Amy's husband refuses to treat her as anything more than an object, Venner's appeal is obvious. He actually wants her, and he proves it through his brutal primalcy. Yet Amy still feels violated, and if this act confuses her and the audience emotionally, there is no sexual pleasure when Scutt gets his turn. Only horror.

The problem with Kael's criticism is that she suggests this scene has Peckinpah's tacit approval. The film then transforms this event into a classic debate over the moral culpability of victims. Is Amy's fate more or less tragic than a woman who's been assaulted in a dark alley? Less, because she should have known better; more, because the whole thing could have been avoided. Amy goes bra-less during the majority of the film — does that make her "deserve it?" Whatever conclusion we draw, such probably has nothing to do with Peckinpah's own opinion. (However, it is interesting to note that the first time Amy wears a bra in the film is after being raped.)

Peckinpah as an artist was fascinated by the Nietzscheian Abyss, and this film may be the purest expression of that fascination. It's not a war film or a western, and there's nothing here to further remove the story from ordinary daily life. In Straw Dogs — as in life — no decisive event comes without gray elements. One can watch the picture as a commentary on the price of chest-thumping, or even as a straightforward action film. But it's safe to say Peckinpah didn't want the movie to offer any easy answers. The fact that Straw Dogs can be interpreted differently by different viewers and though repeated viewings (my feelings on it have changed since I first saw it about ten years ago) is what makes it such a breathtaking piece of art.

And what exactly is a "straw dog"? Audio commentator Stephen Prince cites it as a reference to Lao Tzu's writing in the Book of Changes: "Heaven and Earth are cruel; They treat all living things as straw dogs." (Straw dogs being ceremonial pieces meant to be used only once). The more obvious interpretation regards the impotent false-fronts of masculinity, which ties it into the hip posers/gangsters of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Still, Peckinpah beguilingly leaves this matter open to interpretation.

*          *          *

Criterion presents Straw Dogs in a two-disc set with a handsome anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that highlights the cinematography of John Coquillon. It's stunning, and makes up for years of poor video transfers. The audio is in the original 1.0 mono, which is complemented by an isolated effects-and-music track. The main supplement on Disc One is the audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies, who declares this film to be Peckinpah's masterwork.

The main supplement on Disc Two is the feature-length documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron (82:36), a British television special that was made in 1992 and features interviews with such Peckinpah luminaries as James Coburn, Jason Robards, L. Q. Jones, Monte Helman, Ali MacGraw, and writers Alan Sharp and Jim Silke, among others. It's a fine portrait of the director that doesn't shy away from his substance-abuse problems and his demons, but it seems a poor match to Straw Dogs, as the documentary highlights the director's relationship with the Old West.

Also included is On Location: Dustin Hoffman (25:46), which features Hoffman being quite eloquent about his acting technique and his career (to that point). Behind the Scenes offers footage from the shoot from a local TV show and includes interviews with George, Hoffman, and Peckinpah. From a more modern perspective are recent interviews with Susan George (20:51) and producer David Melnick (18:59). George proves a good interviewee; she understand that this role is her biggest claim to fame, and she talks about her technique. Melnick comes across as most producers do: credit-hogging and foggy.

A theatrical trailer (1:43), and three TV spots (running 60, 30, and 10 seconds) are included, along with letters sent by Peckinpah to both critics (including Pauline Kael) and regular ticket-buyers. And as with many Criterion Collection releases, two wonderful essays are found in the liner notes: the first is "Home Like No Place" by Joshua Clover, the second a 1974 interview with Peckinpah by Andre Leroux entitled "The Cinema of Sam Peckinpah."

(It should also be noted that the initial packaging comes with a sticker on it declaring this release available for a limited time only. Those who felt burned by the Criterion editions of Salo and The Killer may wish to act immediately.)

— Damon Houx


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