They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) Poster

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A Grisly, Sickly Entertaining Film
evanston_dad20 February 2007
A brutally bleak screen adaptation of the pulpy Horace McCoy novella, about a Depression-era dance marathon where down-and-outers drive themselves to the brink of exhaustion to win the cash prize.

This film has become relevant again today in the age of reality T.V., where people tune in to watch strangers be humiliated, rejected and made fun of. Meanness and suffering sells today, and apparently it sold back then as well. The M.C. of the dance marathon, played wonderfully by Gig Young in one of his last (if not the last) film performances before the troubled actor murdered his wife and then killed himself, creates little narratives and dramas around each of the dancers, so that the audience can have their favorites to root for. Every once in a while, someone will show off a special talent, singing a song or hoofing a little dance number, and the audience will throw change at them, which the performer then frantically scrabbles up like a desperate pigeon. The cast of dancers is led by Jane Fonda, in a break-out role as Gloria, the jaded woman-of-the-world who's seen it all and doesn't want to see anymore; Susannah York, as a pretentious wannabe actress, who acts up a storm during a mesmerizing breakdown scene; Red Buttons, as an aging ex-serviceman who struggles to keep up with the young kids around him; and Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, as a sweet couple of country bumpkins who are desperate to win the cash for their unborn baby. And yes, that is Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster) lurking around in the background as one of the dance marathon officials.

Director Sydney Pollack vastly improves on the source material, making something much richer and deeper out of McCoy's lurid novella. He uses an edgy, jarring style that's suited perfectly to the material, and which he would never again display.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" holds a sort of grisly fascination over its audience. Bleak as it is, it's also entertaining in a rather morbid way, making us feel like we're members of the audience watching this sick spectacle and making it that much harder for us to condemn the film audience without labeling ourselves as hypocrites.

Grade: A
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People as Expendable Cattle
nycritic22 March 2006
Warning: Spoilers
In this movie's only moment of deadpan black humor, a nurse asks Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) after an exhausting dance session that has lasted nearly 1,000 hours, "Can I get you something for your feet?" Her response, as black as night, is, "How about a saw?" Taken out of context, her retort would inspire at least a barf of nervous laughter -- comic relief mirroring the temporary relief that particular something would give Gloria. But knowing the fury that her character has, this dissatisfaction with life in general, it wouldn't be a far stretch to see her amputate her feet right off and be done with it as the band plays on and Gig Young herds his cattle into mindless motion, for a promise of a little over one grand as a prize. She has nothing, she expects nothing -- and this is her last exit to a better life.

Such is the heroine of Horace McCoy's novel of the same name, which appeared in 1935 and told a story so lurid it could not possibly be true: that of the horror of dance marathons in which people down on their luck danced for interminable hours with brief "rest periods" no longer than 15 minutes, and all for free food and money. The ultimate price to pay for an era of abundance turned inside out into the belly of the beast the Depression Era was. All the time while Ginger and Fred danced under the stars and brought Hollywood magic to their eyes, all false promises. The greater irony is that its plot is set right at the edge of the world: the West, where dreams have been known to come true, especially for aspiring actors looking for their Big Break. That it was written by someone who was himself in the fringes is only fitting: some of the more effective stories come from people at the edges of society.

In a tone similar to Hubert Selby's REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, several characters are caught under the wheels of the American Dream and the need to escape the rampant poverty that had the nation under a vise. Dancing with Gloria are Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who seems to have committed a crime which makes this a story told in extensive flashbacks; Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York), who with partner Joel (Robert Fields) aspired to be a star; Ruby (Bonnie Bedelia) and James (Bruce Dern), a young married couple expecting their first child; and the Sailor (Red Buttons), a veteran of dance marathons. Rocky (Gig Young), the emcee, holds the ultimate poker card as to who will win this coveted prize and has the morals of a two-dollar bill.

What neither of them begin to suspect is that there is no light at the end of this tunnel. Rocky, the emcee, as corrupt as he is, is the only one who knows the final outcome and plays the game and each contestant until many of them literally fall dead... or worse, become raving lunatics moving for the sake of moving. Like the quick fix that the characters of REQUIEM were hooked on, he is just that to these people who soon progress from dancers full of life to zoned-out zombies in one horrific shot where we see their reflections through shards of broken glass, their eyes staring, looking at nothing, as they shuffle about in mock-dancing.

Alice will lose her dreams and turn into a shell of her former self: a scene in which she tries to seduce Robert is painful, especially when it happens right by a picture of an actress she emulates, Jean Harlow. Gloria will become even more bitter, and a sense of Hell on Earth will be the dominant feeling once the stakes become higher. And throughout it all, the dance.

But if the dancing in itself is punishing, nothing can account or compare to the two horrifying sequences where all of the contestants must race around the ballroom and avoid at all costs at being the last three couples, grounds for elimination. The first of them runs for the entire duration of its ten minutes and is a reverse chariot sequence in BEN HUR: instead of chariots, there are desperate people -- one of them, Ruby, is seven months pregnant -- and instead of a whip we have the emcee. It is interminable, and hits home at just how inhuman this contest is. The second one is even more terrible: the unforgettable image of Jane Fonda dragging the Sailor behind her back, a symbolic horse trying to remain in the game.

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? comes with a heavy dose of nihilism that would be the tone set throughout the Seventies and in many ways, it can be said that Seventies cinema began in 1969 with this and with MIDNIGHT COWBOY, both films about the underbelly of society. Every performance in the movie is on-target including that of Michael Sarrazin who is looks like a non-entity but is more the chewed-up remains of the dream machine. Sydney Pollack uses a number of flashy techniques appropriate of the time -- flashcuts, stylized sequences that seem out of a narrative structure -- and in doing so has created his own masterpiece. Timeless, the story of human exploitation is even more relevant today with the advent of reality game shows like Fear Factor and its self-degrading contestants. It's an ugly portrayal of us as a society, willing to partake in the spectacle of seeing people worse than we are acting little more than animals destined for carnage.
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Deeply unsettling and emotionally draining
TBJCSKCNRRQTreviews25 June 2007
During the Depression, many had nothing... and the few that did were almost equally as miserable. This movie displays a dance marathon, held for the entertainment of the latter, and the expense of the former. The contestants dance for daily meals and a place to sleep, and the weak hope of a prize, if they are the last couple standing. The rules are cruel, and whilst the many dancers fight to remain standing, the audience is served snacks and fast-food. The film shows how callous people can be, sometimes. The plot is magnificent, the story-telling excellent. Acting(Sarrazin can exude an extraordinary amount of emotion through his eyes), casting, editing(with extremely few slightly weak moments), pacing, direction, cinematography, lighting, music, production design, everything, it's all amazing. This is a very difficult film to watch(which is by no means to say that I regret doing so). It is not entertainment, nor is it something to escape one's everyday life with. It is brutal and uncompromising, a window into an era and an event, both of which show humanity at its worst. A masterpiece. I intend to look for other films by Pollack, there is no doubt about that... fortunately, my fiancée has told me that he has done lighter fare(I would prefer watching something less bleak than this for the next of his movies I view). This is a very important movie, particularly in today's world, where reality shows are all over TV. I recommend this to anyone certain that they can sit through it. 8/10
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A memorable, tragic story with roots in reality
mufeedah21 November 2002
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is such a fascinating film that it made worthwhile a little research into the dance marathon craze of the 1920s and early 1930s. According to the DVD extra, the set was modeled on the old Aragon Ballroom, built in the 1920s on the Lick Pier at Santa Monica, California. The once-elegant ballroom had grown seedy by the early 1950s, at which time it enjoyed a brief revival as the location of early Lawrence Welk show broadcasts. In the 1960s, the Aragon was again revamped under a different name as a short-lived rock concert venue - with appearances by Alice Cooper (is his pre-Cooper days) and Jim Morrison of the Doors. It was destroyed by fire shortly afterward.

Marathon dancing was, according to most historians, as brutal and exploitive as it is depicted in "Horses." It was for that reason that this early 20th century variety of Roman coliseum culture was banned in much of the country by the late 1930s.

This movie uses fictitious characters to tell a story that appears to be remarkably accurate from a historical point of view. Jane Fonda's ultra-cynical, sharp-tongued character, Gloria, along with ruthless manager/promoter Rocky (played by Gig Young), contrast perfectly with the eerily-resigned and unpretentious Robert (Michael Serrazin). The casting and dialogue are brilliant. The visual effects are haunting.

This film is not for everyone. But for those interested in the social pathology that allows human suffering to become a form of amusement, the malicious ill-treatment of the poor, or the harsh realities of the depression era, this is multifaceted cinema that can be watched again and again, each time yielding new subtleties. It is a morbidly fascinating character study that reflects a truly desperate time.

For those watching on DVD, it is advisable to see the short background feature before the movie in order to fully appreciate its context. The movie is unforgettable, a true classic.
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unique for its time
mukava99121 May 2007
THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY? This movie stays in the memory, partly because it stands out from other mainstream Hollywood products of its time in subject matter (the dance marathons of the 20s and 30s) and tone (pitilessly and harshly negative; even the humor is bleak). The message: life (the marathon) is a desperate rat race with a rigged outcome.

How certain actors end up with certain roles depends on the crazy complicated game known as Hollywood casting, but sometimes even a miscast performer will bring an unexpected something to the table and triumph. Such was the case with Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE (written with Claudette Colbert or Gertrude Lawrence in mind) and such is the case with Jane Fonda in a role that would have been better suited to someone like Stella Stevens. Fonda overcomes the odds as Gloria, the morbidly cynical and impoverished young woman whose brief life has been a series of abuses, disappointments and defeats. Even though the actress looks and speaks like a patrician, her defiant, angry, controlled desperation burns through the superficialities. Her performance culminates in an emotional meltdown which she handles with skill. It was her great breakthrough as a screen actress.

Another career peak is reached by Gig Young who, as the master of ceremonies, personifies all the dishonesty, cruelty and pathos of the marathon itself. Bonnie Bedelia and Susannah York also score as different kinds of vulnerable innocents. Michael Sarrazin as Fonda's dance partner serves as the passive instrument that allows Fonda to play out her tortured personal drama. His unchanging wounded puppy dog expression speaks for itself.

Ironically, the musical arrangements by John Green, a brilliant and very active composer of early 30's popular songs (including "Body and Soul"), sound more like Lawrence Welk than a real third-rate dance band of the early Depression era. As musical supervisor of this film I wonder if it was Green who anachronistically included songs that hadn't even been written when the story takes place, including "I Cover the Waterfront" (1933) and "Easy Come, Easy Go" (1934), both of which Green composed himself.

For some reason the scriptwriter chose to move the story to 1932 from its original placement in 1934 by author Horace McCoy in the novel on which this film is based. At one point an old lady tells Fonda and Sarrazin that they are her favorite dance couple because they're wearing the number "67" which is the year she was born (1867). Later Fonda calculates her age: "Sixty-five." Which enables us to figure out that the action is taking place in 1932. In another scene Fonda, referring to Bonnie Bedelia, quips, "If she's not pregnant, then I'm Nelson Eddy." Eddy didn't become a nationally known name until 1935 when he teamed with Jeanette MacDonald. He didn't even appear in a major motion picture until 1933 (DANCING LADY, MGM). A woman of 1932 would have been more likely to say "Bing Crosby" or "Rudy Vallee" or even "Russ Columbo." So one can't help wondering why the screenwriter bothered to move the action backwards by two years.

Exhausted couples staggering around a dance floor under a shining, spinning ball composed of mirror fragments that reflect off the ceiling, walls and floor - a symbol of Earth and the cosmos around it and oppressed humanity on the bottom grimly pressing on. That's the film in a nutshell.
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Nothing but Cattle
Claudio Carvalho16 October 2013
Warning: Spoilers
In 1932, in the Great Depression, a group of hopeless people participates of a dance marathon contest on the Santa Monica Pier in California. Among them are the bitter and disillusioned Gloria (Jane Fonda); a sailor (Red Buttons) that fought in the war; the aspirant actress and actor Alice (Susannah York) and Joel (Robert Fields); the farmer James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife Ruby (Bonnie Bedella); all of them expecting to win the award of US$ 1,500.00. Gloria's partner has a threatening cough and is disqualified before the contest. However, the Master of Ceremony Rocky (Gig Young) summons the stranger Robert (Michael Sarrazin) to replace her partner and dance with Gloria. Along more than forty days, the weakest couples are disqualified from the contest. When Rocky proposes that the exhausted Gloria and Robert get married during the dance marathon to raise money with the gifts, Rocky discloses that the winners will have their expenses deducted from the prize resting almost nothing from the US$ 1,500.00. Gloria leaves the contest with Robert and asks him for an ultimate solution for her suffering. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is one of the most impressive and depressive movies I have ever seen. I read Horace McCoy's unforgettable novel when I was a fourteen year-old teenager and I recall how sad I was with this tragic story of human suffering and the comparison of people with cattle. Later I saw this movie twice on VHS (last time on 16 March 2000) and yesterday I saw it on DVD. The direction and performances are top-notch and in the end I was weirdly depressed despite knowing the story and the conclusion. My vote is nine. Title (Brazil): "A Noite dos Desesperados" ("The Night of the Desperate")
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Hard To Watch, But A Memorable Story
ccthemovieman-14 June 2007
When I saw this movie in the theater over 35 years ago, I found it very interesting and one of those movies you don't forget about an hour after you leave the theater. This was a haunting type of story, especially when my folks, who went with me, informed me that these marathon type of dance contests really did happen. The characters might have been fictional, but not story of these awful contests.

Jane Fonda plays the central character, "Gloria Beatty," an angry-at-the-world and profane woman who certainly has a cynical attitude. It almost echoed her real-life persona at the time, but I won't go there. I was more fascinated with Gig Young's performance in this film as the ruthless dance promoter - emcee "Rocky." To me - and Academy Award voters - his performance stands out among all the others, even though everyone does an outstanding job. That includes director Sydney Pollack, who had only made a few movies until this one.

The deep cast in this film did not include big-name stars but they were known celebrities: actors like Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedalia, Bruce Dern and Al Lewis.

This is a sad tale of desperate people in desperate times trying to make a few extra bucks during the Great Depression years. Dancing in pairs, they literally risked their health by trying to stay on their feet by dancing longer than every other couple. One became mentally exhausted just watching these poor people on screen trying to survive these "marathons."

Like a lot of movies which deal with unpleasant topics, this is a haunting film that will leave you thinking about it for a long time afterward. I can't say I enjoyed watching it the second time around, on VHS - Fonda's nastiness too much to take - but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from watching this movie. It's a story about an unique event in American history guaranteed to be one you won't forget.
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A Depression Era Reality Show...
Isaac585513 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
A few months ago, I saw 1969's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? for the first time in its entirety. I had heard a lot about this film when it was first released and had seen bits and pieces of it in the past,but I found watching the entire film to be a devastating and shattering experience. I must concur with another poster's comparison to the marathon dance contest participants to today's reality show contestants...there is an air of desperation surrounding these people that is sad and frightening to watch. Some of these people have pinned their entire existence on winning this marathon and you just know everyone can't win. As a matter of fact, if memory serves, we never find out who won, because the film focuses on those losers who have pinned their entire lives on this and don't make it. Jane Fonda should have won the Best Actress Oscar for her Gloria Beatty, a strong yet pathetic creature who MUST win this marathon. Michael Sarrazin had the role of his career as Robert, the young man who becomes Gloria's partner by fate and becomes drawn into her web of depression and loneliness. Gig Young won an Oscar for his ultra-slick turn as the host and promoter of the marathon. Memorable characterizations of other participants in the marathon are offered by Suhsannah York, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, and Bruce Dern. This film is not for very taste, but can be a haunting yet satisfying film experience for those who can handle it. Definitely not for the faint of heart and way ahead of its time. Exceptional direction by Sidney Pollack.
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Once Seen, Never Forgotten
seymourblack-128 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" makes such an indelible impression on anyone who sees it that they're never likely to either forget it or mix it up with any other movie they've ever seen. It's rare indeed for any movie to possess this kind of power but the sheer intensity of its story, the desperation of its characters and the quality of its cast really do make this film extremely memorable and quite unique.

This depression-era drama about the experiences of a group of poverty stricken people who enter a dance marathon at a run-down ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier near L.A. describes the hopes that motivate them and also shows the suffering and humiliation that they experience as they struggle against impossible odds to chase their dreams of a $1,500 prize or the fame and fortune that could follow, if they get spotted by any of the talent scouts who might be in the audience. The depressing reality, however, is that the promises of these prizes (for different reasons) are both a sham and the contestants' endeavours are all in vain.

Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) is a would-be actress whose experiences have made her very bitter and deeply cynical. She's habitually unpleasant to everybody she encounters but is, nevertheless, very determined to win the marathon. When her original partner is not allowed to compete for medical reasons, she quickly finds herself teamed up with Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin) who's an ex-farm boy who just happened to be in the vicinity and hadn't arrived with any intention of competing.

Alice LeBlanc (Susannah York) is another aspiring actress who, despite her circumstances, takes a great pride in her appearance because she's convinced that she's likely to be recruited by some movie producer who'll spot her obvious talent. Harry Kline (Red Buttons) is an old sailor who lies about his age to enter the competition and is sure that his extensive experience of taking part in similar marathons will stand him in good stead this time around.

Ruby (Bonnie Bodelia) is a heavily pregnant young woman who, together with her husband James (Bruce Dern), is competing in the hope of winning enough money to help with the expense of having their first baby.

The ballroom full of couples who start the marathon are continually urged on by Rocky (Gig Young) who's the promoter of the event. He periodically hollers "Yowsa, Yowsa, Yowsa" to rouse both the competitors and the audience and every week "ups the stakes" by organising a Derby, which is a frantic, energy sapping, walking race which leads to the last three couples being eliminated on each occasion.

What transpires during the marathon illustrates forcibly just how hopeless the lives of the competitors are, how futile their attempts to improve their circumstances are and how mercilessly their misfortunes are exploited by Rocky who never misses an opportunity to add to the contestants' humiliation and anguish. All this is done to entertain his audience who derive pleasure from watching the systematic degradation of less fortunate people and also leads to all the dancers losing their dignity and self respect.

Gig Young's performance is sensational and made even more remarkable by the fact that his role is so different to those he normally played during his career. He's thoroughly convincing as the sleazy villain of the piece and exceptionally good at conveying his character's callous attitude to the competitors as he cruelly mocks their predicaments. Michael Sarrazin is ideal as the passive Robert who simply allows himself to be swept along by events and almost nonchalantly accepts whatever fate throws at him. Jane Fonda and Susannah York make their characters unforgettable and Red Buttons is marvellous as the determinedly optimistic and energetic "old salt".

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a tragic and very human story which, despite its depressing subject matter and shocking conclusion, is both thought provoking and riveting from start to finish.
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"I've got my eye on you!" ... "Which one?"
moonspinner556 July 2002
This is the movie that "The Day of the Locust" might have aspired to be. It captures the tone of desperation and helplessness of Depression-era characters (would-bes, wanna-bes, and fade-outs) like few films I've seen. It's a fascinating downer, ripe with interesting losers and gritty drama. Jane Fonda's performance as a marathon-entry at the end of her rope ranks with her very best work, and Oscar-winner Gig Young is smashing as the M.C. Also superb: Susannah York as a glamor girl who gets her clothes (and sanity) dirty, and Red Buttons as an over-the-hill sailor. There's not a happy or hopeful moment in sight, but for gripping human drama you could do no better. James Poe and Robert E. Thompson adapted their screenplay from Horace McCoy's novel; Sydney Pollack directed, impeccably. ***1/2 from ****
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Dance Marathon Macabre
Joewadesmith19 December 2002
Viewing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" is like rubbernecking a horrific traffic accident, or watching a train wreck. The images, no matter how painful, are too disturbing to turn away. This movie documents the depression era pathos by showing us a glimse of a group of dance-marathon contestants battling it out for a winner-take-all purse. Their lives become symbolic of their efforts in the marathon: inexorable pain, constant cramping, and a constant questioning of just "why live in all this misery?" Eventually, the lead performances, especially those of Susanna York and Jane Fonda, show at once characters strong-willed but overcome by simple animal survival. The rest of the stellar cast captures this bleakness as well (watch a young Bonnie Bedelia sing for thrown pennies!!!). Eventually the movie painfully climaxes to let one realize the issues raised by the movie title. The film is stunning in capturing the simple struggle of humanity; it's a must-see, but only once!!!
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Gunnery Sergeant Hartman22 February 2001
This is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Set in the 1930s, it revoleved around a group of people entering/running a depression dance marathon. The group entering the contest(The principle characters being Fonda, Sarrazin, York, Buttons, Bedilia, Fields)Can't pass up the seven meals a day, or the top prize of 1500 dollars, no matter how grueling the dance will be. Fonda, is a drifter looking for money, Sarrazin wanders into the contest by accident, York and Fields are an actor and actress hoping to be "Discovered", and Buttons is also looking for money. The management of the contest is represented by Young, Lewis, and (To a lesser extent)Conrad. While this is not a "Pick me up" movie, it is definitely worth seeing. The cast is excellent, and the movie moves along well. Director Sydney Pollack filmed the movie in sequence, which helps to show the fatigue that the characters are feeling. They Shoot horses was nominated for nine academy awards, inglinging Best actress(Fonda), Best Supporting Actress(York) and Best Director(Pollack).

However, only Gig Young walked away with the statuette(For best Supporting Actor) and he deserved every inch of it. Playing against typecasting, he knew he was getting the role of a lifetime and he gives one of the best performance of his career. I actually liked Rocky, with his White Tux and his "Yowza!Yowza!Yowza!" I don't know if I would have liked the character if Gig Young had not been in the role.

Overall, this movie is definitely worth seeing. If you have a chance, give it a look.

10/10 ***** out of *****
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Exceptionallly creepy and unsettling depiction of human depravity as spectator sport
fred-houpt15 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I had not heard of the era's small scale obsession with human suffering in the form of Dance Marathons. Although some have commented that these were the first reality shows, I would argue that nothing has changed in the human psyche from thousands of years earlier, when the Roman Colosseum was the outlet for the dark side of the human imagination, where food and gore was served up as a circus of demented and tasteless pastimes, where for a set period of time you could forget your own travails and feast your senses on the pains of someone else.

This disturbing film begins and ends on the same coda, that of how a broken animal is shot out of sympathy, to put it out of any more misery. You have to see the film to understand what this means and the final scene completes the thought. The tensions that exist for all contestants is underscored by personal anxieties and humiliation. I suspect that you would not appear on the dance floor of a marathon unless you were down on your luck, probably very hungry and desperate to feed a family. This is what afflicts most of the contestants. Consider other layers of tension that make your skin crawl. At first when the character Robert appears, he denies that he is interested in dancing with anyone and without any chance to give an alternative to why he is there, we are left wondering if he really was too embarrassed to admit his needs or was just drifting aimlessly, waiting to be drawn into the vortex freak show that was just about ready to start. And drawn into it and his fate he unexpectedly gets pushed. He is matched up as Gloria's dance partner and in her you get a woman whose veins are filled to the brim with acid. A partner like that makes you prefer to sit in the electric chair first. Their most unlikely partnership hinges almost entirely on the smoldering rage that Fonda's character holds on to, with Sarrazin's character just about as malleable as silly putty. If his character is portrayed that way in the novel then fine, I guess the director had little choice. I found his passivity more confusing and after a while I was hoping that he would show some backbone (sorry for the terrible pun).

The movie is deeply layered with enough time taken to show how the contestants slowly but surely burn down like candles on their last lights. Especially difficult to watch are the emotionally explosive mental breakdowns of several characters, one who looses her mind and screams that she is covered with insects crawling on her. Just as disturbing is the final break down of Alice LeBlanc, who, now jilted by her long time partner and having had her clothing and makeup taken from her by someone, having lost all her props (again, sorry for the pun) imploded and ended up breaking apart in a shower scene. Her painful scream followed by a soft voiced recognition that "someone" had screamed is almost too much to bear watching. Susanna York was outstanding in her role. Red Buttons is very good as a Sailor from World War one (again, we wonder why he would have entered such a crazy contest - except that perhaps he was there to show off his strength, now past his prime, or else because he too was down on his luck).

I quite agree the fast walking timed sprinting scenes (both of them) are hideously played out and in our minds we are wondering who will drop dead first? Will it be the pregnant lady (Bonny Bedelia) or the sailor or anyone else? This is truly where the humans are turned into horses panting and pushed to their limits in a small scale chariot race and the full crowds cheer them on. It is utterly sickening and it goes on and on.

(Spoiler major)....When Gig Young's character spills the beans about how little the winner will actually get (my mouth popped open when he said the words) you just look at Jane Fonda's face and you can see her think and do the simple calculation and you realize that she is totally manipulated and demolished and destroyed by the ruthless rules. The utterly soulless Rocky just explains to her that it is just business and he's not out to rip anyone off and he's got all the receipts to prove it. I think of the way the banks foreclosed on thousands of homeowners who could not pay their mortgages during the depression because of a massive economic contraction and huge unemployment and how the bankers would say the same thing: it was just business and they have the receipts.

If ever there was a more heartless depiction of the dark side of humanity I do not know of a more painful collection of images. The actors are all outstanding in their roles, some more developed or limited as the director and script saw fit. I felt that Jane Fonda nailed her role with perfection and she showed that the Fonda family had only outstanding acting talent. The great Al Lewis (you will remember him from his hilarious stint on the Munster television show) is all understated with hardly a scene he is in where he does not have a small cigar chomped between his teeth. This is not a film that needs to be re-done as I think that Pollack has captured what needed to be said and shown. It is truly a horror show but not the type we normally associate with that emotion. The mirror it holds up to our dark side is supposed to make you squirm. Very unsettling but important film.
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Analogy of a slow, painful suicide.
mark.waltz10 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
With society moving towards degradation in the late 1960's, filmmakers took more serious looks at earlier eras romanticized during the golden age of Hollywood. The popular dance marathons of the early 1930's, most famously done in Atlantic City, were a cavalcade of desperate young people trying to survive through the depression. This movie serves as a metaphor for the lost youth of the late 1960's dealing with civil rights and a war in Vietnam they wanted no part of.

Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin are just two of the contestants caught up in this hoopla as they struggle to last through the grueling dances, sprint races and bad entertainment provided by some of the pathetic people trying to either gain fame or win a sponsor. The faces of all of these contestants show their world weariness, especially Fonda's who seems to long for the peace of death. Add in Gig Young as the emcee/producer of the marathon, a lecherous man who has no qualms in attempting to rape one of the exhausted dancers (Susannah York). He is both equally ruthless and charming as he utilizes every trick in the book to put on a show. Reminding me of the emcee in "Cabaret", it is no wonder that when Kander and Ebb did their own marathon musical "Steel Pier", the emcee/host of that marathon was a combination of both characters in this and in "Cabaret".

Depression films of the past fifty years have touched on the many aspects of survival, whether through the violence of "Bonnie and Clyde" or the sleaziness of "Ironweed". "They Shoot Horses" takes on the world of entertainment and adds in some sports plus lots of desperation, despair and finally exhaustion towards life itself, reminding us that each era has had its share of miserable social moments which looked like the end of civilized society.
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Life is a dance competition
Mr_Bug_Tunny1 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Life is a dance competition They shoot horses, don't they?

Set in the 1930's, years of the depression, the Great War behind them and another to come, we find a whole generation that is trying to cope with a raw and harsh reality. The message this movie conveys is the same as the cold, pathetic and pessimistic view of life that the existentialist movements being born were spreading around.

We all wanted to know who would win. We were unsure who to root for —certainly not Jane Fonda's apathetic character. Then who? The washed out wannabe and talentless actress or her egocentric partner; the married couple that blind themselves with some sort of a possible "lived happily ever after" ending? No. None of them could win. All the characters are selfish and blind to reality with hopes of winning something that is ephemeral. Inside the dance floor they are stripped naked of their dignity and humanity. The only character who seems free of this heaviness turns out to be the worst of them, encarnating those that permit others to give up.

Mr. Pollack very effectively introduces us into a world where life is an unending dance marathon. The struggle in life, like the struggle to keep dancing, is meaningless and empty; a mere movement that seems to go on and on until it crashes to an end. Contestants begin the challenge enthusiastically and motivated because they have a goal, a purpose. But we shockingly discover that people compete, not against each other as initially believed, but with the inevitable pull of gravity to the floor. This is why we're not really surprised at Gloria when she decides to shoot herself once she's outside. Loosing the competition is, in fact, death, and death is more reasonable, more real than "dancing away" through life. Death is the only certainty. Those who don't die dancing will die anyway, despite any resistance.

In the end they were all cattle, lining up to be fattened before being slaughtered: an existence void of any meaning. A movie worth watching thanks to Mr. Pollack's brilliant directing and real, sober and contained performances, all committed to the point the movie wants to make. 7/10
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The Grand Prize: Surviving The Depression!!!!
dataconflossmoor13 October 2007
As I first noticed the credits to this movie, it came to my attention that Sydney Pollack was the director of this film... This should come as no surprise to me, Sydney Pollack is one of the greatest directors in Hollywood!! He pinpoints reality to an unprecedented succinctness level!! Reality is often times a subtle yet very rude formidability with indisputable facts that will decimate anyone or anything that gets in the way!!The movie "They Shoot Horses Don't They" depicts a cross section of individuals who masquerade a paper thin veneer of flippancy about them selves. These actions serve as a subterfuge for the fact that they have been mangled by the Depression!! Everybody is at the same place, a dance marathon.. By tittle, a dance marathon would seemingly suggest a sort of paraded panacea, in reality, it is a cinematic slaughterhouse!! Such an event cultivates a macabre audience whose voyeuristic amusement is based on witnessing human misery.. The tragic social pitfalls of financial collapse caused by the Great Depression are the culprits to spurring on these dance marathons, nevertheless, regardless of cause and effect, the show must go on!!

As the movie lingers on, it portrays the desperation and apocalyptic suffering all of the major characters endure... This needless agony is all in the hopes that they will win the grand prize.. The indigence everybody is victimized by sparks a pejorative identification that all involved parties are afflicted with!! All of them are mired in an abyss of despondence and gridlocked by the sorry element of individual demoralization!!

The acting in this movie is absolutely phenomenal!! Jane Fonda is superb at portraying the disgruntled spawn of economic hardship!! Her witty retorts and justified pathos resonate themselves to a point of insignificant consolation and comfort for her overall situation!! Gig Young is terrific as the dance marathon coordinator, he has become callous as a necessary defense mechanism for his basic survival!! Jane Fonda's dance partner, Michael Sarrazin, must expedite moral imperatives, his final dilemma makes him very peccant, this is accompanied by a gargantuan ethical conundrum!! That is all I can say without giving away the plot to this movie!! As I previously stated, Sydney Pollack does a remarkable job directing this film!! All of the dance marathon victims have become sullen and dejected!! The Depression has evoked a totally effective form of vilification to each and every one of them by making them realize the outcome of their end results!! Heroics would allow people to rise above adversity, even the Great Depression!! Reality, however, dictates that the vast majority of Americans did not fall through the cracks, nor, did they divide and conquer... the fact is, that anonymity and attrition relegated most working class Americans to tragic statistics!! The dreadful circumstances of the Depression cogently asserted that many lives were virtually categorized as utterly valueless!!

The talent and powerful story line make this film worth seeing!! Reality is a prevailing quality in a film, even if it is difficult to stomach, try to remember that and you will probably enjoy this film quite a bit!! Catastrophe has been calculated in this movie, to effectuate tragic poignancy to the letter of the law!! The law of the jungle that is!! If one of your favorite hobbies is ruminating the unfortunate truth, then, you will like this film very much!!!!!
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A Nihilistic Allegory for Profit-Driven Society
jzappa24 February 2011
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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..what a historical comment on our society..
fimimix25 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
So you won't be confused, I rate this film at 100 - can't believe it isn't in ALL the top lists of "best"..... I remember when it first was released, and the "dance-hall" theme stayed with me for decades, although I didn't see it again until I bought the VHS in 2005.

Indeed, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a bleak, terrifying, depressing BUT truthful portrait of how our society can be brutal toward other people unlike us. If you only watch movies to be happily entertained, you miss-out on how life can also be brutal - in ways one can't predict nor escape. This movie paints a graphic picture (as gripping as "Once Upon a Time in America") of some desperate people at the bottom of the ladder - and also some unfeeling individuals who enjoy seeing others suffer. "Horses" is CERTAINLY about suffering...

I've read every comment posted here: so few users could connect the importance of the beautiful, only really happy scene in the entire movie, of a young boy who is captivated by the power of his horse running freely. When the horse falls and has to be destroyed, it is a prediction of how all of the dancers will be destroyed. The young boy just happens to become "Robert" (Michael Sarrazin), who is hanging-around the dance-hall and is drafted to be "Gloria's" (Jane Fonda) dance-partner, simply because she doesn't have one. Some of the users even ridicule him for his sweetness, the only dancer who has no idea why he's there nor has any reason to be.

I agree this movie is MEANT to be a downer - it is a document to show how mean-spirited-but-innocent ordinary people can be. "Gloria" is determined to win - she is a savvy lady, but she does not realize to win is also to lose, no matter how close you come to winning. Her "merry-go-round" will never end, and she wants off. No matter how anyone feels about "Hanoi Jane", they cannot deny her role packs a powerful punch, and she plays it with stellar skill. Sarrazin is also stellar, and underplays his role with intense innocence. Susannah York's ("Alice") role is in the same league. "Sailor" (Red Buttons) delivers a brilliant role to demonstrate that older people are just as determined to win. "Ruby" (Bonnie Bedelia) is heart-breaking, simply because she wants to follow her husband's lead, at any cost. AL Lewis ("Turkey") is set-dressing, but ties weirdness to this already-stressful story. "Rocky" (Gig Young) is the professional user - "it's all business, honey", and is fascinating in his harshly intimidating character. (He did deserve his Oscar, but Jane got robbed.) "Mrs Laydon" (Madge Kennedy) knows the whole contest is a scam and nervously watches it unfold before her eyes.

What a cast - many not mentioned here - and what a wallop they all deliver. I can't imagine how ANYONE can miss the impact this film delivers, nor understand how this character-study reveals we all are vulnerable to uncontrollable circumstances,and somehow flawed. The other films produced the same year this movie is filmed and released should be further proof that WHOLE DECADE depicted human frailties. INDEED, Syndey Pollack and James Poe deserved Oscars for giving us a good look at ourselves.

If you can't sit through this movie, you gotta be a coward; so, watch it and be glad you're not in this situation, and lucky life has treated you well.....Bravo! to anyone who had the smallest part it making it.
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beckstrom721 October 2004
this is one of my all-time favorite films.

jane fonda's 'gloria beatty' is one of the best heroines in movie history (along with "klute"'s 'bree daniels', her other foray into genius).

sydney pollack's direction, particularly in the 'sprint' sequences, is terrific, probably the best of his career (save, perhaps, "tootsie", its emotional opposite).

i once got a bartender in a gay biker club to play this on the monitors behind the music. the film is so wonderfully shot and edited that any rock or soul or pop song played superbly to its images alone. the patrons stopped their conversations (among other activities) and watched, transfixed, until it was over, whereupon applause rang out and my drinks were free.

if that isn't a testament to the power of "they shoot horses, don't they?" i'd like to hear of a better one.
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An exhausting movie in every way...
secondtake29 May 2010
They Shoot Horses, Don't They (1969)

This is almost a mainstream experimental film, coming out of the New Hollywood transformation, and it has a huge reputation. It centers around the basically true events of a typical late-1920s dance marathon, with contestants dancing (and resting at times) for weeks straight (four or five weeks wasn't unusual). Naturally, contestants freak out and get obsessive and generally push their limits, and that ultimately is what the movie portrays.

I found it a bore. I like Sydney Pollack's approach to movies, in general, and he's directed some real gems. I can tolerate Jane Fonda, too, and she is an irritable, pushy young woman in this one, pretty convincing. There are other characters with similar selfish, and increasingly tired, attitudes, and by half way through you realize that it's a downer movie with nearly everyone snarly and mean and deceptive. By the end, with the great climax hinted at a couple times along the way, you expect and get the culmination of all that.

But it's a pretty linear experience, almost entirely shot in the gymnasium serving as a dance hall. The spectators are barely mentioned (and there are generally very few). The bands providing the dance music are dull (and maybe incorrect for the times--not only is there an all-Black group, which might have been included, but one of them is a mixed race group, and this isn't a barrier crossed until the late 1930s, a decade later). People's attitudes struck me as more 1960s than 1920s, with women openly crude and aggressive, and maybe this is my own shortcoming (I see the aggressive, successful women in Reds as more accurate, for whatever reason).

Mostly there is nothing much happening except a kind of petty competition between two women, and with two men half caring and just tagging along. And everyone getting weary. It's a spectacle, for sure, but imagine watching it for a month? And then squeezing that boredom into a two hour movie, narrative one liner with a strained script. Loaded with awards and praise, but not here.
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when in Rome
dbdumonteil19 June 2001
When in Rome,do as Romans do.When you've gotten nothing to lose,when you're so broke you couldn't even buy a crust of bread,all that's left for you is the amphitheatre.There, a lot of rich and wealthy people will relish,watching you sweat,struggle and suffer. Horace McCoy's novel was not cheapened,its spirit remains intact.Who cares if they added some new characters such as Alice (Susannah York's best performance)?Jane Fonda,in the role of a lifetime,is brilliant, harsh but brittle, fighting but knowing from the start that , whatever fate has in store for her , it's a fool bargain.In this dark movie,the sun never shines on the poor who go round and round in circles: the only sun they get in this terrifying world is the glittering mirror bowl in the dancing. Sydney Pollack was never to recapture such an intensity: a recent work like "the firm" ,what a let-down!
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One of a kind...a searing, engagingly sad commentary on the desperation of Depression-era America.
gbrumburgh4 February 2001
Without a doubt, this is one of the most fascinating depictions of one of the darkest times in modern American history. I saw this incredible feature when it was first released and recall myself glued to the seat 15 minutes after the house lights came on -- overwhelmed, exhausted, suicidal and completely enthralled. Now that's cinema!

Director Sydney Pollack inhales the gathering gloom of a motley group of 30's Depression-era victims and spits it out against the seedy backdrop of a dance marathon, pitting one miserable soul against another in a cruel contest of endurance while exposing each of their inner tales of woe.

Jane Fonda blotted out her "Barbarella" eye candy image forever with her staggering portrayal of the brutally cynical spitfire Gloria, a never-was, never-will-be actress who refuses to see blue skies ahead for herself or anybody else -- despite the outcome. Her caustic despair taints everything around her, while foreshadowing the inevitable tragedy that lies ahead. Fonda equals, if not betters, her performance in "Klute."

Michael Sarrazin as Fonda's partner, a calm, poetic drifter, Susannah York as the Jean Harlow-like hopeful desperate for a chance to be discovered, and Bonnie Bedelia, a pitiable, impossibly pregnant waif are the stand-out participants of this grueling nightmare, while Gig Young's award-winning emcee touchingly reminds us that not all the pathetics are hugging the floorboards. The cast is absolutely perfect...down to the extras. There isn't a false note in this elegy of misery.

Pollack stages the couples' interactions and dance sequences most impressively, but its the so-called racing "sprints" shot in such a blurring, whirling, surreal fashion, that highlight this film masterpiece.

One of the most exhilarating and depressing movies you'll ever witness.
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Pre-TV Reality Show and human nature at its ugliest...
ElMaruecan822 April 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Watching Sidney Pollack's "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", it is impossible not to think of reality shows and their piles of human souls desperate for success' shortcuts. Indeed, whenever there will be depression and desperation, such shows will exist. The only difference is that during the Great Depression, when Horace McCoy wrote the novel, there was no screen between the audience and the contestants, a thinner progress than the fact that, contrarily to Rome's gladiators, contestants didn't kill each other, though they seriously jeopardized their physical and mental health.

The film centers on a Dance Marathon, one of the 30's crazes, set in a West Coast ballroom, the concept is so vicious that you wonder why sensitive people would go to such extremes. From a 2010's standpoint, it makes sense as there's no difference between this and programs like "Survivor" or "Fear Factor", and no more between the charismatic Master of Ceremony, played by Gig Young and a TV host who displays hypocritical empathy toward contestants while developing new tricks to increase their suffering. Watching Young's Oscar-winning performance, we wonder whether we should despise his cynicism or enthusiastically respond to his repeated "Yowsa!"

Young embodies the bittersweet appeal reality TV shows, something that is part of human nature to which German language found a word for: 'shadenfreude'. When someone falls or fails, we're somewhat glad to be in the comfortable viewer's side. We don't like other people's successes, but any sight of a human being in a less favorable position is most welcome. That's how depressing a depression is, when we can't feel better for our own achievements, we do it by proxy, by enjoying someone's failure. Regarding the Dance Marathon, whoever will win the 1500 dollars prize will be less interesting than the dozens of delightful losers.

Take the character Alice, played by Susannah York, she's a young actress coming with her partner, together they expect to catch the eye of a director. Alice is like today's wannabe Cyrus or Kardashian who don't believe in bad publicity and think fame precedes artistic achievement. Later, Rocky reveals that he deliberately took her dresses and make-up, because she was spoiling the game by not looking messy and exhausted as she was supposed to be. He says about the audience that they "just want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better maybe." This revelation will come as a shock to Robert (Michael Sarrazin), an aspiring director who naively thought he was in a contest, rather than a show. Like in Ancient Rome, those who don't have 'bread and wine' make the 'circus' to the haves. Seriously, did he forget he was sponsored?

There are also two tragic characters: Kline, an aging sailor, played by wonderful character actor Red Buttons, the WWI veteran knows the marathon and teaches a few tricks to Robert. And there's a pregnant Okie farmer's wife played by unrecognizable Bonnie Bedelia (she was John McClane's wife in "Die Hard"), and entrusted with more than she can cope with, and nor her husband (Bruce Dern) or the doctors or Rocky think that she might endanger her kid's life or her own. The sight of this little heavy-loaded women forced to run that awful ten-minute derby is one of the most disturbing sights of the movie along with Kline's death, desperately dragged by Gloria Betty (Jane Fonda) till the finish line.

The power of Pollack's directing is to switch from the contestants' perspective to Rocky's (and his partner played by Al Lewis). For instance, you see the participants groaning at the derby's white lines being painted and then you see the puppet masters of this tragicomedy, and you wonder why these people who can leave at any time let their health and sanity being sucked out by these heartless bastards in tuxedos. The reason is simple: the two points of view never meet, except for Robert and Gloria. And all naturally, they leave the show. When Gloria learns that the winner will pay the expenses, that's too much to accept, she understands that "the whole world is like central casting. They got it all rigged before you ever show up."

As Gloria, Jane Fonda is the soul of the story, a perpetually malcontent woman whose participation was the last string on which to hang her faith on life. But while the film is mainly focused on Fonda, it starts with flashbacks from Robert's childhood - one involving a beautiful black stallion, falling and then mercilessly put out of his misery- and then it's punctuated with images of Robert being arrested and interrogated for what seems to be a murder. I thought that (accidentally) knowing Gloria would die, would spoil my enjoyment. As a matter of fact, from the title to the poster, and the arrest scenes, we understand that it's a matter of time before the contest finally get the most of her, and makes her death inevitable.

This is not depression as an Era, or as the disillusioned New Hollywood movies that provided the great unequaled masterpieces of American cinema, but plain and bleak 'state of mind' depression. It's like a feeling of psychological claustrophobia in an agoraphobia-inducing world, too many people and not enough souls to reach or reach yours. The ball-room, with all its flashiness and shiny floor, is the extraordinary metaphor of this Depression, however you define it. And Fonda conveys her sadness so convincingly that we no longer feel sorry for her when Robert pulls the trigger. As he says to the disbelieving cops: "they shoot horses, don't they?". Gloria didn't break her leg though, only her spirit, and that's something you can't recover from.

"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"is one of the most depressing movies I saw, even more because it hasn't lost one ounce of relevance, proving that History keeps repeating itself, staged by the worst of human nature. What an exhausting depressing, haunting and unforgettable movie!
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grim Depression drama that says a lot about our view of 'entertainment'
donaldking21 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
1932 - hard-up couples in Hoover's America enter a dance 'marathon' - if they are the last couple still on their feet, they will win $1500. Original and rarely seen on TV. Rather like NETWORK or THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, it interrogates 'we the audience' in our ceaseless search for 'entertainment.' As the film rolled on, I was continually drawing comparisons with the sickening drivel of BIG BROTHER and all its tatty copies, with every tawdry 'talent show,' and with the excruciatingly embarrassing annual pantomime of 'Red Nose Day.' The very fact that it's done for good causes doesn't excuse it - it makes it all the worse.

When Gig Young (the sleazy compère of the show, looking like a ghastly mixture of Hughie Green, Bob Monkhouse, and Garner Ted Armstrong) helps to pull together one of the over-wrought contestants who is having hallucinations, Jane Fonda remarks caustically, 'I thought you'd have done that in the show - increase the admittance charge.' But Young replies, 'No, it's too real for them.' (Like the difference between EASTENDERS and NIL BY MOUTH, between EMMERDALE and THE WAR ZONE.) And when one of the contestants loses her dress and make-up, Young admits that he did it himself in order to improve the show. Michael Sarrazin naively retorts, 'But this is supposed to be a contest, not a show.' Young corrects him: 'They come to see this in their own misery. Seeing YOUR misery makes them feel happier...' One of the contestants collapses and has to be evicted from the dance floor. Young's announcement could be Davina McCall outside the Big Brother house: 'After we've been together all these hours and days, it's sorry to have to say goodbye to Shirley...'

Gig Young is just superb - he's not simply a corrupt, insincere fairground huckster, but a fully formed character. Young uses his ageing face to portray a man who's seen it all... and yet found nothing to believe in. He mentions that his father was a phony 'faith healer'; when Young was a boy he had to pretend to be miraculously healed when the 'show' was flagging. To prove that nothing has changed, watch Rory & Alec's so-called GOD TV when they have one of those 3- or 4-hour long 'conferences' of boring 'Christian' music, healing, and 'anointing in the Spirit.'

Al Lewis (yes, Grandpa from THE MUNSTERS) is Young's right hand man. He only says a few words, but his looks and mannerisms add to the hard-wired atmosphere of cheapness and dishonesty. Michael Sarrazin (recently deceased), Susannah York (ditto), Jane Fonda (a great actress in her youth - shame about the identikit 'liberal' politics), Bruce Dern, Red Buttons - you couldn't ask for a better cast, but I still think it's Gig Young who steals the show (literally, as it turns out).

Sydney Pollack uses great looming close-ups and strange camera angles; even the colour of it all looks rather weird and somehow tacky. Slow-motion sections often irritate me (think of the terrible 'run toward the funeral' at the end of CAPRICORN ONE - so embarrassing that it almost completely ruins the whole picture) - but the use of it in the second 'Dance Derby' to which the contestants are subjected works very well.
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Desperate dancing.
st-shot22 November 2009
There's a bushel of fine performances to be found on the pier dance hall floor in this grim depression era story about marathon dancers. A popular entertainment in its day the competition would go on round the clock for days with contestants working themselves into a state of exhaustion and collapse in the hope of winning a meager prize. With massive unemployment across the country there was no shortage of contestants and Horses is filled with hard luck cases.

Director Sidney Pollack keeps the pace brisk by inter-cutting scenes between his large cast then amps things up further with dizzying elimination races. Hard luck hoofers Michael Sarrizin, Sussanah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia all contribute powerful performances while Jane Fonda with hard edged cynicism delivers arguably the best acting job of her career. It is Gig Young as the emcee however that steals the film. A light comedy actor in most films Young's jaded good looks and forced optimism ("Yowsa, yowsa") to rouse the audience into thinking the torture on the floor is wholesome entertainment is an incredible portrait of calibrated hypocrisy and exploitation.

Horses oozes cynicism from start to finish with no let up. There is not an ounce of comedy relief and the few scenes that take place outside the dark stifling dance hall in the welcome sun serves only the despair back inside where a sentimental audience tosses coins to a pregnant Bonnie Bedelia warbling "The best things in life are free." Without any upbeat distractions the film can become an endurance of melancholy for the viewer but Pollack and company keep things highly absorbing most of the way in what might be termed a dark piece of historical nostalgia .
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