Gloria is a young woman of the Depression. She has aged beyond her years and feels her life is hopeless, having been cheated and betrayed many times in her past. While recovering from a suicide attempt, she gets the idea from a movie magazine to head for Hollywood to make it as an actress. Robert is a desperate Hollywood citizen trying to become a director, never doubting he'll make it. Robert and Gloria meet and decide to enter a dance marathon, one of the crazes of the 1930's. The grueling dancing takes its toll on Gloria's already weakened spirit, and she tells Robert that she'd be better off dead, that her life is hopeless - all the while acting cruelly and bitterly, alienating those around her, trying to convince him to shoot her and put her out of her misery. After all, they shoot horses, don't they? Written by
When Gloria's partner is rejected from participating in the marathon for being sick, she points to Ruby and snaps, "If she ain't pregnant, I'm Nelson Eddy." In 1932 Eddy was not yet a well-known figure in show business. See more »
In a competition-based social order, such as ours, more should ask why the impoverished never seem to improve their living conditions. But there are people who are successful! Could it be that they always have been? That they stay that way by keeping everyone else fighting, distrusting, conniving, with the idea of attaining the prize of wealth, which is already systematically divvied up amongst an elite handful and protected as such? This disturbing mood picture boils down to the impending existentially compassionate act of a human being, which he cannot help but associate with an act of the same kind that had a profound effect on him in his youth. The act from his past is socially accepted, the one in his future a capital crime. Both extinguish the misery of a life beyond its own control, no matter how much it strives to express its freedom. Reflecting upon this momentous instant of his past, he happens upon an event that, in a time of depression, promises financial security, thus a fierce swarm of competition. He becomes involved due to the reluctant necessity of another human being with similar needs.
This young man defined by his book-ending experiences had big dreams that were crushed. He finds himself now competing with others of big aspirations, young, old, impoverished, pregnant, all encouraged, indeed compelled, to pair with the opposite sex, more for the sake of spectators whose values must be reflected in the competition's spectacle. The weaker pairs are swiftly eradicated, exploited for the spectators' amusement. Already desperate circumstances are worsened by unresolved crime, leading to deepened internal strife, intensified competition. Job offers for some cause rejection by others, realignment, taking sides.
The competition lasts insufferably long, and spikes in its amusement value are needed by the powers-that-be to distract the spectators from its obvious misery. So sport is staged using the contestants, masqueraded in cheerful spirit wear. Injuries, even fatal ones, are no matter. It continues. These burdens are loaded from one contestant to another, nervous breakdowns causing further realignments. The powers-that-be remain unaffected.
Ultimately, it's the sacred institution of marriage that the powers-that-be utilize for the climactic publicity stunt, promising rewards, honors. The human with broken dreams and his chance counterpart cannot bring themselves to pretend the necessary emotion for the purely profit-driven ritual, and reveal the entire epic contest to be nothing of what it appears to be. When they can no longer maintain their integrity by being involved, they're left with nothing. Not even hope. What's one to do? When one's in such misery, and the other's willing to do anything to extinguish it, what does the law become? A mere protector of the very sham set of values engendered by the shamelessly exploitative competition? With this key American film, Sydney Pollack conveyed early signs that he could bring together and harness an ensemble cast effectively. It reaches moments of hypnotic artistry in its New Wave-inspired cutting that adds more internal psychology to the male lead, quiet character moments and energetic dance sequences. This is head and shoulders above any other film to the late director's name, as it lacks the sugar-coated worthiness hampering his serious attempts to tackle important themes in his later, mostly formulaic work, though work which comprises some classic, star-studded Hollywood thrillers, romances and comedies.
But one of the highest achievements of his work here, I feel, is rooted in my notion that the film heroes who involve me most aren't romantic icons, they don't epitomize masculinity or necessarily get the girl. They have not offensive linemen or Medal of Freedom recipients. They're common people who are confronted with a necessity and face their predicament. The vast American majority was starving, careers were without hope, the public was unable to comprehend what had occurred. Most of them had been raised to trust that if you worked hard and persisted, and otherwise behaved yourself, prosperity would befall you. But during the Depression, catastrophe, poverty and loss befell multitudes. This grim spectacle of hardship is more than a suggestion of that era. It's a glass-half-empty microcosm of capitalism.
The film's loaded with strong acting, from Red Buttons whose career as a comedian somehow deepens the desperation his character suffers, Susannah York who captures the tragedy of a woman with no insight into her loss of touch with reality, a stunningly innocent Bonnie Bedelia before she was Mrs. McClaine, from Michael Sarrazin as young man whose blow of mercy presages and caps his life, which is ultimately as insignificant as everyone else's in this society where all are subjugated, a life perhaps only significant to Gloria. Gloria, a contagion of existential desolation, is the petrified and petrifying chance counterpart of the man with broken dreams, as well as a great tragic heroine. Not like this is anything unusual, but Jane Fonda gives a dramatic performance that endows the film with personal spotlight and emotionally spellbinding might more effectively even than the film's brilliant, abstract use of flashes forward in sudden, subconscious, highly stylized cuts. Swollen-eyed, unkempt, stinking of must and smoke, Gig Young is inspired, a pointed change from his customary gourmet roles, as the powers that be, a man arguably as cynical and misanthropic as his desperate contestants.
The film's awash with rather stunning period strokes, the songs, settings, costumes language, all so unsettling in such imperative ways. While the cameras remain, as if they had been condemned to do so, in the ballroom, capturing the fine points of the rising hopelessness of the dancers, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? becomes a marathon of collapse and futility. The circular arrangements of the dancers, the movement that heads nowhere, are the allegories of this existentialist metaphor for life.
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