In terms of artistic ambition and physical scale, The Day of the Locust is easily one of the most impressive studio movies of the ’70s. Working with first-class collaborators including cinematographer Conrad Hall, director John Schlesinger did a remarkable job of re-imagining ’30s Hollywood as a dark phantasmagoria comprising endless variations of debauchery, desire, despair, disappointment, and, finally, death. As a collection of subtexts and surfaces, The Day of the Locust is beyond reproach.
Alas, something bigger and deeper must be present in order to hold disparate elements together, and even though Schlesinger’s film was adapted from a book many regard as one of the great literary achievements of the 20th century, The Day of the Locust lacks a unifying force. Schlesinger and his team strive so desperately to make a Big Statement that the movie sinks into pretentious grandiosity, and Schlesinger’s choice to present every character as a grotesque makes The Day of the Locust little more than an exquisitely rendered freak show.
Novelist Nathanael West based his 1939 book The Day of the Locust on his own experiences as a writer in ’30s Hollywood, capturing the has-beens, never-weres, and wanna-bes living on the fringes of the film industry. West’s book is deeply metaphorical, with much of its power woven into the fabric of wordplay. So, while screenwriter Waldo Salt’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust is admirable for striving to capture subtle components of West’s book, the effort was doomed from the start—some of the images West conjures are so arch that when presented literally onscreen, they seem overwrought. Plus, the basic story suffers from unrelenting gloominess.
While employed at a movie studio and hoping to rise through the art-direction ranks, Tod Hackett (William Atherton) moves into an apartment complex and becomes fascinated with his sexy neighbor, actress Faye Greener (Karen Black). Loud, opportunistic, and teasing, Faye accepts Tod’s affections while denying his love, even though Tod befriends Faye’s drunken father, a clown-turned-traveling salesman named Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith). Meanwhile, Faye meets and seduces painfully shy accountant Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), who foolishly believes he can domesticate Faye. The storyline also involves a hard-partying dwarf, a borderline-sociopathic child actor, a lecherous studio executive, and loathsome movie extras who stage illegal cockfights.
The narrative pushes these characters together and pulls them apart in wavelike rhythms that work on the page but not on the screen. And in the end, ironic circumstances cause Hollywood to erupt in a hellish riot.
Considering that Schlesinger’s film career up to this point mostly comprised such tiny character studies as Darling (1965) and Midnight Cowboy (1969), it’s peculiar that he felt compelled to mount a production of such gigantic scale, and it’s a shame that his excellent work in constructing individual moments gets overwhelmed by the movie’s bloated weirdness. In fact, nearly every scene has flashes of brilliance, but The Day of the Locust wobbles awkwardly between moments that don’t completely work because they’re too blunt and ones that don’t completely work because they’re too subtle. Predictably, actors feel the brunt of this uneven storytelling. Atherton gets the worst of it, simply because he lacks a leading man’s charisma, and Black’s characterization is so extreme she’s unpleasant to watch. Meredith’s heart-rending vulnerability gets obscured behind the silly overacting that Schlesinger clearly encourages, and Sutherland’s performance is so deliberately bizarre that it borders on camp, even though he displays fierce emotional commitment.
The Day of the Locust: FREAKY