Review: Day of the Locust

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Maybe one of the reasons I don’t much care for the John Schlesinger film of Day of the Locust is an attitude towards his characters—Nathanael West’s characters in this case—which he has avoided in other films. In Sunday Bloody Sunday there was no overt judgment, no condescension towards his people, and in fact the film’s openness was a way of questioning the successfulness and validity of relationships between people whose strengths were admirable and whose weaknesses were sympathetically portrayed. Even in Midnight Cowboy there was the redeeming love and friendship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo that gave some value to an ugly world. But in Day of the Locust Schlesinger handles his characters as though at the end of a long stick, turning irony into a cruel form of entrapment by making them seem so bereft of normally human characteristics that we wonder how they could ever possibly rise above their bathetic gropings and mutual fear and hatred of each other.

Locust does begin on a more restrained note which appears to bode well for Schlesinger’s professed desire to create a film about the “little people” on the seamy fringes of Hollywood; we glimpse a character (Karen Black) drifting through the massive glitter of a movie set, momentarily secure within an illusion of grandeur. But as the film progresses, any tension arising from the initial thematic juxtaposition of opulence and insignificance seems to evaporate as the lives of the little people rear up and overwhelm the screen, the story, and those of us looking for a thread of continuity, a semblance of sane order, and a hint as to what the story is now about. Hollywood? It’s just sort of out there somewhere, popping up from time to time, but mostly just lurking around like an awkward lump of metaphorical potentiality nobody seems to know quite how to handle. There are movies within movies in Day of the Locust—the Thirties costume drama, and the Waterloo battlefield that collapses beneath the cast and crew—as well as scenes within scenes such as the initial one which, as Schlesinger’s directorial credit appears, becomes the scene with the camera, director, and crew of the movie-in-progress shimmering into invisibility. Schlesinger’s earlier film, Midnight Cowboy, also began with an image of receding, or superimposed, layers of reality, a shot of a drive-in theater screen that filled the screen we sat in front of; on the soundtrack we could hear canned Western effects complete with horses’ hoofbeats that faded back into its own invisible world as the camera’s breadth of vision increased and we could see the reality of a Texas drive-in and some horses grazing out past the projection booth. It was an image which succinctly captured an aspect of Joe Buck, the cowboy stud caught up in wild fantasies of identity; once it was established, Schlesinger wisely let it be, content that a seed of thematic potentiality had been planted somewhere in the backs of his audience’s minds.

Nothing quite so kind can be said of Day of the Locust. After its restrained first moments, it blossoms into a profusion of metaphorical pretension that fails to capture any human-ness while sprawling in the midst of humanity. Aside from simply being able to like the people in Sunday Bloody Sunday more than the people in Locust, I could most of the time see where the former was headed—partly because Schlesinger never let narrative understatement (something I liked about the film) become narrative amorphousness as it does in his recent film. Schlesinger doesn’t so much tell the story as he lets it exude onto the screen like a viscous substance of slimy textures and grossly sensual colors. Sometimes the photography is so chimerically glistening as to seem out of focus; other times indulgent orgies of food and flesh ooze from every corner of the frame, and there is a constant stream of physically, psychically, and emotionally misshapen people cringing or shrieking through a distorted environment seething with the stench of corruption. Perhaps Schlesinger had it in mind that we not be able to sit through Day of the Locust with a passive or—horrors!—warmly appreciative attitude that makes movies, when they touch us, seem so worthwhile. But then the heightened pitch of frenzy to which Locust is tuned (I kept recalling Karen Black screaming and wagging her breasts in front of the dying vaudevillean played by Burgess Meredith) isn’t necessarily any more truthful a vision of life than the next guy’s film even though ugliness qua ugliness seems for some reason to have an aesthetic force reflecting a sometimes easy cynicism—as though we need not question the truth of a pessimistic vision. And it isn’t totally impossible for a film—like Cassavetes’ A Woman under the Influence—to be emotionally and viscerally straining and yet promise final release rather than an embarrassingly constipated apocalypse.

DAY OF THE LOCUST
Direction: John Schlesinger. Screenplay: Waldo Salt, after the novel by Nathanael West. Cinematography: Conrad Hall. Production: Jerome Hellman.
The Players: William Atherton, Karen Black, Donald Sutherland, Burgess Meredith, Bo Hopkins, Pepe Serna, Billy Barty, Lelia Goldoni, Richard A. Dysart.

Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann