They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
- Jane Fonda as Gloria Beatty
- Michael Sarrazin as Richard Syverton
- Gig Young as Rocky
- Susannah York as Alice LeBlanc
- Red Buttons as Harry Kline
- Bonnie Bedelia as Ruby
- Bruce Dern as James
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a cathartic, emotionally intense and allegorical look at the Great Depression seen through the weary eyes of those entered into a dance marathon. Desperation, broken dreams and manipulation all feature heavily in the well-acted story of the extreme lengths people will go to in times of economic decline.
In 1932, Richard Syverton is a drifter who one day stumbles upon a dance marathon, the prize for the winner being $1500 . He is then recruited by the manipulative Master of ceremonies Rocky to partner a cynical and discontented young woman named Gloria, when her partner falls ill. Although they barely know each other, they enter for the money that is much-needed at this time in their lives. Amongst the other contestants are Harry Kline, an old sailor who refuses to give up; Alice LeBlanc, a deluded English actress with dreams of making it big, and Ruby, a pregnant woman and her husband James. As the contents starts, we witness how the oily Rocky exploits the insecurities of the couple’s for the audience’s enjoyment and how he puts them through a series of humiliating tasks. This begins to take its toll on the contestants as nerves begin to fray, anger begins to boil and pain becomes all to real. The film in part resembles what reality TV might have been like in the 30’s and the manipulative machinations that go on behind the scenes for the audience’s pleasure. It also functions as a haunting study of desperation within everyone and how it is brought to light through circumstance.
The use of lighting particularly shadows and hues of sepia conjure up a bleak picture of desperate people just trying to get along in this time of hardship. The various uses of old music further capture a nation’s melancholy but still a fleeting bit of hope; most apparent when the pregnant Ruby sings “The best things in life are free” in an emotion choked voice still clinging to her belief that something good will happen. Sydney Pollack has created an immensely believable portrait of the Great Depression and he should be praised for his kinetic direction during the exhausting derby that the contestants are put through. We are placed within this melee of people trying to stay on their aching feet as they race aimlessly round a course. By the end, your emotions are exhausted from the shock of seeing it. The cast assembled for the picture excellently embody the emotions of these people just needing to win. Jane Fonda is the biggest revelation as Gloria, essaying a multi-layered performance of desperation, cynicism and melancholy. Her scenes with Michael Sarrazin are outstanding, as we witness two strangers closely forming a deep relationship against a backdrop of pain. Sarrazin exudes so much emotion through his searching eyes it is unbelievable. The supporting cast is equally as strong. Gig Young stars in an unforgettable Oscar-winning portrayal of greed and mendacity, his shouts of Yowza becoming menacing and taking on sinister tones as the contestants continue to dance for his enjoyment. Susannah York is heartbreaking as the deluded Alice, who for all her glitzy gowns and make-up can’t escape the desperation of her life. Her breakdown in the shower is so intense and shocking, as an audience all we can do is witness it as her blue eyes become haunted. Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern further add to the dramatic impact of the film.
All in all, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is not the most comfortable film to watch but is certainly a devastating evocation of anguish and the need to survive. If it’s dramatic emotional viewing that you require, try this film from Sydney Pollack.