Straw Dogs Review

The Film

We'll shortly be putting up some lists of great films here at the site, and all the lists will have something in common - the almost complete absence of women film-makers. In fact look at most 100 greatest film polls and you will see a dearth of female names behind the camera. I would even admit that if you thumbed through my film collection, you'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of films directed by women. This is because for most of its history, cinema has been made by men about men and great film-makers like Kurosawa made great, great films without creating a single female character that properly lived on celluloid. Similarly John Woo's women are martyrs or lovers, and, even in our supposedly enlightened times, one Hollywood studio recently decided that films fronted by women were box office poison.

In his magnificent films, Sam Peckinpah was similarly obsessed with men, their camaraderie, their brotherhood and their loner morality, and you can argue that women register in his cinema much like notches on a bedpost. The critic Pauline Kael described Peckinpah's Straw Dogs as a "fascist work of art" because of its violence to women and the conclusion that pacifism was never an option in life. She saw the film deconstructing the lovely liberal icon of Dustin Hoffman, only to build him up again as a man of action, delighting in his retribution on criminal scum. She saw the suggestions of rough sex and physical masculinity as transgressions against the new hard won gender politics of her time. Others wanted to decry the film as well, and less enlightened journos presented this irresposible film as more evidence that the decent world was falling apart.
Well, Straw Dogs is not an irresponsible film. In fact, it is a film screaming against apathy and non-involvement, in particular its focus is on a certain kind of cerebral man who keeps the world at a distance because he is scared of it. Hoffman plays that archetype here and his David Sumner has run from student activism in the USA to find peace in the Cornish countryside. Sumner protects himself from his wife's need for affection by keeping her as a child, someone he teaches and chides, he protects himself from his house guests like the local magistrate and the vicar by blasting music when they visit, and he believes his intellect will keep the horny and rough workmen from transgressing his home and status.

Sumner has ostensibly come to Cornwall to learn about his young wife's roots and to study. Once there he is plunged into a world of loose legality, strange conventions and rampant physicality. Chief amongst this local community is the brood of Tom Hedden, a powder keg patriarch fueled by drink and bullying. His sons are louts who leer and attack Sumner's wife and his teenage daughter lusts after Sumner despite her age. The local authorities are firm with Hedden but ultimately helpless in stopping him from the havoc he wreaks and he is driven to impose his own law where his family is concerned. For all the tumult of US campuses radicalism and the Vietnam War, Sumner has arrived not in a rural idyll but in a world just as volatile as his homeland.
Sumner's egocentric non-involvement leads his privacy to be invaded and his wife to be raped, but it is only when his home is threatened that he will act, and then he acts as brutally as those who are against him. That he does this with an obvious distaste and an odd kind of misplaced pride, makes Sumner even more of a pitiful man as it is his distance which has brought the carnage upon him. The film ends with Sumner framed with a child murderer, a manchild, admitting that he no longer knows where the home he protected really is. Sumner has become lost because of needing to succumb to the violence he despises and to use a part of himself that he wants to deny the existence of in himself and in others.

This could simply all boil down to Peckinpah asking what makes a man as he did in numerous of his films. His conclusion is that the non-engaged, cerebral man is no better than anyone else, and perhaps much worse. The implication is that Sumner does not know how to love his wife, or to be a man, and that in eventually acting against a world that won't stay away from him he is far worse off than if he acted sooner and took part in the events that scare him. Straw Dogs attempts to disorientate the viewer much as it turns Sumner's world upside down, and some have found this intention too much, but how is it wrong to remind people of their role in the greater world and their own capacity for violence whether that is in the big city, on the Cornish coast or in the killing fields? Far from being a "fascist" film, Straw Dogs is a wake up call to the disengaged and the unaffected that the world outside can't be forgotten.
Straw Dogs is extremely effective in its goal to disturb and it is littered with fine actors like David Warner, TP McKenna and Peter Vaughan, who ensure that the supporting performances create the environment of rural unease that Peckinpah wants. The editing by Roger Spottiswoode is excellent and the flashback scenes of the rape as well as the eventual battle complete with emphasised sound effects are superlative. All of these elements are the background to the central matter of the character of Sumner played by that nice Dustin Hoffman, and as seen by the intellectual hating Peckinpah, and the director's contempt drips off the screen as smugness and complacency is torn away from his modern day Job. This is an audience baiting effect that later directors would use to the best of their abilities, such as Haneke in Funny Games and Chabrol in La Ceremonie, but Peckinpah got there first to destroy Sumner's illusion of bourgeois neutrality and the viewer's sense of safety. And what is amazing is that this still works some thirty six years later, as you will leave Straw Dogs shocked and hopefully a little more woken up. Powerful, disturbing and a landmark film.

The Discs

This is a German release, so some extras are unfriendly to English speakers. The two discs come in a gatefold booklet with three compartments, two housing discs and one for the booklet included with this release. This is further housed in a sturdy cardboard dustsleeve bearing the same cover art - a kind of red version of the images used for the Criterion release. The transfer is a definite improvement on the Fremantle disc and comparable in quality terms to the Criterion treatment, it does seem to have been contrast and colour boosted a little but it is quite sharp bar a small number of scenes. Edge enhancement is noticeable but not excessive, and the basic print shows damage in lines, hairs and specks. It is though a very presentable transfer.

Bar the opening titles, the sound is very good with only occasional background hum to distract the listener. The opening titles have considerably more in terms of hiss and pops but this does not recur during the whole film. The English track is a good mono soundtrack with dialogue clear and audible and a German mono track is also included. The main feature is presented on its own on disc one in this set.
Disc two contains an interesting, if a little passé, documentary on the film which cuts interviews from many of the production crew along with archive footage of Peckinpah and interviews from collaborators. It introduces the viewer to the path of Peckinpah's career, his fights with studios, his being blackballed from making films in Hollywood and his reputation for drunkenness. There are also small featurettes on the film with producer Daniel Melnick reflecting on his friendship with the director, the problems with the first cameraman and first editor chosen, and how the instinctive Peckinpah found working with the method actor Hoffman, and in the remaining piece David Warner reveals why his name does not appear on the film.

The disc also includes various length trailers and teasers in English and most intriguingly a super 8 version of the film which runs at 85 minutes and is not in the greatest shape with discolouration, shedloads of lines and a smeariness in light colours, especially faces. The commentary which accompanies the film on the main disc is in German, as is the essay on the film in the booklet. The booklet includes poster art from all over the world. These are the sole two extras in German only, and the menus are in German although they are easy to work out and navigate. The whole package of the discs has been well presented and fans will be pleased with the care shown here.

Summary

Straw Dogs is a momentous film, not simply because of its struggle against the BBFC in the UK but because of what it was trying to say at a volatile time in world history. Its call to arms has been misread by some as a plea for machismo and male breast beating, but it really is a denunciation of a certain kind of ivory tower apathy that thinks the world can be held outside of our front doors. This is still a state of mind that needs challenging in our modern lives where the outside world only ever comes in via TV news, and, like as not, this will continue to be a powerful film for the next 40 years as well. Straw Dogs has been shown off well by EuroVideo and even if the extras don't match the Fremantle disc, the main transfer and documentary are well worth checking out.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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