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They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Reviews

An allegorical, socially conscious response to the injustices of the Depression era, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? has managed to survive the late 1960s, unlike so many other films of that period, without appearing the least bit dated. Preparing the audience for the inevitable, the film begins with Robert Syverton (Sarrazin) standing trial for murder, the details of which are purposely vague. The scene then switches to Chicago's famous Aragon Ballroom, where a dance marathon is about to get underway. Among the contestants is Gloria Beatty (Fonda), an independent, disagreeable loner who seems to enjoy lashing out at those around her. She replaces her original partner with Robert, a drifter with no real desire to participate. Also wearing numbers on their backs are a pregnant farm woman (Bedelia), her husband (Dern), a sailor and veteran marathoner with heart trouble (Buttons), and a Jean Harlow clone (York) who hopes to be discovered while dancing in the spotlight. As the master of ceremonies, whose job it is to keep the audience content and the dancers dancing, is the sleazy, unshaven Rocky (Young). Everyone's reason for participating is simple--three meals a day and a chance at winning the $1,500 prize, a bonanza in the days of record unemployment and bread lines. The tension builds as the emcee goads the dancers to self-destruction and the driven contestants fight among themselves. Several deaths result, and when Robert is asked why he has committed murder, responds, "They shoot horses, don't they?" Although it is at times heavy-handed, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? is a tour de force of acting. Fonda, best known at the time as Roger Vadim's wife and the sex toy of BARBARELLA, here got her first chance to prove herself as a serious, dramatic actress. For bringing such gritty, sweaty, hopeless self-degradation to the screen, Fonda received universal praise, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Young is superb in his role, a sharp switch from his usual bon vivant parts. The rest of the acting is similarly fine, even though Sarrazin, in what is admittedly one of the film's less interesting parts, doesn't really bring enough presence or imagination to his performance. Pollack does one of his best jobs of directing, even if his primary strength lies in his rapport with actors. The look of the film is just right and Pollack skillfully evokes the ratty atmosphere amid which explosive emotions come to a boil. At one point camerawork was even done on roller skates to achieve just the right effect for the bedraggled characters on the dance floor. The film uses much Depression-era music for period flavor and contains many references to the Hollywood of that era. This kind of reflexivity helps highlight the dance floor as an arena of action, a microcosm of America, and the parallels with the situation in Vietnam are pretty obvious. Based on a 1935 novel feted by French existentialists and first purchased by Charlie Chaplin, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? remains a suitably glum yet cathartic film experience.