Hollywood 1938, and budding artist Tod Hackett (William Atherton) moves into an apartment complex which he can afford on his salary, but would still like to be doing more for his money as the art director position on various movies keeps getting filled by other people. However, once he has settled into his new home he notices the young starlet Faye Greener (Karen Black) living across the courtyard with her ageing, door-to-door salesman father (Burgess Meredith). She enchants him, but is having the same effect on other men as well - can Tod get her that breakthrough role?
Well, maybe enchants is the wrong word, as there was very little enchanting about John Schlesinger's adaptation of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, so as far as that went they got that right about the source. One of the most caustic parables of Hollywood ever written, West's novel was partly based on his experiences as a screenwriter there during the Great Depression, and by all accounts he did pretty well out of it when millions of his countrymen were starving. He saw that it was not simply wealth the public were in need of, but entertainment as well, and he was not impressed by this compulsion.
Therefore he wrote this, a short, snappy and mean tale of the power of the moviegoers and what happens when they turn into a mob through sheer strength of numbers and the thwarting of their impossible dreams. The book's stature only grew after West's untimely death in 1940, as a film, however many creative types thought they could bring it to the screen, something always foiled them, and when Schlesinger and Waldo Salt's script finally succeeded, it was a complete disaster at the box office. For those who liked the original, there was too much to complain about in the choices, for those who hadn't, it was an incredibly offputting experience.
This could be compared to the contemporary adaptation of The Great Gatsby, not least because they looked so similar in style with the sheen of golden nostalgia affecting every frame, and similarly missing the point for too many audiences who might otherwise have been sympathetic. Not that the characters are likeable, far from it as their baser desires and urges tend to navigate their way through the plot for them, even the meek and schlubby Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland, who doesn't show up for over forty minutes), the man flighty Faye (Black was miscast) finally settles on as her partner. It should be noted that Sutherland was not playing the yellow, overweight cartoon man of popular sitcom fame, that was pure coincidence.
It might have made for an even stranger movie, of course, but for the most part without West's prose to force you through to its devilish denouement, The Day of the Locust as envisioned here was a real trudge, with only occasional sequences standing out - for example Meredith's slog through the rich folk's homes as he tries to sell his snake oil and laughs himself into a heart attack in the process, or the near-fatal collapse of the set Tod has designed, coming about because the bosses don't care about safety and care all too much about profit. But then you reach the final twenty minutes and at last Schlesinger found the tone he was looking for: abject horror. The ending which is triggered by Homer punishing the vilest character, a child, is among the most vicious of this or any decade, building from harrowing to positively apocalyptic, a truly powerful climax that left more than one viewer shaken. Trouble is, it's a long road to get there, and when you do many might wonder if this was what they really wanted to see. Music by John Barry.