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Sam Peckinpah is usually associated with the excellent Westerns that he directed (The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, etc.), but he also directed several non-Westerns. Straw Dogs is the best of that bunch. It's a disturbing movie that erupts in a harrowing final half hour of violence--as disturbing and brutal as anything ever captured on film. Now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, this new, digitally-mastered, letterboxed release gives us a new opportunity to assess the impact of this much heralded movie in the Peckinpah canon. The disc even includes footage that was deleted from the original American theatrical release.

In the years that have passed since it first hit theaters in 1971, some of the luster has worn off of Straw Dogs. Upon its initial release, it received rave reviews from many big name American publications, such as Time and Newsweek. But the movie won't appeal to many audience members: the movie contains just two women in major roles and both women are abused by men. In both cases, the movie argues that the women were largely to blame for the violence against them. That's not an attitude that will endear this movie to many feminists in the audience. However, while Peckinpah's depiction of female characters lacks sophistication, Straw Dogs is still a remarkable movie.

Dustin Hoffman plays a mild-mannered mathematician named David Sumner who moves to a Cornish village along with his sexy young wife Amy, played by Susan George (in the best performance of her career). While David spends his days making notations on a blackboard and checking his calculations, Amy acts bored. Like a little girl with nothing better to do, she erases symbols from the blackboard when his back is turned. She wants his attention, but he is obsessed with his work. This situation becomes complicated when David hires a crew of workers to repair the roof of an adjoining building. Amy complains about the workers' leers, but later she stands naked in the hallway, clearly exposed to the workers through a window. A recipe for disaster is in the making.

David Warner plays a supporting role as a simple-minded man named Henry Niles from the nearby village. After he disappears with a local girl, her family is ready to tear the countryside apart in order to find her. These stories converge at the mathematician's farm, as David takes in Niles and protects him. Previously, David wasn't prepared to fight for his wife's honor or for the sanctity of their home, but in an ironic twist with strong tinges of misplaced bleeding-heart liberalism--it's the movie's masterstroke--David is willing to risk everything to protect a man who may in fact be a murderer.

At this point, the movie erupts in a vicious spasm of violence. While the missing girl's angry brothers and father smash the farm house's windows and throw their bodies against its front door, Amy with her husband to hand over Niles. But after he gives sanctuary to Niles, David becomes a bulldog who won't back down.

Hoffman clearly isn't playing a hero. For most of the movie, David looks foolish--as when the workers convince him to go hunting and he ends up participating in a British version of a snipe hunt. And when the family cat is killed, his wife urges him to ask the workers about the cat, but he doesn't say anything, insisting that he must wait until the time is right. But the time is never right. In his wife's eyes (and in the eyes of the workers), David is an impotent and absurd figure of a man.

The violence in Straw Dogs works as a cathartic release that allows David to discover his own strength and masculinity. But what are we to make of David's discovery? Many critics in the '70s saw this discovery as a profound revelation. The reviewer for Newsweek said, "Peckinpah works with such power and artistry that we accept his totems and taboos and even find ourselves cheering like willing barbarians at Hoffman's brutal battle to the death. What he does for his hero, he does for us: he puts us in touch with our primal feelings. He allows his audience to ventilate without guilt its frustrations and hatreds." These comments sound like hyperbole nowadays. While some people might cheer at the violence in Straw Dogs, the movie provides few easy answers. Peckinpah gives us a universe of ambiguous morality: this is the movie's strength--its unwillingness to make simple equations. When David drives away at the end of the movie, he quite literally drives into fog, unsure where he's going and what he will do. His smile tells us that he has chosen a preferable route, but his future is unknown.

Straw Dogs isn't in the same category as Peckinpah's best work, for the movie is seriously flawed by its unsophisticated attitude toward women. But nonetheless, it's a powerful, haunting meditation on the relationship between manhood and violence.

For their DVD release of Straw Dogs, the Criterion Collection has pulled together an impressive collection of supplements that examine not only the film but also the career of Sam Peckinpah. If you want to better understand who Peckinpah was and why his career ground to a halt in the early '80s, this two-disc DVD set is an excellent place to start. You'll find an excellent 82-minute documentary titled Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron that examines his career and provides interviews with many people that he worked with, including Kris Kristofferson, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Susan George, Daniel Melnick, James Coburn, and many others. From their first-hand recollections, a detailed picture of Peckinpah emerges. He was a tyrant on the movie set. He knew how to push buttons to get what he wanted. He knew how to manipulate and cajole, how to intimidate and coerce. If, for example, R.G. Armstrong wasn't delivering the intensity that Peckinpah desired in a key scene in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he insulted Armstrong until he received the appropriate rage. Then he called out "roll 'em." If he wanted Susan George to feel isolated and vulnerable in Straw Dogs, he treated her kindly early in the production and then he withdrew all affection (with method actor Dustin Hoffman already taking a similar approach). This maybe was Peckinpah's genius: the ability to get what he wanted through the sheer force of his character. But he took a destructive journey, plied with drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, paranoia engulfed him and made him incapable of handling the demands of directing a motion picture.

The Criterion Collection's DVD also contains an interview with Dustin Hoffman from the set of Straw Dogs, as well as more recent interviews with Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick. In addition, the DVD contains a sampling of correspondence that Peckinpah wrote to critics and viewers following the release of Straw Dogs. For example, the word "fascist" struck him very hard in Pauline Kael's otherwise very favorable review and he wrote to her explaining why the word was horribly inappropriate. While Straw Dogs has been previously offered on DVD (by Anchor Bay Entertainment), the Criterion Collection's DVD is much more than just a movie. It provides a window into the dark, tortured soul of a remarkable filmmaking talent.
 


Straw Dogs is now available in a new high-definition digital transfer of the uncut version, enhanced for widescreen televisions. This is a two-disc set. Special features: audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince; isolated music and effects tracks; Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, a documentary of reflections by members of Peckinpah's family, his friends, and his collaborators; On Location: Dustin Hoffman, a 26-minute documentary filmed on the set of Straw Dogs; behind-the-scenes footage; video interviews with actress Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick; select written responses by Peckinpah to critics and viewers; and a theatrical trailer and TV spots. Suggested retail price: $39.95 each. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.