A young American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), and his English wife, Amy (Susan George), move to a Cornish village, seeking the quiet life. But beneath the seemingly peaceful isolation of the pastoral village lies a savagery and violence that threatens to destroy the couple, culminating in a brutal test of Sumner’s manhood and a bloody battle to the death. One of the most controversial films ever made, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is a harrowing and masterful investigation of masculinity and the nature of violence.
Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney, Jim Norton
David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by Gordon Williams
Sometimes a man is forced to defend his honor.
Nominated for Best Score-Jerry Fielding.
English Digital Mono
Runtime: 117 min.
Release Date: 3/25/2003
• Audio Commentary With Film Scholar Stephen Prince
• “Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron” Documentary
• “On Location: Dustin Hoffman” Featurette
• Behind-the-Scenes Footage
• Video Interviews with Actress Susan George and Producer Daniel Melnick
• “Peckinpah Responds: Select Correspondence to Critics and Viewers”
• Theatrical Trailer
• TV Spots
• 20-page booklet
Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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Straw Dogs: Criterion Collection (1971)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 31, 2003)
A tale of two brutal movies: in 1971, we got two flicks that took place in England and strongly featured rape as a major component. Both came from famous directors and elicited a strong reaction.
However, these cases differ when we examine their legacies. On one hand, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has generally become recognized as a classic, and it stands among the director’s best work. (Personally, I think it’s his only totally successful film.) On the other hand, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has largely become “buried”, as it seems viewed negatively by many movie partisans.
While I don’t think Dogs ranks alongside Clockwork, but the movie doesn’t deserve its lack of recognition. A rough and cold film, Dogs doesn’t deliver the visceral creativity of Kubrick’s masterwork, but it accomplishes its goals nonetheless.
At the start of Dogs, we meet American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his young English wife Amy (Susan George). The pair have recently relocated to the Cornish village in which she grew up, and we see their interactions with locals. We quickly meet an old lover of Amy’s, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), who seems intent on rekindling that sexual fling. We also encounter local mean drunk Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughn) and other low-lifes like Cawsey (Jim Norton) and Scutt (Ken Hutchison), the guys who’re working on the Sumner home. Other characters include simple-minded town perv Henry Niles (David Warner) and Hedden’s precociously sexy daughter Janice (Sally Thomsett); the latter demonstrates a clear crush on David.
Multiple tensions appear evident via these different folks, with an emphasis on the attitudes between David and Amy. The two seem detached and don’t connect very well, and their move to her childhood home doesn’t appear to help. If anything, their arrival in England looks like it increased problems, as the locals don’t cotton to the intrusion of the seemingly arrogant American.
The first half of the film follows the slow building of tension, with an emphasis on matters between David and Amy as well as between the houseworkers – primarily Venner, Scutt and Cawsey – and the couple. We observe the sexual strain as the workmen ogle Amy and she doesn’t totally rebuke the attention.
The nastiness escalates when Amy finds her cat dead in her closet. She feels one of the workmen did it and wants David to confront them. However, the passive-aggressive mathematician doesn’t follow through as promised, and he ends up going on a duck-hunting trip with the guys.
This event essentially seems to be a pretense to get him away from home and leave Amy alone. Venner rapes her, and Scutt joins in after he finishes. Clearly, this negatively affects Amy, though she doesn’t tell David what happened. From there, matters become even nastier, as events transpire to lead to a battle between David and the others during the film’s climax.
Straw Dogs seems to be a polarizing movie. Some leap to its defense, while others denounce it as fascist, misogynistic, and pro-violence. While I can see how some might reach those conclusions, I can’t say I agree with them. The alleged misogyny seems to miss the point most significantly. Indeed, Amy comes across as the closest thing to a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Though we should embrace David as our hero, he maintains a fairly intense level of passive aggression throughout the film. He often seems selfish and self-centered, and he doesn’t appear to understand how his actions negatively affect others.
Virtually every character in Dogs has multiple flaws, and the local men certainly come across as problematic. Represented by Venner and the others, they seem crass and crude. Again, this leaves Amy as the most sympathetic personality. While she clearly displays some of her own issues, she feels more likable and less problematic when compared to the others.
Much of the controversy surrounding Dogs stems from the rape scene. This doesn’t occur simply because a rape occurs. No, Dogs provoked outrage because of Amy’s reaction. When Venner takes her, she initially resists but then she seems to enjoy the experience. No such apparent pleasure greets Scutt’s attack on her, but what we perceive as Amy’s acceptance of Venner’s violation clearly doesn’t sit well with many people.
As I see it, though, the reality seems more complicated. For one, Amy and Venner had a history as lovers, and the pair clearly flirted earlier in the movie. In addition, we see that Amy’s love life with David appears less than satisfying. It appears plausible that she’s willing to accept this seemingly unwanted intrusion because she really did want it.
That doesn’t mean that Amy wanted to be raped, but the film doesn’t depict Venner’s actions in a terribly aggressive way; he’s more forceful than violent. Unlike Scutt and the others, Venner presents a more complicated character and isn’t just a cartoon goon. This comes to bear more fully in the film’s climax, when we learn more of his attitudes toward Amy and vice versa.
This issue offers something of a minefield, and I recognize that it’s a thin line between condemning and condoning the behavior depicted in the film. However, I think it seems clear that Peckinpah doesn’t obviously perpetuate the concept that women like to be raped. Does Amy get into the action with Venner? Yes, it appears so. But even though Amy does appear to take pleasure from Venner’s actions, the situation seems more complicated than Dogs’ foes would make you believe.
Peckinpah makes things muddier due to the way he features Amy throughout the film. For our first glimpse of her, the camera focuses on a close-up of her braless chest with nipples poking through her shirt. In subsequent scenes, Peckinpah photographs her in similarly leering ways, but this doesn’t come across like gratuitous T&A. Instead, the camerawork involves the viewer and makes us complicit in the nastiness. This makes it that much more difficult for viewers to distance themselves from the action, which in turn means that the film possesses more of a punch than some might like.
Or you could just try to turn off your brain and watch Straw Dogs as something of an action flick. The final act comes across almost like a bloodier version of Home Alone as David defends his abode. (Ironically, Dogs actually depicts less violence than the cartoonish Alone, which packs a tremendous amount of mayhem into its assault.) Straw Dogs presents no easy answers or simplistic notions during its journey into violence. It doesn’t sit well with many viewers, but unlike amateurish fare such as The Last House On the Left, Dogs actually goes somewhere and has something to say.
The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio C- / Bonus A
Straw Dogs appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture looked surprisingly strong and has aged very well.
Sharpness looked excellent. The movie consistently came across as distinct and accurate. Very little softness interfered, as the film almost always seemed tight and well-defined. I noticed no issues related to jagged edges or moiré effects, and I also witnessed no signs of edge enhancement.
Despite the somber setting, Dogs presented some vivid colors at times, and the DVD replicated these nicely. The hues looked quite bright and vibrant when appropriate. The tones came across as accurate and bold and really excelled. Black levels also seemed deep and rich, while shadow detail was very solid. Low-light sequences appeared appropriately thick but never were overly dense.
Where Dogs lost points related to print flaws. Given the movie’s age, these remained fairly minor, but I noticed a moderate amount of speckles. Grain seemed a little heavy at times but didn’t interfere. The speckles offered the only real nuisance, and they caused me to drop my grade to a “B+”. Despite that issue, the DVD presented an image that looked much better than I expected.
Unfortunately, the monaural soundtrack of Straw Dogs hasn’t aged nearly as well. In addition to some awkward dubbing, speech suffered from a fair amount of edginess, and the lines also appeared somewhat hollow and thin. Music only popped up sporadically, and the score remained pretty subdued. The music came across as acceptably distinct but not anything special. Effects appeared somewhat harsh and shrill. They didn’t sound distorted, but they lacked much range. I also noticed some fairly substantial hiss at times. Though not horrible for its age, the audio of Straw Dogs seemed generally weak.
This two-DVD release of Straw Dogs includes a nice complement of supplements. Most of these appear on the second platter, but disc one gives us an audio commentary from film scholar Stephen Prince, the author of Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Recorded in 2002, Prince provides a running, screen-specific piece that nicely discusses the film. Prince covers a variety of topics from issues related to the production to controversies to interpretation of the flick and characters. The latter elements dominate the commentary, as Prince provides a lot of introspection about the piece. While I don’t always agree with his conclusions, he presents them well, and the track offers a strong examination of the movie.
As we move to DVD Two, we find a mix of additional features. We start with Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, a documentary that runs 82 minutes and 25 seconds. The program includes a few film clips and archival photos plus interviews with various folks connected to Peckinpah. We hear from screenwriter Alan Sharp, Peckinpah associate Katherine Haber, actors Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, Ali McGraw, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, and James Coburn, screenwriter/graphic artist Jim Silke, cousin Bob Peckinpah, director Monte Hellman, satirist Mort Sahl, producer Daniel Melnick, chief property master Bob Visciglia, editor Garth Craven, producer/screenwriter Gordon Dawson, and producer Michael Deeley. We also discover some comments from Peckinpah shot in 1979 and 1983.
A frank and compelling examination of the director, “Iron” covers its subject well. We get information about his family history and then learn much about Peckinpah’s personality. We hear about his attitudes toward women and life in general as well as how he worked with actors, his editing tendencies, his general working methods, and his various demons. “Iron” moves at a nice pace, and although it doesn’t follow Peckinpah’s life or career in a standard manner, it seems tightly tied together. Overall, “Iron” provides a very useful and intriguing document.
Next we find a program called On Location: Dustin Hoffman. Created back in the early Seventies, this 25-minute and 44-second piece mixes lots of material from the set along with a couple movie clips and interviews. We hear a few small soundbites from Peckinpah plus actors Susan George and Ken Hutchison, but as one might expect, material with Hoffman dominates it.
The shots from the set seem a little lackluster, as they don’t offer much insight into the filmmaking process. However, Hoffman’s chat provides some excellent material. He discusses his early career and other roles. He gets into his working methods and elaborates on what he wanted to do with some parts. Information related specifically to Straw Dogs seems a little sparse, but overall “On Location” offers a solid piece.
Another program from the early Seventies, Behind the Scenes runs seven minutes, 39 seconds and focuses on footage from the set. An interviewer takes us around and also talks to Peckinpah, Hoffman, and George. The latter’s comments seem like the most interesting of the bunch, as she discusses her attitudes toward nudity in film. Otherwise, “Scenes” gives us a rough but moderately compelling piece of background.
For something more contemporary, we move to the Interviews domain. There we find recent chats with Susan George (20 minutes, 50 seconds) and producer Daniel Melnick (18:57). George goes over her casting, her “initiation” into the group, experiences working with Hoffman and Peckinpah, the rape scene, and retrospective impressions of the film. Melnick discusses the film’s title, getting Peckinpah and actors on the project, dealing with Peckinpah, how the actors worked, various anecdotes from the set, and reactions to the flick. Both seem tightly edited and thoughtful, and they help expand our understanding of the movie. They definitely merit a look.
A few more pieces round out the set. We find the film’s theatrical trailer as well as three TV spots. Inside Correspondence we locate text that includes Peckinpah’s responses to reviews from critics Richard Schickel and Pauline Kael. We also see two letters from ordinary viewers along with Peckinpah’s answers to them. Not exactly demur, Peckinpah really tears into some of the folks, and the writing seems very interesting to examine.
Lastly, this package includes a 20-page booklet. It contains a fairly good essay about the film written by Joshua Clover and it also includes an interview conducted in 1974 by Andre Leroux with an amusingly oppositional Peckinpah. Both offer useful information and add to this package.
While less bloody than other Sam Peckinpah flicks like The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs comes across as no less brutal. Actually, without the genre trappings of a Western, Dogs packs a more powerful punch; we can more easily relate to this contemporary tale. The DVD presents surprisingly good picture quality but sound seems dated and weak. The set includes a very solid roster of supplements that gets into all realms related to the movie. I can’t issue a general recommendation for Straw Dogs because the subject matter will turn off too many people, but if you don’t mind this sort of flick, then you should definitely give the terrific Criterion DVD a look.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4333 Stars
| Number of Votes: 60