Ordinarily a film that scoops multiple nominations in the top Oscar categories is guaranteed a Best Picture nod especially if they have the second most nominations that year. Oddly though this wasn’t the case with Syndey Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? which, in addition to its Best Director nomination, received nine total nods but no inclusion in that year’s Best Picture race. Even odder still is the fact that, unlike a lot of these other Best Director films, Pollack’s picture is rather traditionally filmed and has an easy-to-follow narrative with sympathetic characters to boot.
These characters include Michael Sarrazin’s Robert who is the erstwhile narrator of the story and has an opening monologue about a horse being shot whilst we hear the rules for the film-long dance marathon being recited. Robert unwittingly joins the dance marathon after wandering into the hall in which it’s being held and being recruited as a partner for the feisty Gloria by the event’s ruthless MC Rocky. The film is set in depression era America and the couples are competing for a life-changing 1500 dollars although the marathon tests their resolves and personalities. As the movie goes along it’s clear that Rocky is manipulating the contestants in order to create his own narrative and entice the paying audience to appear. This includes disposing of one of the dresses of glamorous aspiring actress Alice to make her seem more down-to-earth and exploiting the navy background of Red Buttons’ elderly sailor Harry. Interspersed amongst the scenes of the marathon are segments in which Michael is being questioned by the police for a crime, however we’re not sure what he’s done until the film’s final frame. These certainly add intrigue to a story that gets more complicated when Michael and Gloria swap partners before finding each other again after several tragic events. The film’s final scenes reveal that marathon is really a lie and makes the audience members leave They Shoot Horses Don’t They? with a feeling of hopelessness and with the movie’s title ringing in their ears.
As the film is set almost entirely within the dance hall I assumed that ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ was based on a play but instead its source material is a novel by Horace McCoy. Whilst I often criticise films that are based entirely in one setting, this film was the exception as it turned the dancehall into some sort of prison from which the characters would never escape. Philip H Lathrop’s outstanding cinematography takes you within the walls of this clammy arena where sunlight is prohibited and where every character on the dancefloor is racked with despair. In the brief moments where the film did step out into the exterior you almost felt the sunlight and the fresh air such as the scene in which Michael opens the emergency exit. The use of music and sound is also prominent throughout the movie with an ominous claxon sounding to signal a ten-minute rest period which got even more haunting as the marathon rolled on. The music itself is almost haunting and is made even more authentic by using real jazz musicians who perform a number of classic hits from the 1920s. However possibly the best element of They Shoot Horses Don’t They? are the performances four of which I’d like to highlight here. Having never been a fan of Jane Fonda’s work up to now I was surprised how much I enjoyed her here as the brittle Gloria who really didn’t care about any of the other characters as long as she won at the end of the day. As this was Fonda’s first major dramatic role I don’t think she’d picked up any of the bad habits I’d witnessed in Julia, Coming Home and On Golden Pond. As Gloria’s fellow marathon competitors Harry and Alice; I admired the work by both Red Buttons and Susannah York with the former bringing the heart to the film and the latter giving a complex turn as somebody who mentally unravels as the marathon goes on.
However, I felt the best performance came from the man who won an Oscar for his role in the film that being Gig Young as Rocky, the film’s antagonist and MC of the marathon. From his first appearance on screen assessing the healthiness of the competitors, Young gives you the impression of how ruthless Rocky is and as the film goes on the screenplay unravels more elements of the character. Young is great both in the outward role of the showman and in the backstage role as the conductor of the other characters’ misery. York and Fonda were both nominated for their roles on the film as of course was Pollack who I thought did good job anchoring the film and placing the audience right in the action. What I don’t understand is why a film as good as this missed out on a Best Picture nod especially when the rather fluffy Hello Dolly was included in that year’s five contenders. My only theory is that there were enough depressing and controversial films in the line-up already such as Z and Midnight Cowboy with some of the academy still looking to the past of the multi-coloured musical rather than forwards to more modern fare. Whilst there’s an argument that Alice’s Restaurant was a little obtuse to be included as a Best Picture nominee, swapping Hello Dolly for They Shoot Horses Don’t They makes 1969’s Best Picture line-up a better crop of five. Ultimately, whilst not perfect, They Shoot Horses Don’t They was a fine film bolstered by some great performances and some fantastic cinematography.
Next time I explore the film for which one of cinema’s most controversial directors won his only Oscar which oddly wasn’t for direction at all.