Murder on the Dance Floor
Whilst the Romans had their fun watching slaves fight and these days we have the humiliation of reality and TV talent shows which roll out people to be publicly humiliated in the 1920s and 30s there were the Dance Marathons. In the Depression era those in need would enter these dance marathons in the hope of winning and getting fed whilst those who needed relief from the hardship of life would pay to watch. What is wrong with that you may say, well watch "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and see because these Dance Marathons were anything but dances. These were endurance contests where contestants dead on their feet would try to keep moving through aching limbs and sleep deprivation for days on end as the public paid to watch what amounted to torture and humiliation. And in a way for a movie made at the tail end of the 60s about a fad of the 1920s and 30s "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is surprisingly current with those who we see humiliated on so called talent contests.
Now the storyline to "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" well there is the simple side of it as we are taken back to the Depression era and basically behind the scenes of a Dance Marathon. We watch as those wanting to take part are checked over before hand to make sure they were fit enough and not too old with some having that certain quirkiness which will attract audiences. And then we watch as the competition gets under way all of which seems quite reasonable. But quickly we realise that these contestants are there out of need and are prepared to not only put themselves through gruelling torture but basically shown as freaks as after days they are rocking zombie like figures.
Now this is seriously eye opening and brutal as we watch what these contestants go through at the hands of Rocky the man behind the event who manipulates things to make it more entertaining and driving those involved to the edge of insanity. It is very much a movie you need to watch to gain a full understanding as to how shocking it is watching these needy people pushed to the limit and humiliated. When they are forced to do what is called the Derby and we see these knackered contestants stumbling around the track dragging their partners on is actually scary. And director Sydney Pollack deserves so much credit for making the horror of the dance marathon so real through some great camera work, characters and watching them worn down.
Now there is a deeper side to "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" as whilst we have various characters from Sailor to James and his pregnant with Ruby the central focus is on Gloria and her partner Robert. The depth of this is a little heavy handed and whilst it delivers what is a shocking, cold ending to an already hard hitting movie it is a bit too forced for me. The use of disjointed clips surrounding Robert which penetrate the action of the competition whilst initially intriguing are less than subtle in their importance and so it weakens that ending every so slightly.
But whilst at times it didn't work perfectly for me "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" is a stunning movie which has a great look, great characters, great acting and despite being about a bygone time is surprisingly current. It would be wrong to single out any one actor for praise because the entire cast from the central pairing of Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin through to the others such as Susannah York, Bonnie Bedelia and Bruce Dern all do a brilliant job of playing their characters and taking each of them on a journey. Although you have to say that Gig Young as Rocky the man responsible for the dance is brilliant in delivering the showman as the compeer of the dancing as well as the nefarious manipulator behind the scenes as he finds ways to exploit the contestants.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" maybe a 1960s movie about the 1920s and 30s it is surprisingly current with its look at those who end up being humiliated for the paying public. But it is more than that and it is one hard hitting movie which whilst at times is heavy handed is also gripping from start to finish.