I had the great pleasure of chatting all things Vigilante Thriller with Dr James Newton, a lecturer in Media Studies, and a filmmaker, at The University of Kent (and author of the very good The Mad Max Effect). Check it out here
Today sees the release of The Vigilante Thriller: Violence, Spectatorship and Identification in American Cinema, 1970-76 from Bloomsbury Academic.
This is a detailed examination of vigilantism in 1970s American film, from its humble niche beginnings as a response to relaxing censorship laws to its growth into a unique subgenre of its own. Cary Edwards explores the contextual factors leading to this new cycle of films ranging from Joe (1970) and The French Connection (1971) to Dirty Harry (1971)and Taxi Driver (1976), all of which have been challenged by contemporary critics for their gratuitous, copycat-inspiring violence. Yet close analysis of these films reveals a recurring focus on the emerging moral panic of the 1970s, a problematisation of Law and Order’s role in contemporary society, and an increasing awareness of the impossibility of American myths of identity.
There’s a book on the way… The Vigilante Thriller: Violence, Spectatorship and Identification in American Cinema, 1970-76 from Bloomsbury Academic is available for pre-order now for release on 21st April 2022.
Exploring the cycle of Vigilante films that occurred in the 1970s, The Vigilante Thriller explores the socio-political and cinematic backgrounds of the films (including Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Taxi Driver) before analysing the spectator’s relationship to these transgressive texts.
In 1967 Stanley Fish published a seminal work that reconceptualised the understanding of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Seduced by Sin Fish argued that the true subject of Paradise Lost was not Satan, or Adam and Eve, but the reader himself who, through the epic poem’s structure and use of recognisable narrative forms (Satan’s heroic journey being patterned on The Odyssey and The Aeneid), experiences his own fall. For Fish the reader is “confronted with evidence of his corruption” (1967, ixxii) when he realises his seduction by Satan’s heroic narrative and should, by the end of the work, come to realise his own temptations and spiritual limitations, becoming a sort of guilty reader who develops an understanding of the limits of his own spirituality.
At first glance a 17th Century English poetic work seems to have little in common with Death Wish, a film that has long been neglected by serious critics despite its box-office success and evident influence on cinema (arguably starting a whole sub-genre of vigilante/revenge films which continues to this day, with a 2018 re-make). Indeed Death Wish was received with outright hostility by most main-stream critics in the US and UK, and still exists as a sort of by-word for violent exploitative film – happily referenced during real-life crimes, such as those of Bernie Goetz in 1984, by lazy journalists.
On its release Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, called it
a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers
in July 1974, returning in August to decry its popularity with “law-and-order fanatics, sadists, muggers, club women, fathers, older sisters, masochists, policemen, politicians, and, it seems, a number of film critics”. Roger Ebert denounced it as “propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice”, and Richard Schickel called it “vicious”. Judy Klemersud was sent by The New York Times to answer the question “What do They See in ‘Death Wish’?”, noticing how audiences cheered when Bronson (as the audience identified him, not his character Paul Kersey) gunned down muggers, and confessing that she too found herself, much to her shame, “applauding several times.” A clear characterisation of the film and its audience emerged, but if it was intended to warn away movie-goers it failed as the film took over £20 million in the US on a budget of $3million (Talbot 2006, 8).
But what if there’s something more complex at work in Death Wish? What if we can take Fish’s ideas about the reader in Paradise Lost and apply them to a film written off as exploitation? What emerges is a film much more complicated than previously assumed – one that tempts the spectator into identification with a psychotic protagonist, forcing them to reflect on their own sense of law, order and justice and the lure of simplistic answers to complicated problems.
Use of Myth & Genre
Many critics have perceived Death Wish as a sort of “urban Western”, an attempt to relocate the form to a more relevant setting, taking account of the demythologising of the genre that occurred through the 1960s and the early 1970s (through the Spaghetti Westerns and revisionist films such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970)). There is much on the surface that makes this suggestion appealing; Death Wish repeatedly references the codes of law and order represented in the Western, most notably in Paul Kersey’s journey to Tucson where his is schooled in “the old American tradition of self-defence” by Aimes Jainchill, the sort of man who carries a gun openly and has bull horns on his car. The casting of Bronson as Kersey, who came to fame in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) and cemented his association with the genre in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), furthers this, lending the theory some pertinence which is helped by the film’s direction.
Winner directs the film in a traditional Hollywood style (despite his English nationality), eschewing the experiments of form that characterise the New Hollywood period when the film was produced. Indeed one could quite happily label his work as heavy handed, if efficient in covering ground quickly. Generally speaking, except in the infamous rape scene, Winner avoids using subjective techniques, instead allowing the spectator to remain distanced from the action, watching it unfold rather than being in the centre of it. This lends the film a sort of comfort in its spectating position, as does the use of genre tropes from the Western, helping to put the spectator at their ease.
When Kersey’s wife and daughter are attacked the attacker’s behaviour can easily be compared to that of the “Red Indians” in any of the multitude of Westerns audiences had familiarised themselves with through film and television during the past decades.
Much of the initial critical opprobrium directed at the film stemmed from the rape scene and Winner directs it to cause maximum offence and impact – the effect of this is two-fold. First it brings to life the implicit rape threat that was contained in many Westerns for a modern audience more accustomed to such images by films such as A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) and Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), but also it’s critical for the rest of the film that the crime be sufficiently disturbing that Kersey’s reaction to it seems, on the surface at least, reasonable. From this Kersey’s rediscovery of a Western code of justice follows, with the crime fitting that code – it is after all his “women-folk” who have been attacked in his urban “home-stead” (his wife is killed, the daughter is left in a vegetative state, conveniently unable to voice her own views).
Underpinning the Western genre is a binary opposition between the Wilderness and Civilization, the former a male environment in which the hero belonged, versus the feminizing force of the latter and Death Wish plays with this suggesting that the feminising power of civilization has left Kersey unable to protect his family, and the authorities impotent in the face of crime. Such a philosophy is espoused by Jainchill during the Tuscon segment, where the wide open spaces are contrasted to the dark alleys of New York. Here Kersey witnesses a Wild West show, an artificial and corny representation that beguiles him. Here he discovers a simple answer to New York’s crime problems – the good man versus the bad man.
There is no doubting the seriousness of crime, and especially mugging, during the 1970s so one can assume a certain pre-existing sympathy on behalf of the spectator, especially as they had paid to see a film in which the advertising campaign had highlighted the controversial elements (the tag-line read “Vigilante, city style – judge, jury and executioner”). But the film goes further in seducing the audience towards being sympathetic to Kersey by surrounding his actions with supporters and suggestions that his acts would have a significant impact on crime (the DA claiming a reduction in mugging from 950 per week to 470). The representation of the media within the film, complete with Western inspired imagery such as a noose and the headline “Frontier Justice in the Streets” on the cover of Harper’s, serves to cement this. A consistent narrative of Kersey’s effectiveness is built up – so much that it inspires other New Yorkers to defend themselves (such as Alma Lee Brown, seen in a TV news report, defending herself with a hat-pin).
These elements, alongside the comforting familiarity of the Western model, invite the spectator to align more closely with Kersey as the film continues, as does the comparison provided by Kersey’s ineffectual son-in-law and the scenes in which Kersey is confronted by a police force unable to catch his wife & daughter’s attackers. Having primed us in Tuscon the film returns to New York where Kersey starts acting out his new found sense of law and order, imaging himself to be the lawman of myth.
Kersey’s first act of violence is in self-defence (using a sock filled with a roll of coins), his second (this time with the revolver given to him by Jainchill) saves a man from being mugged. These actions fit within the narrative conventions of the Western, ideas of self-defence or helping the defenceless. They may be the acts of a vigilante, but they retain a certain sympathy, especially as Kersey reacts traumatically (vomiting after the first instance).
From then on Kersey’s actions become more sinister: he begins riding the Subway miles away from home waiting for someone to attack. He cruises the parks with no intent to look for people to save, rather he deliberately makes himself a target, enticing attackers by placing himself in vulnerable positions. And he begins to enjoy it. At home he surrounds himself with the newspapers and magazines that detail his exploits, watching the news reports that validate his actions with a broad smile on his face. He has moved well beyond the desire to protect himself and, of course, he has spent no time at all searching for those who harmed his family. It’s an often neglected detail, but a key one;
Death Wish is not a film about vengeance, at least not in a direct sense. Although the attack on his wife and daughter instigates a change in how Kersey views the world, none of his subsequent acts are directed towards punishing those responsible.
To have done so would have more easily placed Kersey into a pre-existing narrative schema, recognisable from films such as The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), but the film simply elides its way past this point and takes the spectator with it. We have the justification for Kersey’s crusade, but by omitting a direct vengeance against the criminals responsible the film moves slowly away from expectations towards something more complex and troubling. By the time Kersey is shooting men in the back, about as far from the Western code as you can get, the spectator is positioned so as not to notice the departure from expectations.
Revealing the Truth
On reflection cracks in this world appear early, indeed even in the opening prologue (added by Winner, and not present in the original novel by Brian Garfield) in which Kersey and his Wife enjoy a holiday. Ostensibly included to increase the tragedy that follows and to draw a direct comparison with the Hellish New York that follows, Hawaii is represented as an Edenic space, a land of plenty. However anyone with a cursory knowledge of crime on the islands can recognise this image as a sham, the resort an artifice behind which lies high levels of violent crime and drug-use. This effectively preys on our understandings of binary oppositions, the calm pastoral idyll as opposed to the degradations of civilization – however this Eden is so obviously false, as is the world of Tucson presented later which Kersey is so beguiled by. The Wild West show, from which Kersey draws inspiration, is over the top, a tired rehash of clichés for children and tourists in which the gun shots and deaths are clearly fake. Jainchill himself is an over the top caricature. Winner gently suggests to us here that the world that Kersey identifies with is a sham in itself; what values can possibly be drawn from it?
Alone in the film, as a voice of reason, is Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) edging towards the only logical conclusion about Paul Kersey: that he has become a serial killer. Ochoa provides an alternative protagonist in the film, but he is drawn to be uninspiring, a man of stubby cigars and crumpled coat, stuck with a permanent cold, as if crime was a literal disease. In a different edit of the film one could imagine Ochoa becoming the hero, tracking down Kersey the killer, but this would remove the growing moral complexity from the film, cemented when Ochoa tells Kersey to leave New York.
What of Kersey at this point? He has descended into a psychotic state, believing himself to be a lawman in the Old West; of course his targets aren’t the Native Americans of the films, or the bad men in black hats, but young urban men whose lives can only be hinted at.
During the final confrontation the young black man Kersey has chased and cornered can only be confused by the demand to “Draw” and “Fill your hand” – codes utterly inaccessible and irrelevant to someone who had previously exhorted Kersey to “Come on down, Mother Fucker”.
When confronted by Ochoa Kersey inquires if he has to leave town “by sundown?” Slowly, but inexorably, through the film, Kersey has bought into his own fantasies of law and order, coming to see himself as the hero of the West, but moving on to being someone who cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy.
During the final moments of Death Wish Paul Kersey arrives in Chicago and, having disembarked from his train, is confronted by the sight of a gang of young men harassing a woman. As Kersey helps the woman recover the belongings that have been scattered over the floor he turns to the young men and forms his fingers into a gun shape, smiling broadly. But look at that shot again and you can see that the finger, ostensibly aimed at the young men, is pointing straight at us. It’s an image that reaches all the way back to 1903 and the first Western, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which, as the legend goes, had the audience ducking under their seats with its final image of a bandit shooting straight towards the camera. The image has been remade, but the implication is the same – you’re next. The modern audience of course considers itself too sophisticated to duck their heads at such an image, but have they been too sophisticated to be seduced by Death Wish?
Through its use of familiar tropes and structures Death Wish plays out a tempting fantasy, one of easy answers to complicated questions. But rather than simply endorse Paul Kersey the film turns to the spectator and asks whether they too have been drawn in to this fantasy – a fantasy in which complex problems of urban degradation are made into narratives of good men versus bad men. The subtle hints that pepper the narrative, undermining its representations, point to a question for the spectator – are they too to be seduced like the Kersey’s many supporters in the city? As he turns to the camera in the final seconds Bronson reveals the film’s trick – a gothca moment designed to entrap us.
Just as Fish suggests regards Paradise Lost, the real subject of Death Wish is the audience. The question it asks them: are you conscious enough to see your own temptations?
Ebert, Roger (1974) Death Wish. Chicago Sun Times. [online] http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-wish-1974 [accessed 10 September 2017]
Fish, Stanley (1967) Seduced by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gilliat, Penelope (1974) Death Wish. New Yorker Magazine. 26 August.
Klemersrud, Judy (1974) What do They See in Death Wish? The New York Times. 01 September.
Schickel, Richard (1974) Mug Shooting. Time. 19 August.
Talbot, Paul (2006) Bronson’s Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films. Lincoln: iUniverse
Released to a storm of controversy in Japan, Battle Royale, quickly developed a cult following in the West, no doubt helped by rumours that it was banned in the US (it wasn’t, but legal issues and censorship concerns kept it off screens for many years). A film that prompted questions in the Japanese parliament is now older than the competitors in the game it depicts.
A new form of Battle Royale controversy, as seen in the moral panic regarding video games such as Fortnite and PUBG, has since surfaced and the old arguments about media effects has come back, spearheaded by President Trump among others, in the wake of more school shooting in the US. But what of the original film itself?
Battle Royale still retains the power to shock; it’s difficult not to watch open mouthed at times as a class of forty-two 15-16 year olds set about killing each other. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification of a film in which violence is used as a tool to critique the Japanese education system and their history of a martial culture. That many reviewers, and politicians, concentrated on the film’s violence when it was released only obfuscated the fact that it’s a much smarter film than it might first appear. Yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a film that probes the culture that produces such violence and never holds back from pointing fingers.
It would be easy to lump Battle Royale in with other violent films of the noughties, particularly the rise of torture porn, but that would be to denigrate a film that takes a real interest in its characters and draws from the director’s own experiences of the Second World War. Kinji Fukasaku, best known to Western audiences for his work on Tora, Tora, Tora (1970), took on the film at the age of 71, in part because it took him back to his work in a weapons factory when he was a teenager:
During the raids, even though we were friends working together, the only thing we would be thinking of was self-preservation. We would try to get behind each other or beneath dead bodies to avoid the bombs. When the raid was over, we didn’t really blame each other, but it made me understand about the limits of friendship (Rose 2001).
The limits of friendship are tested throughout as the students of class 3-B are each given a bag of supplies, a weapon, and 3 days to kill each other. Battle Royale takes place in a vaguely futuristic Japan where, after an economic crisis, youth is seen to be running wild. The government’s response, the BR Act, selects a single class from across the country (supposedly at random) and places them in a remote location. Only one of them is allowed to leave. To ensure their compliance each student is fitted with an explosive collar; if they step out of line or if more than one is alive at the deadline their throat explodes.
Although the film mostly follows the rather sweet couple of Shuya and Noriko, Fukasaku takes care to give as many of the students a sense of character as possible. This is expanded in the Special Edition in which the previously psychotic Mitsuko is given a back story that partly explains her character (an incredibly creepy sequence in which she is sold, as a little girl, by her mother to a paedophile whom Mitsuko then kills by accident). This emphasis on character shows a care for the students that lifts them from being cannon fodder. Some are resourceful, some are terrified, some are desperate to lose their virginity before death, but none are identical. It pushes back against the typical view of teenagers as a homogenous mass that threaten society. Indeed, the film clearly suggests that the teenagers are no worse than the culture that created them.
Shuya has been let down by his parents (an absent mother and a father who killed himself, Shuya finding the body), but he shows great resourcefulness and loyalty. Contrast him to the teacher Kitano (played by director ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano) who runs the Battle Royale – his life is in tatters: he is alienated from his wife and daughter, and has grown to hate his former class, and the young in general, for making him feel impotent (all except Noriko, for whom he has an unhealthy obsession). It’s a terrific performance by Kitano, which plays on his dual status as director of violent films and game-show host. He is almost impassive throughout only hinting at the inner frustrations his character is riven with, becoming so petty he refuses to share some cookies he swiped from Noriko with the military officers who run the “game”.
Seen very much as a satire on the highly competitive Japanese education system on release the film exposes what happens when people are pitched against each other for crumbs. Of course, inevitably, the game is rigged with two ringers brought in to stack the deck against the students. Just like life, lip-service is paid to fairness, but the reality is far from it. When I first watched the film, when it was released in the UK in 2001, it seemed like a pretty dark and remote vision of how schools could become competitive production lines designed to stifle young-people and scare them into conforming. Having been in teaching for 12 years now it seems much less ridiculous. Reforms to the education system in England are leading to a rise in mental illness in students and one teacher’s comment that “I have at least one student who has attempted suicide, and others with a variety of mental health issues” (Busby) is becoming alarmingly typical, and something I’ve witnessed on a local level. This extends to UK universities where “the suicide rate among UK students had risen by 56 per cent in the 10 years between 2007 and 2016, from 6.6 to 10.3 per 100,000 people” (Rudgard).
An economic crisis followed by an increasingly cut-throat and competitive education system that pits young people against each other in which they are made to feel that their very lives are at stake? Battle Royale is now closer to reality than I find comfortable.
Busby, Eleanor (2018) Pupils self-harm and express suicidal feelings due to exam stress and school pressure, warn teachers. The Independent [online]. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/school-pupil-mental-health-exams-school-pressure-national-education-union-neu-a8297366.html
Rose, Steve (2001) The Kid Killers. The Guardian [online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/sep/07/artsfeatures2 [accessed 27/07/2018]
Rudgard, Olivia (2018) Universities have a suicide problem as students taking own lives overtakes general population. The Telegraph [online]. Available at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/12/universities-have-suicide-problem-students-taking-lives-overtakes/ [accessed 27/07//2018]
This paper was originally presented to London Film & Media 2011, and published in The London Film and Media Reader 1.
The Vigilante Thriller
This essay considers the condemnatory and heavily ideological critical reactions to a cycle of US vigilante thrillers from the 1970s. The cycle includes Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971), The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971), Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971), Death Wish (Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976). A common accusation was that the films were ‘fascist’, made by ‘fascists’, or liable to encourage ‘fascism’ in the film audience. This was not a label that was necessarily rejected by all the film-makers – certainly Sam Peckinpah enjoyed baiting reviewers and interviewers with a series of abrasive, and often, contradictory statements – but the consistency of this criticism highlights an anxiety in the critical reactions about the meanings of these films and, on closer inspection, the meanings of the violence they portray.
Although the critical writings are an important reaction to the texts, discourse analysis reveals a series of inconsistencies and contradictions in their assumptions about the ways in which a film can be watched. Rather than relying on these critical responses alone to guide us in terms of spectator reaction, we should instead be analysing what Ellis terms the ‘narrative image’,
“an idea of the film [that] is widely circulated and promoted … the cinema industry’s anticipatory reply to the question ‘what is this film like?’” 1
It is important to investigate how this element of para-text fixes, or aims to fix, the spectator’s experience, since the narrative image is also essential in fixing the modality of the film text. Following Hodge and Tripp, ‘modality’ is being used here in the sense that it “concerns the reality attributed to a message.”2
This has specific implications for the reception of film violence, and it is the understanding of violence that I wish to concentrate on in this essay. These distinctions were missed by contemporary critics, who ignored the concept of modality, tended to see film violence as a singular issue, and recycled basic tropes about the effect that film violence might have on the audience. Despite the consistency of the critical reaction to these films, the narrative image of each film suggests a range of spectator positions. The desire to elide these films on the part of contemporary critics, on the other hand, signals a wish to simplify the spectator experience and ignores the shifting relationship that a spectator can have in relation to several connected but different texts.
Critical Reactions: The Politics of Violence
Even a cursory glance at the American and British popular press reaction to these films reveals two central concerns, both of which are linked to the possible effect of the films on the audience and the wider implications for society. The first concern, highlighted more by the American critics than the British, is the suggestion that these films convey and promote a fascist sensibility. The second concern, which is present on both sides of the Atlantic, concerns the portrayal of violence. This is often linked to a perceived increase in the amount of violence being portrayed in film, the explicitness of the violence, and the sense that the films in question encourage the spectator in turn to be violent.
Pauline Kael’s critical reaction to the films exemplifies the general tone of the reviews. For Kael, Straw Dogs is a “fascist work of art”3 that presents the “triumph of a superior man”. Dirty Harry is a “right wing fantasy” that attacks “liberal values” and draws out the “fascist potential” of its genre4. The French Connection, for its part, features “the latest model sadistic cop”5. Gareth Epps draws wider conclusions from Straw Dogs, The French Connection and Dirty Harry such as
“it has been obvious for a long time that American filmmakers are unable to deal with the politics of the left in any recognizable way”6 .
These films, he suggests, are symptomatic of a wider right-wing tendency in Hollywood. He adds that “recent American films have begun to show a frightening sophistication in at least one area of politics – the half-world of sadism and authoritarianism which is the breeding ground of the fascist mentality”. The accusation that the films are characterised by ‘fascist’ ideology betrays an anxiety in the reviewers towards the shifting political landscape in America through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
The effects of the Vietnam War on the collective American consciousness cannot, of course, be ignored. However the shifts in civil rights movements, crime and policing are also important here. The elements that were picked out from these films and directly linked to fascism included the representations of masculinity, race and violence. From a didactic point of view, however – and many of these reviews and reactions were written in a didactic mode – there is a recurrent flaw, namely an inability to define exactly what fascism is. Its recurrent use as a blanket term in reaction to these films shows a remarkable inconsistency in its application, and also a sense that the word is being used as a short-cut, a way of marking a text as unacceptable, with no underlying understand of the word and its political/philosophical application.
Critical Reactions: Violence and Spectatorship
If fascism is one recurrent way of condemning these films, the other anxiety that emerges is the meanings and implications of violence in the films. As has been noted elsewhere, the depiction of violence in American cinema changed radically in the 1960s and 70s. There are various reasons for this, including the influence of non-American films, and the eventual dissolution of the Hays code. More important perhaps was the shift in the representation of violence on television where, from the shooting of LeeHarvey Oswald by Jack Ruby to the reports from the front line in Vietnam, violence was being shown more often and more explicitly.
Of course this form of violence, presented in news programmes, has an inherently high modality despite its mediated nature. In this atmosphere of a shifting depiction of violence, combined with a greater perception of violence in society through rising crime rates and civil unrest, the implications of watching – and more importantly enjoying – film violence became a point of anxiety for contemporary critics. The reviews of Taxi Driver generally avoided the same ideological criticism as the other films and one wonders if this is linked to the potential audience for such a film. Kael suggests, in reviewing The French Connection, that
“Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen”7.
It is clear that a strain of elitism has entered the critical reaction here.
The New York Times felt the need to send reporter Judy Klemesrud to a theatre to gauge reaction to Death Wish, asking “What do they see in ‘Death Wish’?”. Klemesrud interviewed audience members and “Three mental health professionals” in the course of her quest.8 I think it’s important here to highlight the suggested opposition in that headline – “they” are clearly not “us”, “us” referring to those sophisticated enough to read the New York Times. Across many reviews and articles on both sides of the Atlantic there is a clear fear concerning the possible impact of a text on a supposedly less sophisticated audience.
These reactions were not without their contradictions. Charles Barr, for instance, noted the differences between the British critical reaction to Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971). 9 His conclusion, that the reaction differed because of the way in which violence was presented by each film – for example, by the use of telephoto lenses in Straw Dogs compared to the use of wide angle lenses in A Clockwork Orange – signals the inconsistency in the criticism of films marked as violent.
Stylistic distinctions are then critical, Barr argues, for understanding the ways in which the films operate: Minute-for-minute, A Clockwork Orange contains more instances of violence than Straw Dogs, but Straw Dogs does not allow the spectator the luxury of remaining distant through the use of the wide-angle lens. The fear of what Straw Dogs implied for cinema and the audience nonetheless moved thirteen British critics to write to The Times to decry the film’s certification, expressing their “revulsion” at the film and its marketing.10 In other reactions we see a clear perceived link between the film text and possible audience reaction (The Guardian, for example, felt strongly enough to send a reporter to New York to examine how Death Wish was inspiring American traditions of gun ownership).
The underlying fear in many of the critical reactions was that the audience, having watched the film, would themselves become vigilantes. That the critics themselves didn’t burst out of auditoria and beat up some muggers seems to have escaped their attention. Moving away from the discourse concerning the supposed effects of film violence we also encounter an inconsistency among critics to accurately differentiate between different types of violence, an inability to recognise the difference between the nature of the act being represented, and the method of its representation.
Modality and Narrative Image
The elision that the contemporary critics made between these films ignores the importance of the narrative image in conditioning the modality of the spectator’s engagement. Even if we acknowledge the polysemic nature of film texts and their para-texts, dominant themes from the marketing of the films suggest ways in which the spectator is primed to watch and respond to a text. The narrative image tells us the frame of mind in which a spectator receives a film; this in turn suggests a level of modality in which the spectator will receive the film violence. To suggest that all film violence can be measured the same way is to ignore the differing modalities of films. In short, not all film violence is equal.
The decision the spectator makes about whether to watch a film will often rest on several factors. One of the key elements is the marketing and promotional material of the film. When examining these for each film we see that they suggest several different ways in which to receive and understand the violence of the films, something typically ignored by the critics. We may thus conceive of the spectator as having a personal and private relationship with a film that takes place within the cinema, but we should also acknowledge that the spectator’s experience of the film begins with several para-textual factors that help condition their subsequent experience.
Take, for instance, the use of violence in the poster imagery for the films. Straw Dogs, whose central image is a close-up of Dustin Hoffman with one lens of his glasses broken, signals violence, but also the effect of violence on the protagonist. The French Connection uses a still of ‘Popeye’ Doyle shooting a suspect in the back as its main image. Dirty Harry concentrates on the persona of Clint Eastwood (but also the duality between the two main characters), while Death Wish uses the image of Charles Bronson. Taxi Driver’s central image, of a lost and isolated Travis Bickle posed in front of a New York street scene locates an alienated figure in a world of degradation.
This image for Taxi Driver places the spectator in a very different relationship to the violence of the text than the other posters. By not signalling the violence but concentrating on the alienation of the protagonist (in effect hiding the violence), the poster prepares us for a film where acts of violence, when they do occur, have greater weight. The casting of De Niro (still relatively unknown at this point and thus ‘absorbed’ by his role in the film), and the setting of the film in real areas of New York, confer a high modality.
This is reinforced by the presentation of the violence in the film. This is not expected in the same way as in an Eastwood or Bronson film, where violence is an inherent part of the experience. Indeed the marketing of both Dirty Harry and Death Wish so connects the characters to their actors as to create a direct intertextual link to their other films. In these circumstances film violence becomes a ritualised part of the cinematic experience. The French Connection, however, with its concentration on reality, linked to the oft-repeated information that the film was based on real events, suggests a higher modality for the film violence which it contains.
We are watching here a reproduction of real violence, not the heightened and stylised violence of an Eastwood or Bronson film. The ritualisation in Dirty Harry and Death Wish confers a lower modality on the violence, which has become part of the expected generic formula of the text, an inevitable and unsurprising element. Through its enigmatic title and ambiguous central image, on the other hand, Straw Dogs denies the spectator a secure sense of how violence will operate in the film.
The explicitness (or lack) of generic context creates other issues here. It has been noted, for instance, that both Dirty Harry and Death Wish bear relation to the Western film, in casting (the stars of both had previously appeared in successful Westerns), iconography and structure. Perhaps the relocation of the generic elements to a modern day location, stripping away the mythic trappings of the narrative, creates this discomfort around the violence.
The recognition of Western genre conventions in the narratives of Dirty Harry and Death Wish may confer a different level of modality than a film such as Taxi Driver, which has a less clear generic definition. The ritual of genre, the procession of structural and iconic elements, reminds the audience that what they are watching is a structured creation – when it runs true to form, the text offers much reassurance but little by way of surprise. This, I would propose, effectively lowers the modality.
Too often film violence is taken out of the context of reception. Film violence occurs within several frameworks, including the textual implications of narrative and genre. The narrative image of a film is explicit in its attempts to set up these elements for the spectator. Thus the debate about film violence should be embedded in not only the referential and aesthetic components of film violence, but also in analysis of the place that violence has within the contextual, paratextual and textual experience of the film. For contemporary critics of these films however, socio-political concerns of the day outweighed the specifics of the textual/para-textual experience.
Notes and References
1 John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge, 1982, p. 30.
2 Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1986, p. 104.
3 Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies: The Essential Collection, from ‘69 to ’72, London: Marion Boyars, 1975, p. 398.
4 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 385.
5 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316
6 Gareth Epps, ‘Does Popeye Doyle Teach Us How to be Fascist?’, The New York Times, 22 May 1972, II:15, p. 1.
7 Kael, Deeper into Movies, p. 316.
8 Judy Klemesrud, ‘What do they see in Death Wish?’, New York Times, 1 September 1974, II:1, p. 5.
9 Charles Barr, ‘Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics’, Screen, vol. 3 no. 2, 1972, p. 23.
10 Fergus Cashin, John Coleman, N. Hibbin, Margaret Hinxman, Derek Malcom, George Melly, T. Palmer, J. Plowright, Dilys Powell, David Robinson, John Russell Taylor, Arthur Thinkell, and Alexander Walker, ‘From Mr. Fergus Cashin and Others”, The Times, 17 December 1971.
Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) has often been considered a difficult and controversial text. Central to this is the depiction of gender, specifically concerning the role of Amy (played by Susan George) and the double rape that she undergoes, and the suggestion that the film is a parable of male dominance wherein the central character, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), ascends to being a ‘real’ man via a violent siege against marauding Cornish locals. The tag-line, featured on several posters for the film, suggested this very reading;
The knock at the door meant the birth of a man and the death of seven others
Given the predominant view of the film as a story of male birth, or re-birth, a consideration of the psycho-sexual imagery seems relevant particularly considering the proliferation of such imagery throughout the film. Images of emasculation, castration and phallic power are consistently invoked and develop the theme of birth referred to in the advertising. Creed (1993) offers a suitable model for considering these images and I will refer to her work, and Julia Kriteva’s concept of abjection, to explore the meanings of the psycho-sexual imagery of Straw Dogs. I propose that Straw Dogs gives us a drama of identity crisis tied to anxieties about castration and phallic power which culminates in David Sumner’s rejection of home and decision to enter into the symbolic order having previously retreated from it. In addition to Creed I will also refer to the writings of American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson in investigating the identity crisis which runs through the film. Before entering into the analysis proper it is worth outlining the validity of mapping Creed’s analysis onto Straw Dogs. Creed was writing about women in horror, whereas this film is more concerned with men. I am not claiming the character of Amy as an instance of the monstrous feminine, rather that the concepts that Creed deals with are applicable outside of films which deal centrally with the female monster. There is also some debate about the genre classification of Straw Dogs itself, whether it fits into the horror genre. Many of its contemporary reviewers typed it simply as a relocated western, though this surely has as much to do with the presence of Peckinpah as the film’s autuer as it does for any specific textual evidence. I would suggest that the film is a hybrid of several generic elements, including those of horror and bears comparison with another contemporary British set horror The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973); both concern the intrusion of an outsider into a closed community, and both make extensive use of sexual imagery. Whereas The Wicker Man deals with a conflict between Catholic and Pagan morality Straw Dogs is concerned with a breakdown in identity that precipitates a re-birth of the protagonist. In its use of a corrupt, parodic, family, the Heddens, Straw Dogs also invokes other horror films from the 1970s such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. Given the generic and thematic content of the film Creed seems a pertinent source for an analytical framework.
Castration & Emasculation
Castration and emasculation imagery runs through Straw Dogs from the earliest images of the film. It is immediately present in the gift given by Amy to David in the first moments, a large man-trap. As Creed points out “man-trap” is a phrase euphemistically used to refer to the vagina. The trap itself, with such jagged edges, invariably invokes the concept of the vagina-dentata. This image lurks throughout the film, opened up it takes a prominent place in the living room of the farm-house waiting to be closed in the siege where David makes use of it, enclosing it around an invader’s head (a clear image of castration). Beyond the image itself, the issue of ownership of the trap prompts questions about the relationship between David and Amy. It is given to David as a gift, one which he places in the home. We must for a moment consider what this means for the dynamic of their relationship. We may consider this an acquiescence on Amy’s part to David, offering him ownership of her genitalia. However the fact that it remains so threatening signifies her potential to castrate, one which remains until it is co-opted by David in the defence of the house. This immediately complicates the gender identity of David himself. The film consistently refers to David as a figure of impotence. Physically he is smaller than the local villagers. He is unable to drive an English car correctly (he cannot master the gear lever, another potentially phallic symbol). His sexual relationship with Amy is one of childishness and humour. Outside of the bedroom their relationship itself is one of tension. David is destructive, willful, and deeply narcissistic. When the local Vicar and his wife visit, David plays bagpipe music at full-volume (something he will repeat during the siege) and proceeds to alienate his guests, forcing them to leave. The reason for David to be in Cornwall is, ostensibly, to complete a mathematical work, however the dialogue suggests that he is running away, although it is not specific from what (an idea re-iterated in the film’s trailers). David’s behaviour is consistent with someone stuck in a preadult stage of development, a stage of weak identity. As Erikson outlines;
That many of our patients break down at an age which is properly considered more preadult than postadolescent is explained by the fact that often only an attempt to engage in intimate fellowship and competition or in sexual intimacy fully reveals the latent weakness of identity (1980, 134).
David’s manipulation of Amy, attempting to get her to engage with chess and other intellectual pursuits is also consistent with Erikson’s analysis of identity crisis;
For where an assured sense of identity is missing, even friendships and affairs become desperate attempts at delineating the fuzzy outlines of identity by mutual narcissistic mirroring (1980, 134).
A sudden collapse of all capacity mutuality threatens, and a desperate wish ensues to start all over again, with a (quasideliberate) regression to a stage of basic bewilderment and rage such as only the very small child knows (1980, 135).
David’s identity is weak because it is not fully formed, revealed by his inability to form proper relationships (sexual or not). He has not yet taken his place within the symbolic order, rather he has run away from it and taken refuge in the farm-house or as I suggest, the womb that it represents. Given this, Amy takes on the appearance of a mother rather than a partner (Amy is, significantly, the only maternal figure in the film). The threat of castration is consistent with castration anxiety felt by the child. During the final siege it is Amy, not David, who will wield a phallic shot-gun in defence of the home, saving David’s life. Here Amy transfers from being a castrating mother to a phallic woman, embodying twin emasculating threats. Further images of emasculation surround David and other male characters in the film. A key moment occurs during the duck hunt (arranged so that Venner can approach Amy). Here David must be leant a gun, he lacks one of his one. When he does eventually kill a duck he holds it in his hands and its limp neck reflects his impotent and emasculated nature. Despite the lack of mothers, the film has a surfeit of fathers, however they are often shown to be symbolically emasculated themselves. The Major, who acts as the village’s law-man and patriarch, possess a limp. Tom Hedden is a drunk. Niles’ father is incapable of controlling his own son. Perhaps the most significant father figure in the film is an absent one; Amy’s. Much is made of the fact that the farm house is from Amy’s family, or more especially her father. When asked by David which of the chairs in the house was her fathers, she replies, “Every chair is my Daddy’s chair”. It places into crisis the ownership of the house and the presence of this father is a further emasculating force for David.
Re-Birth into the Symbolic Order
The symbolization of the womb as house/room/cellar or any other enclosed space is central to the horror film (Creed 1998, 55).
Straw Dogs acts as an exploration of the meaning of the womb, as both a secure and insecure place. It is linked to the concept of unheimlich, where something is familiar and uncanny at the same time, and its ability to “disturb identity and order” (Creed 1998, 54). As Creed identifies, Freud cites the womb phantasy as an occurrence of the unheimlich, a nexus of the familiar and unfamiliar. The womb is a place we both remember but can never know;
He (Freud) allocates a central place to the subject’s former ‘home’, the womb. The uncanny is that place which is ‘known of old, and long familiar’, the place from which the individual has become alienated through repression (Creed 1998, 54).
There is further potential for the home to be seen as the womb particularly in its passageways and entrances. The siege, when David’s crisis is brought to a head, plays on this imagery particularly. Earlier in the film, when Amy is raped and in other scenes, the thresholds to the house are seen as fluid. The rat-catcher’s ability to enter the house and kill the cat is an active demonstration of this. Also the penetration of the house by various gazes, be it the workmen or Janice and Bobby Hedden, shows it to be consistently invaded. What should we make of this? The rape of Amy and the sense of invasion suggests an elision between Amy and the house – they are both penetrated in various ways, some invited, some not. David’s sudden defence of it seems curious then, as he has so markedly failed to do so before. However it is the existence of Niles in the house that redraws the relationships and pushes David further along his identity crisis path. From here he takes the role of the castrating woman from Amy (freeing her to become the phallic woman later in the scene). He defends the home/womb and the childlike Niles within via a series of dentata like acts. The defence is focussed on the doorways and windows of the house. Knives and glass are used. Boiling oil, an invocation of abject fluid, is thrown out. Feet, hands and heads of the invaders are attacked, stabbed and engulfed. The blood, wounds, and death throughout the siege clearly invokes the abject. The nature of the home/womb as the site of this blood suggests fears of the abject mother; David has unnaturally returned to the comfort and safety of the womb space, he has subsequently attempted to assume the mantle of the castrating mother. The revealing of Amy as the phallic woman pushes David out – finally he is capable of being reborn. His closing exchange with Niles about not knowing the way home represents his final break with maternal authority and his entry into the symbolic order as a fully formed individual. Witness the final images of David, face covered in blood, an image of rebirth. Straw Dogs is a drama of the symbolic order. David’s rejection of his place in the order, and the identity crisis it precipitates, prompts the confusion and chaos that surrounds him. It can only be resolved by the violent ejection from the womb space he has attempted to return to in an attempt to reclaim safety from the world and the burdens placed upon him. The collection of emasculating imagery, emasculated characters and symbolic events that occur are the back drop which forces David to confront his own position and accept his true identity outside of the womb, apart from the mother and at the head of the symbolic order.
Creed, Barbera (1993) The Monstrous Feminine. Abingdon: Routledge
Erikson, Erik H. (1980) Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: WW Norton
This article was first published by Bright Lights Film Journal.
During Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House, more than a few commentators noticed some similarities to George Wallace, and especially Wallace’s 1968 campaign for the American Independent Party. His statement that “If I ever get to be president and one of those demonstrators lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car they ever lay down in front of” (Small, 1999). Feels like exactly the sort of thing that Trump might tweet early in the morning. We wait to see how Hollywood reacts through its films to the current situation; in the meantime we can revisit a surprise hit that aimed to explore many of the tensions that fed Wallace’s popularity.
Joe is a curious film – a low-budget exploitation flick made by a director of soft-core pornography (who would go on to Paper Tiger, Rocky, and The Karate Kid) that made close to $20 million and launched the careers of Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon (Powell & Garrett, 2009). It was a film that divided critics and audiences. Some people came out of theatres loving a character who had voiced their concerns about society (loving it enough that an LP of Joe’s speeches from the film was released). Others shouted threats at the screen: “We’re coming for you, Joe”; threats real enough for Peter Boyle to try to establish the difference between himself and his screen persona in several magazine interviews, and distancing himself from violent roles in the future (Durham, 1970). But what to make of this divisive film after 34 years? Does it still have the power to split an audience, or does time give us the distance to appreciate it anew?
Despite the title, we have to wait 20 minutes for Joe to appear. The film opens with Melissa (Sarandon) framed in a montage of hippie imagery. She drifts around town accompanied by a soft song. A pretty cliché, her life is exposed as a sham when we meet her drug-dealing boyfriend Frank, a typical late ’60s confusion of symbols (he calls himself The Lone Ranger and sells pills to young girls while professing to be an artist). They share a bath (but their feet never come clean), a bed, and a needle. When Melissa’s trip goes bad, Frank is elsewhere, leaving it to Melissa’s upper-middle-class parents (ad exec Bill Compton and WASP archetype Joan) to supervise her recovery. In a quest to recover some of Melissa’s clothes, Bill goes to her apartment and meets Frank. An exchange of views occurs, then Bill loses it, and, in a psychedelic blur, bashes Frank’s head against a wall. Gathering up the drugs (we’ll see them again) and his daughter’s clothes, Bill staggers to the American Bar & Grill where he meets Joe, a loud-mouth racist and homophobic hard-hat framed with a picture of Iwo Jima over his shoulder. When Bill accidentally confesses his crime, Joe sees an opportunity – not for blackmail but for hero worship. Excruciating class-comedy ensues as Joe tries to ingratiate himself into Bill’s life, having him round for Chinese take-out and serving peanuts in the tin. The film turns when Melissa, at home but not seen by her parents, hears of her father’s crime. She flees, and Bill, with Joe in tow, sets off into the Village to find her. These two men reveal their envy and desire for the hippie lifestyle, finding themselves in an orgy (pronounced with a hard “g” by Joe) in exchange for Frank’s drugs. They awake to find their wallets stolen and most of the hippies gone. After Joe slaps the location of a hippie commune out of one of the remaining girls, they set off and the film turns into a violent execution where Joe’s fantasies of blowing away the evils of society are made real. Bill faces the decision – join in and cover his crime, or stop Joe. He chooses the former and, as luck would have it, shoots and kills Melissa.
So far, so exploitation. The film shows enough “exposé” of hippie lifestyle, titillating nudity and violence to satisfy those who search for such things, but beneath the cheap veneer sits a more complex and interesting film that avoids simplistic moral conclusions, and ably dramatizes the ideological conflicts of the time. The film echoes the Puritan captivity narrative and westerns, like The Searchers, but concludes in a way that exposes the moralistic lies behind those archetypes. Ethan Edwards might relent at the end and hug his niece. Bill Compton shoots his daughter in the back. And no wonder – this film exposes everyone as a sham, white collar, blue collar, and hippie alike.
The hippies, despite all their counterculture slogans for peace and love, are happy to steal when it comes to getting high – besides, getting one back on the “squares” is entirely justified. Their confused depiction seems typical of the time; it recalls the Linny Raven character in Coogan’s Bluff, as if all the contradictions of the era (peace campaigns and campus riots) are rolled into one single stereotype. This confused depiction reflects the era and the older generation’s inability to understand the massive social changes occurring around them. It’s as if all social problems (no matter how contradictory) are projected onto the kids, those that oppose the values of the homes they were brought up in. The film’s original title, The Gap(dropped because of the rise of the eponymous fashion chain), reflects the film more accurately, identifying the distance between parents and children (tellingly Joe’s two boys never appear, always absent), upper and lower whites (united by their alienation, but divided by much else), and the shifts in society.
Bill Condon (played by journeyman TV actor Dennis Patrick) displays a nice line in self-loathing. An ad exec who knows how shallow his line of work and life really are. The murder of Frank leads him to Joe, and he gets a vicarious thrill out of his association with the anger and confusion the latter displays. Sure he thinks he’s better than Joe, but he loves the adulation he receives – after all, he’s done what Joe only dreams of.
What of Joe himself? Despite first appearing late on, Boyle dominates the film (even though he’s far too young to have been in WWII). He’s crass, racist, and sexist, but also patriotic, confused, and alienated. He spouts fake news (“42% of all Liberals are queer. That’s a fact. The Wallace people did a poll.”), blaming the liberals, the niggers, and the queers. The world around him is changing (blacks moving into his neighbourhood), and his unseen kids remain pointedly absent. His wife, Mary Lou (can you get any more down-home?), works to relentlessly appease him, but underneath he’s seething. His hideaway, the basement of his home, is bedecked with flags and guns – nostalgia for when he was killing “Japs,” for a time when he knew who the enemy were, and what to do about them. All those guns suggests how tenuous Joe’s masculinity really is, symbolically castrated by his own reliance on his beloved phallic symbols. It’s an excellent performance by Boyle, making Joe repellent but mesmeric.
For all their anger and masculine pride (in houses, wives, etc.), both Joe and Bill are shown to be a sham. Their adventure into the Village ends up with them both in a love-in, but consciously unmanned by the experience as they are rejected by the younger women (with Joe’s companion claiming “That must be a new record.”). They may hate the hippie lifestyle, but it’s a hatred born from envy – goddammit those kids are having a better time than they ever did.
Harking back to the captivity narrative, Melissa at first appears like a 20th-century Mary Rowlandson, a nice girl kidnapped by the feral outsiders. She is mistreated by her partner Frank, she’s a slave to him and the drugs, but when she curls up in bed she hugs her childhood doll, seeking solace in something safe and innocent. Unlike Rowlandson, Melissa isn’t reborn through her experiences; she rejects her parents’ life, realising how phony they are too. It’s a decision that costs her her life, after she pertinently questions her father, “Are you gonna kill me too?” Neither world works for her – each abandons her.
Far from offering a specific position, the ending leaves us with problems, not resolutions. Joe has finally indulged in his great desires, taking part in an orgy and executing the hippies. Bill caves in to Joe, unwilling to take a moral stand and responsibility for the murder of Frank (below). He could turn his gun on Joe and stop the slaughter, but instead he joins in to cover his own back. This one choice, the decision to protect himself rather than do the right thing, condemns Melissa. She dies, freeze-framed in the snow, having had a pitiless time. Abused by her boyfriend, controlled and lied to by her parents, and finally murdered by her father. The film’s titles play over a frame of Melissa lying in the snow and Bill standing in the porch of the commune. In the end, everybody, be they management or hard-hat, hippie or square, has failed.
In 1976, Taxi Driver was released, concerning a spiritual descendent of Joe, Travis Bickle. Boyle appears briefly as Wizard, an older taxi driver who attempts to counsel Bickle. Boyle’s performance is a clear counterpoint to Joe, with Wizard praising liberal values. His advice, of course, fails and the narrative is restaged, but this time the girl is rescued (whether she wants it or not). The captivity narrative returns, the confusion remains. Is Bickle a saviour? His costume confuses, a gunslinger with a mohawk. The good guys, the bad guys, all blend into one. At the Oscars that followed, Taxi Driver lost out to Rocky for best picture and best director. John G. Avildsen, having arrived with Joe, signalled another change in America with a more optimistic piece, in which it was very clear who we should root for.
Joe was clearly a film born out of its era, hitting the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment. Several months before it was released, the action of the film was prefigured by the real-life murder, on May 7, 1970, of hippie daughter by Detroit railroad worker Arville Garland. Garland had had enough of his daughter’s new lifestyle and friends, and went to her university and shot them. Although Norman Wexler’s screenplay for Joe had been completed before the crime, the parallels were obvious, not least for the trial judge who instructed the defence and the prosecution to watch the film, and screened the jury to make sure they had not (Thomas, 2014). Like the fictional Joe Curran, Garland had many supporters too, receiving letters and gifts while in jail.
Judged from a distance it’s clear to see how open the text is, feeding off the anxieties of different sections of society, allowing for different gazes to engage with the film differently. The contemporary reaction missed just how subversive the film is, taking neither side in the debate, but exposing the hollowness of both the older generation and the counterculture. In a time when the same old debates have resurfaced, Joe is well worth rediscovering.
Durham, Michael (1970). “Reluctant Hero of the Hardhats.” Life. October 16, 69-70.
Powell, Larry & Garrett, Tom (2009). The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Small, Melvin (1999). The Presidency of Richard Nixon. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Thomas, Bill (2014). Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper and More Connected Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
On its release Pauline Kael described Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) as;
the first American film that is a fascist work of art[i]
and Richard Schickel called it “unrelenting evil”[ii]. A collection of thirteen British film critics went so far as to write a letter to The Times describing their disgust at the BBFC’s decision to release the film, citing the depiction of “double rape and multiple killings by a variety of hideous methods”[iii]. Several local councils in Britain took the step of banning the film[iv] and the VHS was caught up in the video nasty panic of the 1980s (withdrawn from home viewing in 1988 the film saw the light of day, uncut, on DVD in the UK in 2002)[v]. It was not only the depiction of the violence, both sexual and non-sexual, that produced such a reaction, but also the sense that the film was giving out a simplistic message about the nature of masculinity – that the film suggests that violence is essential to manhood and that the female character, Amy played by Susan George, is simply reduced to an object to be fought over by the men (she was also seen to embody the myth that all women want to be raped). Although these reactions are not without justification mostly the ambiguity of the film was missed, especially in relation to the representation and motivation of the central character David Sumner (played by Dustin Hoffman). Hoffman’s character is so objectionable, remaining ignorant of his wife’s emotional state (and her rape), that the simplicity of the conclusion that the film, and thus the film-makers, approve of his actions is found wanting. Indeed Peckinpah’s use of a montage aesthetic to present the film violence, especially in the concentration on reaction shots further queries the meanings of the violent scenes. David’s final abandonment of Amy and the home he has fought to protect, coupled with his protection of Niles the mentally impaired murderer, further complicate a simplistic reading.
Beyond the discussion of violence and gender (which is taken up extensively by Stephen Prince in Savage Cinema) lies an intriguing inability to place Straw Dogs securely in any category. The general critical concentration of Straw Dogs as an auteur work has obfuscated its generic position. Indeed Straw Dogs is a film that defies simple genre categorisation and one wonders how much of the critical reaction was linked to this inability to securely define the film. The anxieties about violence are prevalent in much criticism of the time and would be used to critique Peckinpah both before and after 1971, however violence being such an essential part of the Western genre (especially the ritualised gun-fight) mitigates, to some extent, its use elsewhere in his films.
Beyond the violence debate Straw Dogs stands as an interesting nexus of several generic concerns present in popular American cinema during the late 1960s and early 70s. We can see this time as one of transition where many genres were being reconceived. The Western of course comes to mind, particularly in Peckinpah’s own films but also in others such as Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970). Film Noir would be re-evaluated in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), and Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1968) had already married the gangster film with a nouvelle vague aesthetic. Straw Dogs does stand as a revisionist Western, taking one of the classic Western scenarios, the protestant captivity narrative, displacing it to Cornwall and transferring it to the modern age but it also offers a deconstruction of the concept of the classic Western/American heroic ideal. David Sumner begins as the opposite of this, he is a man running from his troubles and unwilling to use violence as a solution to problems. Indeed David avoids conflict of any sort until the final scene where his intellectual pose is finally shorn and his inner capacity for violence is revealed. The supressed American male emerges. Reaction to Vietnam and the demographic and social shifts in America also run through David Sumner’s abandonment of America, and a strong questioning of America’s relationship with the rest of the world is evident. Although David is subjected to xenophobic taunting by the locals, so his inability to communicate to them as anything other than an American (such as pointedly ordering American cigarettes in the local pub) reflects his self-righteous attitude.
Beyond the Western there is a link to the British horror tradition, such as the pastoral horror of Witchfinder General (Mathew Hopkins, 1968), which would be followed by The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973), where small communities are shown to be hiding a darker underside. It prefigures the rape-revenge cycle most obviously seen in I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). The film also fulfils many of the criteria evident in the American horror film of the time – the rural scenario in which city dwellers are forced to confront the wild and rabid locals. Examples such as Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977) compare well. The Heddon family in Straw Dogs, motherless and with a suggestion of incestuousness in the daughter Janice, links to the corrupt families presented in these later films.
The breaking down of domestic relations by a traumatic event followed by a spiral into violence is repeated in Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972). The vigilante theme, running through the final siege, links to two other 1971 releases, The French Connection (William Friedkin) and Dirty Harry (Don Siegel), but also later to Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). There is of course the question of “ultra-violence” which inevitably leads to comparisons with A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). The contradictions in the reactions between the use of violence in Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange were extensively noted in a Screen article by Charles Barr linking critical reaction to the filmmaking technique;
The final irony is that the same critics who were so sternly against violence in reviewing Straw Dogs are now found not only enjoying it (in its safely ‘distanced’ form) but intellectually endorsing it[vi]
[i] Kael, Pauline (1971) “Peckinpah’s Obsession”, Deeper into Movies: the Essential Collection from 1969 to 1972. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd
[ii] Schickel, Richard (1972) “Don’t Play it Again, Sam”, Life Magazine, February 11th, 1972
[iii] Cashin, F, et al (1971) “Film Censorship”, The Times, 17th December 1971
[iv] Barr, Charles (1972) “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics”, Screen, Summer 1972, Volume 3, Number 2
[vi] Barr, Charles (1972) “Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange and the Critics”, Screen, Summer 1972, Volume 3, Number 2