The Day of the Locust (1975) Poster

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A Plague Descends
bkoganbing24 January 2009
It took over 35 years and the collapse of the big studio system before anyone in Hollywood, in this case Paramount, brought Nathanael West's novel The Day Of The Locust to the big screen. That climax at a Hollywood premiere is certainly not something the studios would want to show the public as a typical event.

The book is based on West's experiences while writing B pictures in Hollywood during the Thirties and some of the characters he knew. His main protagonist is William Atherton, an aspiring artist who is making a living doing set designs. That's one competitive business and he's got to go over his immediate supervisor John Hillerman's head to get his work noticed by producer Richard Dysart. Like the rest of West's characters, he's sacrificed pride a long time ago. It's his eyes that we see the other characters through.

But he's a paragon of virtue compared to starlet Karen Black who will do anything and anybody to advance her career. Atherton would love to get something going with her, but he's mindful of how amoral she's become. Her only real attachment is to her father, an ex-vaudevillian and now door to door salesman, Burgess Meredith. Even trying to do his shtick with sales doesn't gain him clients.

But the saddest one in the lot and the fellow with the best performance is Donald Sutherland who is an outsider to the film people, a businessman named Homer Simpson who Black uses and abuses. Sutherland's performance is not too different from the hapless cartoon character. Imagine the cartoon Homer Simpson dealing with real life heartbreak and you've got Sutherland's character. The line between tragedy and comedy can be a very thin one.

Geraldine Page has a brief role as an Aimee Semple McPherson like evangelist, shamelessly bilking the Depression's downtrodden. She's great in the part as is Jackie Earle Haley, a really rotten child star of whom I'd love to know who West's model was.

The Day Of The Locust was directed by John Schlesinger who got an Oscar for The Midnight Cowboy. Like that film, The Day Of The Locust deals with some fringe people just trying to get by. Burgess Meredith got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and the film also got a nomination for Costume Design.

Before Newton Minow referred to television as a vast wasteland. I think that's what Nathanael West had in mind in writing about his experiences in the movie capital. I'd recommend seeing the film to see how well Schlesinger put West's vision across.
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In Hollywood, the unholy swarm never stops.
RJBurke194229 August 2010
I saw this movie, at a cinema, when it was released. I came away from it, horrified and subdued. Now, thirty-five years later, my assessment hasn't change: this is one of the most horrific stories ever to hit the screen and, in my opinion, vies with Mulholland Drive (2001) as the definitive statement about Hollywood - the Dream Factory as someone once said.

What makes this story all the more horrible is that some of the fictional characters were based upon real people. Hence, one can only speculate the extent to which some events have a basis in fact.

The story, published in 1939 from the mind of Nathanael West (ex-Hollywood screen writer), pulls no punches about the trials of Faye Greener (Karen Black, in her finest role, as a green-horn actress) to claw her way into the glitzy world of Hollywood, showing in vivid detail how would-be stars – both sexes – prostitute themselves, literally and figuratively, in their bids for stardom. In sum, the story is about how people sell themselves, and not only in the business of making movies. To that extent, it's also a modern metaphor for all the stories about how all of humanity sells itself to the devil of money everyday, in order to survive.

The difference with the rest of humanity, of course, is that we can keep our sins private.

So into this mix of horror enters naïve Tod Hackett (William Atherton) as an aspiring art director to a Hollywood mogul. He lives in the same apartment block as Faye and is smitten; but he makes no headway, because she's on the make for somebody to make her a star. So Tod – arguably West's alter ego for the story – is reduced to being an observer to all that transpires between Faye and all those she encounters. One of whom is Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), a mild-mannered bachelor and accountant who just likes to mind his own business; in today's psychological parlance, he'd be labeled as extreme passive-aggressive personality type. So, like Tod, he's also bowled over one day when he meets Faye through his association with Faye's father, Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith, in his finest role), a has-been vaudevillian who does old tricks as he goes about as a door-to-salesman, in the Hollywood hills, a pathetic caricature of what all actors must do to survive.

And, like the passing parade that begins the story, the viewer, with Tod, goes on to meet a succession of unsavory dead beats, in high and low society, who pull and push at poor Faye to do their bidding, all with the promise of rich dreams and dreams of riches. Faye is a lost soul, however, devoured by desires she can't stop or ignore: but she can do what it takes – she can hack it. But can Tod? Well, yes and no, as the viewer learns.

For my money, the most unsavory of all characters, and stunningly played, is the child actor Adore (Jack Earle Haley) who continually torments Homer at and near his home, and who meets Homer for the last time at a back street, off Vine, where a Hollywood premier opening is, ironically, the last major scene in this movie. Anybody who sees this movie will forever remember that scene between Homer and Adore. Not to be forgotten also is Adore's utterly obnoxious and evil mother, played by Gloria LeRoy (I think).

But it is the transformation of Homer in that back street – infatuated with Faye and tormented by his inhibitions laid bare by a child – that is, without doubt, one of the finest pieces of acting ever. Why Donald Sutherland didn't get even a nomination is beyond belief.

(As an aside, I can't help wondering whether the developers of the long-running TV cartoon of The Simpsons used the name Homer Simpson as some kind of back-handed reference to Locust.)

The mise en scene, photography and soundtrack are exemplary. The direction by Schlesinger is so astute, it's invisible to this viewer. And the script faithfully follows the story to the last line of the novel; the only significant exception is the omission of the back story about Homer, before he came to Hollywood.

Has much changed in Hollywood since 1939? Has human nature changed? Whatever your opinion, do see also Mulholland Drive (2001), David Lynch's take on the same basic story: young girl wants to be in pictures and gets what she wants – or does she?

If Locust sucks you in, Drive will swallow you whole into an even worse nightmare. Both movies have my highest recommendation. Enjoy.
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A noble effort that, despite mixed results, merits serious attention.
ags12323 September 2007
Though not entirely successful, "The Day of the Locust" is an ambitious work that demands consideration and analysis. As a scathing indictment of Hollywood, it falls short of "Sunset Boulevard," the standard bearer on that front. It's ironic that Nathanael West's concise novel was turned into an overblown film that should have said more with less. We get where all this is going long before the finale forces it down our throats. Performances are quite good, especially Donald Sutherland, who imbues his character with pathos, something all the others lack. Karen Black is a question mark. She's not charismatic enough to carry the film. Even though her character is shallow and untalented, there should be more evidence why all the men are drawn to her. William Atherton's not bad as the cautious observer sucked into the maelstrom. Supporting roles are excellent – Burgess Meredith, Geraldine Page, Billy Barty all rise to their star turns. John Schlesinger directed quite a diverse canon of films, and his skill and intelligence show throughout "The Day of the Locust." This is a daring, thoughtful film that will linger in the viewer's mind.
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Much maligned but really rather outstanding
MOscarbradley11 April 2017
Critically much maligned but really rather an outstanding screen adaptation of Nathanael West's 'difficult' novel about Hollywood in the 1930's and based on West's own experiences there as a 'hack' writer. The British director John Schlesinger helmed the picture, bringing much the same jaundiced eye to bear on proceedings as he did in "Midnight Cowboy". Waldo Salt wrote the excellent script and the outstanding cast included Karen Black as the wannabe actress trying to make it big in the movies, Burgess Meredith as her drunken father, William Atherton as the young art director in love with her and Donald Sutherland as the sad and lonely Homer Simpson that Black all but destroys and whose presence instigates the films tragic ending. The great Conrad Hall photographed the picture and the monstrous child is Jackie Earle Haley.
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Has one of the most horrific scenes ever made...
Oryx13 September 1998
I stumbled upon this watching cable one day, just minutes before the climactic riot scene. Even without knowing the set-up for it, I found it to be one of the most truly horrifying scenes I'd ever seen in a movie.

I finally had a chance to watch the movie again from the beginning, and found it by turns gorgeous, puzzling, chilling, and provocative. You could talk for hours with friends regarding what this movie is 'about', or what it is 'trying to say'.

The basic plot involves a young scene designer and aspiring actress in 1930s Hollywood. She is naive, manipulative, self-centered, yet full of life and hope. He falls in love with her, but she has no intentions of falling for him. Any plot summary about the surface storyline is almost beside the point though, because this movie is far more a study of human nature, both of individuals and of groups and crowds. It seems to be a movie about appetites as much as anything....hunger for fame, sex, riches, recognition; and about rage, both repressed and terrifyingly expressed.

Its pace is slow, and it is not light viewing. If you watch without paying too much attention, or wander off for five minutes here or there to get some popcorn or whatever, you probably will find it rather odd and rambling. But it's well written and complex characters will draw in the careful viewer, and by the time you do reach the end, it will leave you very, very disturbed.

Looking for something light and entertaining? Do NOT pick this one. But if you're up for a unique, powerful, and challenging movie, give it a try!
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Why Hollywood Hates Hollywood
rokcomx5 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Perhaps the most anti-Hollywood movie ever made by Hollywood! Scarcely seen since its 1975 release, and all-but-forgotten except among devout movie fans, it's worth seeing if only for the meticulous recreation of the period when Hollywood went from golden pond to fetid cesspool. Most all the principals prove to be immoral and hideous, as foreshadowed by the apartment wall paintings of the lead, a movie art director who arrives in town full of hope and optimism, but soon ends up wallowing in the same gutter as the cockroach characters he once emulated and admired.

The movie unfolds much like if one actually moved to Hollywood - lots of glitz and glam at first, until the seediness and evilness takes center stage. Donald Sutherland is particularly powerful, as a somewhat dimwitted innocent whose turn for the worse at the end of the movie provides one of the most shocking and memorable climaxes in movie history. If you haven't seen or heard about it, I won't spoil it here - if you're lucky enough to come across Day of the Locust, DON'T read any of the IMDb or online reviews until AFTER viewing. I guarantee you'll be whacked over the head with some powerful surprises ---
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Long and rather dull overall, but the ending is still a shocker even now...
mlraymond9 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Visually, this film could hardly be better at evoking the Art Deco Thirties look of Hollywood. The cars, bungalows, clothing, even details like lamps and radios, are all convincing in their period detail. The characters are reasonably believable also, with some good work by Burgess Meredith as a former vaudeville performer turned door to door salesman, and William Atherton as the ambitious set designer hoping to get his big break in Hollywood. Karen Black is good as the annoying starlet Faye Greener, and Billy Barty makes his hostile dwarf character a believable person. He's a lot like most people in Hollywood, just smaller. His exact function is unclear, though I believe he might be an agent of some sort. Richard Dysart and John Hillerman as studio executives, and Bo Hopkins as a cowboy wannabe are effective. Jackie Earl Haley is all too believable as a nasty brat of a would be child star, being pushed into show business by a classic stage mother.

The film tends to drag, with overly long sequences, and the main problem is the essentially uninteresting and mainly unlikable characters. It's a film that requires patience and a lot of concentration from an audience, and it's not surprising it wasn't successful when first shown in theaters.

If you've ever seen the 1932 classic What Price Hollywood?, you'll probably enjoy this movie, though I'm not sure enjoy is really the right word. Without giving away anything, the climactic riot that breaks out at the movie premiere is a truly horrifying sequence that is not for the fainthearted. The brutal actions committed by Donald Sutherland's character, and those inflicted on him by the mob, are genuinely the stuff of nightmares. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is worth seeing, for those not afraid of risking coming face to face with the evil that human beings are capable of.
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Surprisingly Effective Adaptation
evanston_dad5 July 2005
I couldn't decide whether or not this movie was evocative or just listless. But given the fact that it has stuck with me long since I actually watched it, I would have to finally go with the former.

This is a screen adaptation of the seemingly unadaptable Nathanael West novel. To compare it to the book is pointless; if you've read the novel, you know that no movie could be anything but freely adapted. But director John Schlesinger and the team he has assembled here do a good job of sticking with West's tone and getting the important elements across. The movie is slightly tedious, and Schlesinger's efforts to play around with contrasts (mostly in the door-to-door salesman scenes featuring Burgess Meredith) come across as clunky. But mostly, his directorial instincts are right on.

The acting is pretty good, with Donald Sutherland and Karen Black giving the most notable performances in tough roles. Burgess Meredith is o.k. but feels underused, and I suspect he was directed to play his character more grotesquely than maybe he would have been prone to do otherwise.

The surreal, nightmare ending, while true to West's novel, doesn't really work. Schlesinger forces his hand too hard, and it's slightly silly, but yet eerily effective anyway. And the final, wordless scene with Karen Black seems just right.

All in all, a fine film and well worth seeing for its own sake, regardless of your familiarity with its source material.

Grade: A-
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