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The Criterion Collection presents
Straw Dogs: Criterion Collection (1971)

"If you don't clear out now, there'll be real trouble."
- David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: April 14, 2003

Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, T.P. McKenna, Del Henney
Other Stars: Ken Hutchison, Colin Welland, Jim Norton, Sally Thomsett, Donald Webster, Len Jones, Michael Mundell, Peter Arne, David Warner
Director: Sam Peckinpah

Manufacturer: Sony Pictures Digital Authoring Center
MPAA Rating: R for (violence, gore, rape, nudity, language)
Run Time: 01h:57m:44s
Release Date: March 25, 2003
UPC: 715515013420
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-A-B- A-

DVD Review

Sam Peckinpah's films always seem to center on the violence of the world, often taken to extremes. This tendency is made all the more striking by his penchant for taking nonviolent men and putting them into a position where they have no choice but to resort to violence. Seldom is this situation more stark, or the results more controversial, than in his 1971 film, Straw Dogs.

Young American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his English bride Amy (Susan George) have come to her inherited home in Cornwall in order to escape the violence in America. But the mild-mannered David doesn't seem to recognize that the locals, resentful of Americans, have just as much potential for violence as do the Yanks back home. A gang of drunken bullies, layabouts and thugs, led by Amy's former boyfriend Charlie Venner (Del Henney), push him at every opportunity. Even after they gang rape Amy, David finds himself unable to confront them. Only at the harrowing finale, when the gang force their way into the house, does David find violence within him and attempt to make a stand.

The film has always been controversial for the rape episode, with feminist writers taking the attitude that it expresses a fairly Neanderthal viewpoint (Pauline Kael famously denounced it as "Fascist"), since Amy begins to enjoy the process. But a closer viewing defuses this criticism; it is only when she is initially assaulted by Venner, her former lover, does she express pleasure. The fact that Amy has already become disgusted with her ineffective husband allows her to take this attitude, making the beginning of the scene less a rape and more a willing complicity after saying "No," but not necessarily meaning it. Venner does express tenderness, and the result is more a portrayal of regret over a lost love and enjoying a forbidden return to an affection that they once knew. The ambiguities are swept away, however, when the rest of the gang makes its appearance; what could alternately be taken as an act of rebellion and romance switches gears abruptly as the truth of the situation makes itself clear to her.

Peckinpah, as is seen from the extra materials, became upset with critics and viewers who took David to be the hero and for the final bloodbath to be a glorying in violence. This is partly Peckinpah's own fault, since much of the film is shot paralleling David's point of view. However, the random small cruelties that he practices on his wife (and tormenting their cat) are an indicator that he's not really meant to be a role model. The attitude is subtle, but it's undeniably present. This viewpoint is amplified by Hoffman's acting in the finale, when he seems to completely dissociate and gives his sociopathic tendencies free rein. More questionable, however, is the director's notion that David provokes the violence by his actions (or inactions) throughout; it seems as if he is suggesting that David should have become violent at the first push from the bullies. But from what we've seen of them, it's likely that he would have ended up dead in the first 20 minutes had he done so. The villagers are completely without remorse or conscience, and indeed are little more than monstrous caricatures. Lashing out at them seems ill-advised at best, especially given the hostility that results when David briefly stands up and fires them. The resulting impasse makes the finale really inevitable, rather than the result of any particular choices made by David.

Hoffman turns in an extremely powerful performance, one of his very best of a long and distinguished career. His Method acting serves him in good stead as it makes his David quite credible at all times, whether simpering in his isolation from violence, or gleefully exacting vengence on the locals. Sex kitten Susan George also presents a memorable role as the put-upon Amy. As noted, the locals are generally lacking in subtleties, either being practically demonic, or the too-good-to-be-true villagers who live in denial of the nature of their compatriots. The direction is interesting, with a tendency to actually understate the violence, contrary to Peckinpah's bloody reputation. Much happens offscreen, or is merely implied, and it's all the more effective for that.

The result is a thought-provoking and highly disturbing picture of man at his worst. Intrigo be warned, there is much mistreatment of cats, and cat lovers will want to steer clear. Criterion's license for the film reportedly expires at the end of 2003, so be sure to pick up this disc now before it goes for a fortune on eBay.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Criterion's anamorphic widescreen presentation looks quite good indeed. Colors are a bit subdued, but that's par for the course in a film from 1971. Detail and clarity are excellent for the most part, though there is ringing on the credits. There are occasional speckles but nothing else that is distracting from the viewing experience.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The film is presented with a 1.0 mono English audio track. This tends to have a fair amount of hiss and noise, despite claims that it has been cleaned up for the DVD. The result isn't terrible, but it can still be distracting. For the most part dialogue is understandable despite the Cornish accents, and Jerry Fielding's score sounds quite good. The fact that it's mono doesn't really hurt the audio much, since it does have decent depth and richness.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 TV Spots/Teasers
Production Notes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
4 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peckinpah biographer Stephen Prince
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:06m:52s

Extra Extras:
  1. Correspondence of Peckinpah regarding the film
Extras Review: As befits a film of Straw Dogs' importance, Criterion pulls out all the stops, beginning with a well-edited feature-length commentary by the author of Savage Cinema, a book about Peckinpah's films. Prince takes a contrarian point of view to most critics and treats the film as a masterpiece deserving of more respect than it receives. His case is generally convincing, though not always so. He tends to take Peckinpah's word for things without looking too deeply beneath the text. But Prince provides sufficient anecdote, history, thematic and technical analysis to make the ride thoroughly intriguing.

A second disc is packed full of documentaries. The first is a biography of the director, Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron (01h:22m:25s), produced in 1991 for the A&E/BBC program, Moving Pictures. This features interviews with James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw, while Jason Robards reads from Peckinpah's wiritings. The original program was substantially longer, since numerous film clips have been removed due to rights issues. However, this tends to make the program focus a bit more on Straw Dogs and thus makes it an appropriate companion piece here. Two pieces from 1971 give a view of the shooting. On Location: Dustin Hoffman (25m:45s) features a good deal of clowning around on the set and Hoffman discussing his then-brief career. We get a glimpse of some of the topical dialogue that was cut from the final release version of the film, and also get to see Peckinpah's directorial style, which is surprisingly subtle. A briefer black-and-white segment (with missing spots of audio on the original) features more of the same kind of material.

To bring the discussion up to date, there are a pair of 2002 interviews with Susan George and with producer Daniel Melnick, each running about twenty minutes. George demonstrates a great deal of pride in her work in the film and eagerly discusses what was the high-water point of her career. Melnick relates a number of anecdotes not duplicated elsewhere, and also touches on the banning of the film in Britain for over 30 years. His claim is that it's the sexual violence that raised British hackles, but I suspect it has much more to do with the merciless depiction of the Brits as creeps and cretins. The usual trailers, text essay and text interview with Peckinpah round out the package. The layer change in the feature is completely seamless.

By my count that's over four and a half hours of extras and nearly all of it quality material. Even those with the British two-disc special edition may want to consider adding this release to their collections.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

A harrowing look at violence and the modern American wimp, through the startling lens of Sam Peckinpah. Criterion gives it a beautiful transfer and a tremendous amount of worthwhile extras both from the period and from recent years.

 


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