Straw Dogs: Animal Behavior


strawdogsDustin Hoffman has claimed that he only agreed to make this movie for the money. He’s not a big fan of violent flicks, which makes his participation utterly ironic considering the uproar Straw Dogs caused. The violence in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant The Wild Bunch (1969) certainly had people talking, but this one premiered the same year as A Clockwork Orange and both films started a debate that lasted for many years.

In 1984 Straw Dogs was banned in Britain and remained in the doghouse until 2002. Peckinpah claimed that he was only exploring violence, not endorsing it, and that’s the attitude one should have when watching his film.

Mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) has left America to live with his gorgeous British wife Amy (Susan George) in a small Cornwall village. David is not a popular figure there, but Amy knows the locals well and even has a romantic history with one of them, Charlie (Del Henney). He’s hired along with several other construction workers to renovate the Sumner couple’s isolated farmhouse. However, the tension between David and the workers continues. One day, the couple’s cat is found strangled and Amy instantly believes that one of the locals must have done it. At the same time, she is not entirely hostile toward them; all too often, Amy can’t help but feel attracted to the rough men laboring on the roof since David is immersed in his work and doesn’t pay much attention to her. In the end, it will have to be up to Amy whether or not she chooses to follow her lust… and the locals confront David with a request that they expect him to obey.

Much cynicism at work
The film’s rape scene may be famous, but it can hardly count among the most upsetting ever committed to celluloid; it is however its ambiguity that makes it memorable. Peckinpah doesn’t shy away from ingredients that might shock his audience. The film’s title refers to a famous Lao Tzu quote where straw dogs are used as an example of how heaven and earth lack benevolence. Most of these characters are thoroughly unsympathetic and in that last half-hour when all hell breaks loose most viewers will find themselves cheering for Hoffman’s character to kill as many of his assailants as possible, even though their initial motives are understandable.

There’s much cynicism here at work and Peckinpah, along with his cast and crew, do their best to emphasize these negative feelings and create a thriller that is genuinely unpleasant and intriguing to watch. Cinematographer John Coquillon makes the village look as drab, chilly and gray as possible; the actors who portray the locals certainly look like they belong in this awfully small-minded place. Jerry Fielding’s music score is a bit intrusive but has effective moments, especially as a force accompanying Peckinpah’s quick cuts between several simultaneous sequences.

The lead performances are excellent; George as a frustrated woman who gets more than she bargained for, and Hoffman as a mild-mannered academic who turns into a brute defending his home. The movie will have you at the edge of your seat, but once the end credits begin to roll you will start wondering just how much of the story has any substance beyond mere provocation.

Straw Dogs 1971-U.S. 113 min. Color. Produced by Daniel Melnick. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: David Zelag Goodman, Sam Peckinpah. Novel: Gordon Williams (“The Siege of Trencher’s Farm”). Cinematography: John Coquillon. Music: Jerry Fielding. Cast: Dustin Hoffman (David Sumner), Susan George (Amy Sumner), Peter Vaughan (Tom Hedden), T.P. McKenna, Peter Arne… Colin Welland. Cameo: David Warner.

Trivia: Donald Sutherland, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier were allegedly considered for the role of David; Diana Rigg, Charlotte Rampling and Helen Mirren for Amy. Remade as Straw Dogs (2011).

Last word: “We had a very bad book. I wrote the script with David Goodman and then [Daniel] Melnick and David went off by themselves without my knowledge and wrote a completely different script, and [agent] Marty Baum blew his top about that and took it to London and said, ‘Did you know anything about this?’ I said No. He said, ‘Write the script.’ So I wrote the script. I had to sign a paper with Mr. Baum stating that I would have a happy ending. But once I’d cast Susan George, I knew that was impossible. I played it down to the end until Dustin Hoffman came up to me and said, ‘We can’t make this ending,’ and I said, ‘Well how about this one, Dustin?’… So it’s always a gamble and it’s always a fight and it’s adventure!” (Peckinpah, Movietone News)

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