Color, 1969, 120 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Al Lewis
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA.R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), MGM, Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)

As They Shoot Horses, Don't They?chilling and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?haunting as any horror film from its decade, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is one of the most harrowing mainstream films from the tail end of the '60s when the love movement had darkened into a pop culture nightmare. The timing turned out to be perfect for this adaptation of a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy about the dance marathon craze during the Great Depression, which was ultimately outlawed for its brutality and exploitation of lower class citizens. The project started as a script by James Poe (The Big Knife, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) intended to feature his wife at the time, Barbara Steele, but by the time it reached the screen, the film had transformed into a major acting calling card for Jane Fonda that marked a permanent shift from her days of Roger Vadim projects and lighthearted comedies.

While strolling in Santa Monica and recalling his difficult childhood on a farm, Robert (Sarrazin) wanders into the preparations for a very long dance marathon with desperate locals willing to subject themselves to grueling physical competition for hundreds of hours. He's paired up with jaded Gloria (Fonda) after her partner is disqualified for health reasons, and over the course of the marathon emceed by Rocky (Young) they become They Shoot Horses, Don't They?entangled with other contestants including war vet Sailor (Buttons), pregnant and desperate Ruby (Bedelia), and her husband, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?James (Dern). Pushed to the limits of physical endurance in front of a growing live audience, they come to realize the horrific lengths to which people will go for some quick money and time in the limelight.

Arguably even more relevant today than when it was released thanks to the normalization of reality TV and rapid-fire manufactured celebrity, this film was a major comeback for director-producer Sydney Pollack after the box office failure of his gorgeous but very challenging wartime dream epic, Castle Keep. It's also a key early entry in the wave of '20s and '30s nostalgia pieces that would become prevalent in theaters for the first half or so of the '70s, setting a nightmarish tone that would only be surpassed by another harrowing, almost-horror look at Depression-era California, The Day of the Locust. All of the actors are in top form here, with Young easily earning his Oscar as one of the darkest and most complex ringleaders you'll ever see. (The actor's ultimate horrifying fate nine years later also gives this film and especially its finale an extra chill.) The incredible derby sequences, with contestants forced to run in circles with the three slowest couples eliminated at the finish line, are particularly memorable and intense (with Pollack himself jumped in to capture some of the hand-held footage), and the film isn't afraid to go into some pitch-black places that still shock today (especially the fate of Buttons' character and the unforgettable closing minutes). They Shoot Horses, Don't They?They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Initially released on VHS in the format's infancy by Magnetic Video, this film got its first widescreen presentation as a very pricey ($125!) laserdisc boxed set from Fox in 1996, autographed by Pollack and featuring a hefty slate of extras including a new director's commentary (which is excellent, as usual for him, and makes a strong case for this film as a summation of the cynical film attitudes of the entire decade). A second commentary track of sorts compiles together separate audio interviews about the film with Fonda, Sarrazin (who's terrific and should have done more of these), Buttons, Bedelia, producer Irwin Winkler, former ABC Pictures president and CAA talent agent Martin Baum, and hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff. It's a very solid track (and not scene specific at all, obviously), with topics ranging from the film's popularity in Russia(!) as a dark look at capitalism to the challenges of creating a period dance hall that would have existed at the time. Also included are the theatrical trailer, a vintage promotional featurette (6m29s.) which features some fascinating making-of footage and a glimpse of a Sarrazin scene cut from the final film, and multiple galleries devoted to promotional stills and sales collateral, composer Johnny Green's musical notes, and Pollack's annotated shooting script. The transfer looked good for the time, but by the time the film hit DVD with the same flat letterboxed transfer used for separate releases by Anchor Bay and MGM (who included the trailer and featurette as extras), technology wasn't so kind any more with the film looking very flat, soft, and dull in the era of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?anamorphic transfers. The DVDs were also They Shoot Horses, Don't They?mono, a disappointment after the painstaking restoration of the film's striking three-channel mix heard on the laserdisc.

Fortunately the film fares much, much better courtesy of the separate Blu-ray and DVD editions from Kino Lorber, finally putting the theatrical sound mix back in place. The DTS-HD MA English track (with optional English subtitles on the Blu-ray) is a real joy with some effective sonic panning effects and nice separation for the vintage dance music that fills the soundtrack. The transfer is a much-needed improvement in every way, featuring richer and deeper blacks, a sensitive reproduction of the original color palette (with an emphasis on earth tones punctuated with bright flashing light and wild bursts of red and blue at dramatic moments), and a huge bump in detail that allows a much keener appreciation of the production design and costumes. Top marks all around. Both commentary tracks from the laserdisc have finally been brought back here, along with the featurette and the theatrical trailer (unfortunately squeezed and looking really choppy) plus a bonus trailer for Coming Home). The packaging features a reversible sleeve with painted international poster art on both sides, but be warned, the one on the reverse side is a massive spoiler!

Reviewed on August 14, 2017