Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Random Film Review: Straw Dogs

Dir: Sam Peckinpah | 1971 | USA & UK | 117mins.

Many years ago, a Cornish acquittance vaguely informs me, the parish of St Buryan had sovereignty whereby the law couldn't touch you if you were in the district. Therefore the area attracted a cornucopia of criminals of the day. Nowadays, it has a reputation for white witches, and John Le Carré lives nearby. Most famously, though, Straw Dogs was shot there in 1971.

Like with Andrei Rublev, I hadn't seen Straw Dogs for at least two decades. Being one of the infamous, banned films of the 1970s, along with A Clockwork Orange, I watched a dodgy VHS copy of it in the 1990s (the uncut version would only be released on video and DVD in 2002). And the other day, I watched a dodgy YouTube copy of it. Has anything changed? Maybe not in Cornwall...

1971 is only a few years after Dustin Hoffman starred in the Graduate (1967), and he still has something of the Benjamin Braddock in him in Straw Dogs. Indeed, the scene where he finds the strangled cat in the wardrobe (still pretty shocking), reminded me of Hoffman's nervousness when fumbling with putting Mrs Robinson's coat in the wardrobe in The Graduate.

Sam Peckinpah, famous for his elegiac, beautiful westerns with their trademark slo-mo violence, here, in his first non-western feature, evokes a low budget, rough, bucolic and entirely unsentimental feel for the Cornish landscape, which feels more apt and realistic than the clichéd, tourist-friendly sunsets and turquoise crystal clear seas as seen recently in the BBC's Poldark.

Nevertheless, Straw Dogs explores similar themes to other Peckinpah westerns, as Hoffman's nerdy mathematician, David Sumner, moves into his wife's (Amy, played by Susan George) childhood home in a small village in Cornwall in order to have peace and quiet to write. The locals soon make their dislike of the American outsider known, with teasing leading to bullying and violence. Their desire for Amy is also apparent (understandable as there's only about three females in the whole village), and she flaunts her sexuality as she becomes increasingly frustrated with David's cowardice.

The problematic rape scene, where Amy is seen to enjoy the experience (at least the first rape anyway, which is with a former boyfriend), isn't that different to the climax of series two of Poldark, where Ross overcomes Elizabeth, who eventually succumbs to his rough advances. Indeed, the tide seems to have turned for Straw Dogs. Once cited – along with A Clockwork Orange and Dirty Harry – as the epitome of 1970s violence in the cinema, it now has Little White Lies calling it a feminist film.

The violence and rape scene have in the past overshadowed many of the film's qualities, such as the depiction of domestic tensions of the newly-married couple, and Dustin Hoffman playing a record of bagpipes very loudly when the vicar comes round for tea. Carry on Cornwall, anyone? Indeed, it takes an hour for Peckinpah's trademark slo-mo violence to kick in; there is much to enjoy before then. 

– 4/5

(The rather pointless 2011 remake of Straw Dogs – relocated to the States – at least contains a crazy performance by James Woods and a beautifully atmospheric misty morning hunting scene. Interesting to note, though, how the object of man's sexual desire has changed in the decades between the two films. In the 1970s, it was Susan George's busty and saucy Amy; in the 2011 remake, it was cold-as-ice stick insect model and actress Kate Bosworth. What can I say? Busty and saucy has always done it for me.)

Other films shot or set in Cornwall:
Jamaica Inn and Rebecca (two early Hitchcock films set in Cornwall)
The Plague of Zombies (classic Hammer Horror flick)
Archipelago (filmed on Tresco on the Isles of Scilly)
The Witches (the big hotel is in Newquay)

No comments :