Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Day of the Locust (1975)

          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


Unknown said...

This should have saw Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Actor(Donald Sutherland...ashamedly never nominated) Best Actress ( Karen Black...extraordinary) Best Supp Actress ( Geraldine Page) Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design. A harrowing, disturbing movie

Unknown said...

It's my favorite film of the 1970s, and I find it brilliant in every way. There was no other way to film West's novel except this way: as a hysteric's view of show business, Hollywood, life.

There are career-best performances by Sutherland, Black and Meredith. Black's performance is easily the finest by an actress in '75.

Schlesinger's direction supersedes anything else he ever did. For me it holds together splendidly, and I will never waver in my high appreciation of this superb,u unforgettable film experience.

highwayknees said...

Im foggy about whether the movie made me read the novel(and consequently all of Wests work), or the other way around. Suffice to say your overall interpretation of the film is correct ,in that it fails to connect. Certainly on a commercial level for most run of the mill type movie goers it would be a depressing pill to swallow. The fact that I am obsessed with it in all facets must mean that I am willing to swallow that pill many times over!I think an appreciation of the brillance of Wests kaleidoscopic tone poem, and the structure,characters and theme of the novel are required I believe to also appreciate the film version. West knew Hollywood like no other it seems and it is a thrill to revel in his artistry. The performances like wise in the film are an acquired taste too. Every one is perfect, yes even Atherton, who portrays a blank midwest slate of insecurities and twitchy desperation earnestly. I happen to love Karen Blacks performance though its naked ambitions and artifice could be laughed at as over the top by some-she has moments of such intense emotional resonance that cannot be ignored as the real thing. Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith are complete charactures of another kind of intensity. In other words, the depression -era tone that all the actors communicate is unified to me at least, as a steady ensemble like no other. Its as if they are all directed to one-up one another and its hard to say who the real winner is here. Even the smaller character actors are significant and pivotal!

Ok enough of me gushing! As hard a watch as this is even for me these days-it has the power to suck me in and dazzle me with its golden light and contrasting darkness as much as a classic horror film might! Props to Conrad Halls incredible photography and John Barrys by turns lovely and terrifying score.
One of the 70s most unique and treasured gems!