David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), an American physicist, moves with his wife Amy (Susan George) to her childhood home in Cornwall. Tension mounts after some local roughs, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend, are hired to do handiwork around the Sumner home and begin subtly taunting the young couple. A pacifist, David refuses to take action, even when their cat is found hanging dead in the closet. As he retreats further into his abstract world of theorems, Amy begins drifting away from her seemingly uncaring husband. Later, the thugs lure David away on a hunting trip, while two men perpetrate a vicious, sexual assault upon Amy. Meanwhile, flirty, micro-skirted Janice (Sally Thomsett - gasp! That nice girl from The Railway Children!) is accidentally killed by village simpleton, Henry (David Warner). Things reach an impasse when David shelters Henry from Janice’s brutal father, Tom (Peter Vaughan) and the thugs lay siege to his home. David is forced to take a stand, putting barb wire, scalding water and a huge mantrap to use with horrific results.
1971 was cinema’s year of ultra-violence: A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs all courted controversy. If A Clockwork Orange was pitched at the intelligentsia, and Dirty Harry at the masses, then Sam Peckinpah’s brutal thriller assaults the chattering classes, bringing violence right into their living room. Violence hangs in the air. Men quiz David about unrest in America and whether he saw any violence (“Only between commercials”). Rural England - which Peckinpah captures in all its bleak, autumnal beauty - seems like a refuge, but Straw Dogs suggests its all lurking beneath the surface. The film taps into a very English form of nastiness; petty, low key, drawn from xenophobia and class hatred. Note Tom’s simmering resentment of the Major - who, when the bullets fly, is first to fall. Yet Peckinpah cuts deeper. David serves as a stand-in for those people queuing up to see Straw Dogs at the cinema (and perhaps those who vilified it). Look, Peckinpah seems to say, it’s in you too. It’s there waiting for the right circumstances to break free. When David traps, batters and blasts the intruders it’s bloody and horrible, but disturbingly liberating. You cheer because these bastards bullied him mercilessly and raped his wife, just as you cheered when Dirty Harry blows the monster Scorpio away with a .44 magnum.
Needless to say, Peckinpah’s provocative stance didn’t sit well with critics in 1971, and in 1984 the film was banned in Britain, remaining so for nearly twenty years. For all the blood and gore, the most castigated scene was Amy’s rape. It’s harrowing stuff even today, accentuated - ironically enough - by cuts demanded by the BBFC that left the impression Amy is being raped, anally. Accusations of sexism and misogyny can’t be dismissed entirely. After all, what Peckinpah implies is that violating ‘his woman’ is an affront to David’s masculinity. In the initial act perpetrated by her ex-boyfriend, Amy almost consents, rebelling against David’s perceived callousness. Towards the end, Amy flits between David and her ex-boyfriend, which triggers her husbands virility as he takes charge. Straw Dogs is much like a western in its juxtaposition of virility and impotence. It’s there in the locals resentment of outsiders taking “what is theirs…” (land, women, etc.).
These aspects remain problematic, but are intentionally so. What saves Straw Dogs from outright misogyny is its complexity. Peckinpah refuses to bury his head in the sand and settle for liberal or conservative definitions of sex and violence. In the source novel - Gordon M. Williams’ “The Siege at Trencher’s Farm” - Amy is middle-aged. Here she’s a coquettish tease, possessing an almost Lolita-ish quality. Peckinpah is upfront about the fact that Amy is sexy, introducing her with a provocative close-up on her breasts. Yet she isn’t a slab of meat. Susan George’s performance registers rage, anguish, inner conflict and pain. She’d played victimised sex kittens before in Fright (1971) and Die Screaming, Marianne (1969), but Amy goes beyond the superficial, a complex character whose actions are open to interpretation.
Things can’t just be interpreted one or two ways, quite often there are three. A sexist interpretation would suggest Amy succumbs to her ex-boyfriend’s advances. Feminists might suggest she’s rebelling against her inattentive husband. It could be that, just like David during the climax, Amy reverts to animal behaviour when cornered. Each argument is flawed, but then again so are human beings. There are no easy answers.
Peckinpah’s flair for editing goes beyond action scenes. He uses it in his portrayal of relationships - sudden cuts, time jumps, fragmented scenes combine to underline tensions within David and Amy’s marriage. The young couple share an almost childlike interplay, present in the scene where Amy taunts David while chewing gum. The way Amy transforms from David’s mirror image to rebellious nymphet, simply by putting on or removing her glasses is another example of Peckinpah’s oft-overlooked subtlety. Away from the subtle, “Bloody Sam” delivers Hitchcockian shocks (David discovering the cat in the closet; that ‘He’s not dead yet’ moment, later found in countless psycho thrillers) and renders the final assault on Trencher’s a gruelling tour-de-force. Dustin Hoffman made one the quirkiest decisions of his great career working with such an unlikely collaborator. Perfectly cast as nervy, introspective David Sumner, the little man who lashes out (at what cost?), he pairs well with Susan George. Their contrasting acting styles create some memorable, character-led moments. Straw Dogs is a standout film in its participants’ careers, ugly, beautiful, visceral and affecting - often all at once.
[The Freemantle blu-ray features a restored and remastered print with a whole wealth of extras including audio commentary by Katy Haber (Dialogue Director and Peckinpah's associate, close friend and PA); audio commentary by Peckinpah biographers Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Paul Seydor and so many other goodies it's spread across two discs!]
American writer and director, a hard-drinking, producer-hating maverick who was as much reviled as he was admired. After a spell in the armed forces, he moved into television with a succession of westerns, and graduated to film with The Deadly Companions and cult classic Ride the High Country. When he worked on Major Dundee, the problems started, and, as would happen many times subsequently, the film was recut against his wishes.