Straw Dogs

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #182: Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs

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If ever there is a movie that fulfills the maxim “Beware the wrath of a quiet man” Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs [1971] [don't miss the essay from a real film critic] is it. One of the many things Peckinpah does well is violence. After all, he is the man who at first shocked, then popularized modern graphic violence with The Wild Bunch. Sam isn’t one to have violence merely for violence sake, though. It served a higher purpose in The Wild Bunch, and it does the same in Straw Dogs, albeit more ambiguously. This movie is a tough read. It is no surprise to me that it was banned for years in the UK.

Dustin Hoffman plays the part of an American mathematician, David Sumner, who has moved to Cornwall with his hot English wife. He is the typical unconfident, passive-aggressive, nonconfrontational bookworm type, a nerd. A coward. His wife Amy [Susan George] is also passive-aggressive and it seems like neither of them understand the other. More importantly for the film, Amy “has a past” with one of the local residents, a Fabio-type construction worker who is helping build a garage at their farm. Amy also skips around braless and wearing those little late 1960s skirt numbers. If you watch the beginning of the film here: [embedded WMP stream, please excuse the Czech subtitles] you’ll see just how quickly Peckinpah creates a sense of menace and desire between the men of the town and Amy. It also doesn’t help that Amy flashes the workmen a couple of times…

While this is going on we keep getting glimpses about how incapable David Sumner is. He is quiet, timid, can’t even hammer a nail, essentially half a man. The film has other half-men in it as well, the magistrate, Major John Scott [T.P. McKenna], has a dead arm and there is some sort of danger or fear associated with the local halfwit, John Niles [Peter Arne] The other men about are all rather creepy, aggressive, leering and sneering, rude, but strong and capable too. True Full Men. Sumner is aware of the jokes they make and the hints they drop, but doesn’t understand them. He just knows he is being made fun of.

Then someone strangles the cat. And hangs it in the closet. Sumner doesn’t want to admit that it was the workmen but Amy says “They wanted to show you that they could get in your bedroom.” The next day he says he’s going to confront them about it, but bails out. Much like I tend to do when I want to chat up a girl. Instead he agrees to go duck-hunting with them the next day. He does and they ditch him.

This is the point where what we’ve been expecting since we saw the first hard nipple in the opening sequence: the rape scene. Charlie Venner [Del Henney], the man with whom Amy “has a past” shows up, she’s sitting around in her bathrobe, she lets him in, knowing full well what he wants, fixes him a drink, lets him pin her against the liquor cabinet, kisses him and then decides she’s making a bad decision. Or maybe she decides to play hard to get. Peckinpah walks the razor’s edge here with great skill. Throughout the whole sequence with Charlie Venner, him slapping her, tearing her clothes off, and the start of the fucking, she goes back and forth between wanting him and refusing him. Finally she decides that she likes it. I got the feeling that this was another strike against David, as if he can’t satisfy his wife’s sexual appetites. [I found the whole sequence of this in screenshots online while looking for the final screenshot in the entry, but I'm not linking to it because the whole site is dedicated to rape scenes in movies. Fucking sick.]

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All of this is intercut with shots of David Sumner trying to shoot a damn duck and missing. He finally kills one, apparently at the same time Charlie bags his own bird. Sumner goes to pick up the bird and it is still in its death throes [intercut with Amy's orgasms]. Because he is so gentle, he is saddened at the death of the animal and hides it.

Back to Amy. Charlie is cuddling with her, post-coital, when Chris Cawsey, another of the workmen comes in and wants a piece of the action too. Charlie is unwilling, but since he’s got a shotgun in his face, lets the slimeball shuck his knickers. Amy is almost asleep, but looks to see what is happening and definitely doesn’t want it to. But it does. Of course, by the time Sumner gets home they are long gone and a bruised face Amy doesn’t tell him. He doesn’t even ask why her cheeks are all raw or why she looks like death warmed over. He starts smooching all over her and Peckinpah cuts back to the earlier rape scene and shows that he’s framed the shots almost identically. He feels manly because he killed a duck with a shotgun.

Sumner fires the men the next day because they ditched him. That night he and Amy go to the church social where she can’t stop thinking about the rape [well duh] and it is marvellously intercut with the lame magic tricks of the vicar. Janice Hedden [Sally Thomsett] has a big ole crush on David Sumner and keeps trying to get his attention, for all that she is 14 or so. Spurned by him, she decides to use John Niles, the [maybe rapist?] halfwit to get some. She sneaks off with him and when their absence is noticed all the men wig out. They claim they are trying to find Janice, but give themselves the lie because they only ask after John Niles. John gets scared when he hears their calls, accidentally strangles Janice and takes off for the hills. David and Amy are heading home when he hits John Niles. They drag him into the house and David calls the pub for help. Bad idea, since all the Full True Men are there drinking some liquid courage so they can do what they’ve been wanting to do for years, kill John Niles. They grab a couple more bottles of liquor and head on up to the Sumner’s for a little bit of the old ultra-violence. [Incidentally, this film was released the same year as Dirty Harry and A Clockwork Orange]

They muscle their way indoors and make Sumner look like a sissy again, although he does defend Niles and manage to talk them back outside, until they’ve had a bit more to drink. Then they start breaking windows. Now Sumner decides to make his stand. Finally. Christ. Amy just wants to toss John Niles out to them. She doesn’t care what happens to him. When David realizes this we also realize that his strength is his gentleness, the very thing we’d derided him for throughout most of the movie. The magistrate shows up, tries to disarm the drunken louts and gets a shotgun through his chest for his trouble. A one-armed man, no matter how brave, can’t beat five dudes, one with a shotgun. David sets traps, has to keep Amy from letting the men inside, finally gets her to do as he says and gets all reckless [a very sligh dutch angle when he turns on some blaring bagpipes, while gripping an iron poker is probably the sweetest shot in the movie]. Boiling oil, a bear trap, a shotgun to the feet, David manages to kill everyone.

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Then he takes John Niles home, leaving Amy with all the dead bodies. I can’t really blame him, she called out for Charlie [the guy who held her down while she got raped!] instead of David while they were fighting each other.

Straw Dogs is a great title, basically saying that the manliness shown in the movie is like a vicious dog, but ultimately one with no steadfastness, no root, easily blown burned or consumed. It has its problems, namely the treatment of Amy throughout, but David treats her as an equal, as more than something to shag, even though that wasn’t emphasized quite so much. Still, Amy’s inherent ignobility, more a matter of personality than womanhood, can’t help but be spread about to include all women, at least in the movie’s terms. I keep wavering back and forth on that point, it is an obvious weakness, but the movie isn’t about women. One of the major objections to it in Britain was that it portrayed rural British as inbred and vulgar. Somebody has to be the bad guy. I’m rambling. I’ve gone on too long as it is. Just get your hands on a copy of this and come to your own conclusions.

Criterion Essay by Joshua Clover.