Monday, April 26, 2010

A Masterful "Shoot"

In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), director Sydney Pollack found the perfect analogy for the 1932 Depression period of his film – a dance marathon. Situated in a dingy ballroom, several dozen out-of-work couples dance for over 1000 hours to try and win a $1500 dance prize.

The beauty of this film is that this is the story in a nutshell and Pollack wisely decided not to bring in the outside world (except for the paying public in the stands) but rather focus on the characters who set out to win this contest. We get young and old, hopeful and disgruntled, but they’re all winding up in the same place. The dancers start out gliding their way across the floor and then as fatigue sets in, their steps become less confident and we see contestants drop out one by one.

To make the contest even more difficult, at times, a walking race around the dance floor (“the derby”- a reference to the horses of the film’s title) is a mandatory exercise for the contestants. We see this event twice in the film, both times after the participants have spent hundreds of hours dancing; they now have ten minutes to race walk in a tight counterclockwise circle around the dance floor with their partner in tow. They must walk – not run – and the three couples at the back of the pack at the end of the race are eliminated from the contest. We see the strain on their faces and feel the agony in their legs and ankles as they somehow muster the strength to make one more lap around the dance floor turned walking ring. Pollack’s visuals are especially strong here, as he put on roller skates and photographed these scenes himself with a hand held camera. The dizziness of the shots help create an exhausting, chaoic, almost nightmarish quality to the sequences, as various contestants fall and desperately try to find enough physical strength to get up before they are eliminated via a ten count, as in a boxing match. The participants must surely feel they’ve gone through twelve rounds after this. (I must also mention the first-rate editing of Frederic Steinkamp throughout the film and especially in these sequences.)

At times, contestants do a little extra to earn a few extra pennies and nickels; a pregnant woman sings a song, one middle aged dancer does a buck and wing and they collect the spare change thrown on the floor by the audience. For most of them, this is the only money they will see. They know in their heart of hearts that they will not win; most will quit or be forced to retire from the contest due to physical exhaustion and one or two may even die. Yet the promise of $1500, when the reality is perhaps only a few dimes, is enough in the Depression of the early 1930s to keep these dreamers going - that and a place to sleep and get food – seven meals a day - for as long as they compete.

Along with the dancers, Rocky, the Master of Ceremonies, is a key character in this story. He runs the show and his job is not an easy one. In his white tux, he must outwardly show enthusiasm for the contestants as he announces the latest details of the contest to the assembled crowd. Yet, he is a tired man, one who has to juggle several balls, as he has to make this contest profitable, as medical staff and food costs cut into his profit. He will do whatever he can to create publicity for the marathon by pulling off stunts; at one point, he asks one of the couples who have known each other only for the length of the dance contest to get married, as the audience would have something else to cheer for. He is not above trickery either, as he steals an expensive dress from a would-be Hollywood starlet who is dancing in the hope that a movie director or producer of the day will notice her. Rocky’s reason for stealing the dress is simple; he thinks that the paying customers – few of who are very well off – would not associate with someone who looks like she is headed to a social function.

Given the analogy of the dance marathon for the struggles of everyman during the Depression – going around and around with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel – one can clearly see the character of Rocky as the government. Hey, we’re helping you out here – look at the free food we’re giving you – but in reality, this is no more than a handout. Just as Herbert Hoover would soon be voted out in 1932 for his lack of action during this crisis, so too Rocky is seen as someone who looks and sounds good, but in reality, has very little to offer the masses.

The performances as a whole are quite good – Gig Young as Rocky won the Best Supporting Oscar for this film and Jane Fonda and Susannah York were Oscar nominated for their work – and the characters are interesting in their diversity to keep us involved in their plight. The production design is first-rate as is Phil Lathrop’s earth-tone pallate of photography. But this is above all, a director’s film. Sydney Pollack would go on to direct an eclectic mix of movies, from the broad appeal of The Way We Were (1973) and Tootsie (1982) to smaller works such as Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and The Yakuza (1974); he would win an Oscar as Best Director for Out of Africa (1985), a beautifully crafted love story. But for me, his finest work as a director, both visually and spiritually, was with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a film that is as devastating today as when it was released.


  1. This is a great write-up of a great film. I re-watched this recently. As you say, the walking races are especially gripping. Along with the editing, the cinematography is quite memorable. There is one shot of Fonda that makes her look like that gaunt, anxiety-ridden Dust Bowl woman in the famous photograph. This is one of my favorite Fonda performances.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I recall the shot of Fonda you describe - good point!

    There are also a series of beautifully composed shots late in the film of Fonda standing outside the office door of Rocky (Gig Young) as we get P.O.V. of both characters.