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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969)


    Even more emotionally exhausting than its traumatic opening moments suggest, Sydney Pollack’s fine adaptation of the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? powers along to its stunning conclusion with a fleet of superior performances and a cynical worldview that rarely lets up. Recounting the events of a 1930s dance marathon, the film quickly manages to close the temporal gaps between its period and modern times with critical themes that still resonate strongly today. At first it seems mildly lazy that the film trots out contestants so varied that they feel like “types”, but because of this variety, the central metaphor becomes so expansive that it turns into a damning indictment of the American dream, capitalism, and every other heartland cliché that the writers could think up. The marathon becomes a demented microcosm of the nation’s Depression-era hopes and dreams duke it out for supremacy as a glib emcee cheapens everything that happens, with a robotic, mocking, “Yowza, Yowza, Yowza!” that’s too similar each time it’s shouted to be genuine. The numerous contestants vie for fame, money, or just a bite to eat, each pushing their bodies to its breaking point as the contest stretches from days to weeks to months long, allowing their troubles to be made into spectacle (which the ringleader defends by saying that’s “strictly business”). Their determination and deglamorization is a given in a film that’s showcasing an endurance test like this, but even though it’s expected, it’s still powerful on screen.


    The steadfast intensity of haggard the actors creates the energy that powers the audience through this profoundly disillusioned look at an almost literal rat race. Except for a few establishing shots near the start and some awkwardly placed flashes forward, the entire film takes place within the dance hall, giving the film a claustrophobic feel. The grueling and monotonous tone that the dancers feel extends into the film itself, and when the shrill siren that tells them to go back on the dance floor after each brief ten minute break rings, it jolts the viewers as much as the actors because it means only more of the same is coming. The fictional paying audience shells out to watch their misery in hopes of forgetting their own during the Depression, but modern movie audiences will invariably feel sympathy toward the poor souls. Despite that level of identification, moments of catharsis are rare here. Endlessly negative, the movie goes out of its way to deny the audience any moments of joy, opting instead to retreat further and further into the phantasmagoric fever dreams of the exhausted group. The tone only ever stumbles during the flashes forward. These cutaways are supposed to feel foreboding, but they have the opposite effect, relieving some of the intentional tedium that the film otherwise strives to build. Thankfully, when it moves back to the dancehall after these brief digressions, and focuses on the concentrated frenzy of the performances by Susannah York, Jane Fonda, Bonnie Bedelia, and Gig Young, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? tangos with success.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman