Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Movie Controversies, Sam Peckinpah

The Ballad Of David Sumner: A Peckinpah Psychodrama

[Originally published in Movietone News 10, January 1972]

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs reminds us that in our rush to civilization, we too often deny the violent origins of our favorite myths and rituals—and pretend that the primal power of our lizard brains never was. Who wants to recall that Christian Communion is a sanitized version of the actual sacrifice—sometimes involving dismemberment and cannibalism—at the heart of innumerable pagan religions? In the time of Sophocles, it was considered beneficial to communally cathect archetypal fantasies. Now we believe that if we just aren’t reminded too often (via the movies, for instance) of the dark underside of human experience, the unpleasantness will all go away, and we’ll all be polite and peaceful together. Isn’t evil all out there, not stubbornly in residence within us? Or if within us, it’s just a matter of biochemical misfires. Retro filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah should chill out, instead of unreeling incendiary words and images.

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner
Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner

In Straw Dogs, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), in Cornwall to do mathematical research, ignores the possibility of forces and emotions which cannot be contained in neat theorems or controlled by the rational mind. The Cornwall locals question him about what he’s seen of the “troubles” in America—”Did you take part, sir?”—and he quips, “Just between commercials.” For him, the reality of disorder and violence is a made-for-TV movie safely sandwiched between the plasticized fantasy-worlds of Madison Avenue. The irrational is closer to the surface in David’s wife, Amy (Susan George), who deliberately changes the pluses to minuses in David’s neat little equations, trying to tell him that his mathematical framework fails to include certain realities. (For a screwball comedy take on Peckinpah’s psychodrama, check out Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant’s scientist, unmanned and paralyzed by living too much in the head, and Katharine Hepburn, a bundle of impulse, irrationality and energy, survive by finding a point of balance between creative chaos and rigid order.)

David’s teasing rejoinder to his wife’s unabashed sexuality is to call her an animal, once inquiring as she presses against him why she took the heater out of his study (free association of sex with machine that gives warmth?). Later while she’s pouncing on him in bed he methodically removes his glasses, his watch, and sets the alarm, not exactly evidence of unbridled passion. His irritation with Amy’s fondness for her cat (and with the cat itself) originates in his deep distrust of the irrational, the unknown—it’s not for nothing that cats are frequent emblems of sex and violence in the annals of dream analysis. (In Bringing Up Baby, the “good” and “bad” leopards are animal expressions of psychological states.)

Amy’s games are childishly amoral, essentially sociopathic; she and David are two sides of a psychic coin—she needs to grow up, set limits on her impulses, as much as David needs to get in touch with his. Her antipathy to her husband’s work has its origins in her preference for anarchy, but she does have some insight into David’s withdrawal from the encroaching violence in America to the pursuit of pure mathematics in rural Cornwall: “You’re here because there’s no place left to hide.” What Amy seems to want is for David to take care of her—certainly sexually (Charlie Venner, her former lover, leers, “Remember when I took care of you?” and she answers, “But that’s the point, you didn’t, did you?”), but also as a strong male figure who can claim his territory, what’s his, and protect it from trespassers. For Peckinpah, it’s never just a matter of macho posturing; this “claiming” is a matter of knowing who you are, where you live and what you will stand up for. In Amy’s little-girl imagination, David must grow up in order to replace her father as the epitome of strength and security. David doesn’t get Amy’s point when she comments, “Every chair’s my daddy’s chair,” and so she goes upstairs to set a man-trap with her body for bait.

Inflamed by Amy’s enticements and contemptuous of David’s apparent passivity, several of the Cornwall lads kill the Sumners’ cat, “to prove to you that they could get into your bedroom,” Amy explains. David, always rational, states, “I don’t believe it,” as though belief or non-belief was proof against what Amy knows intuitively to be true. He fails to revenge her cat’s death, and in so doing, leaves his home and his wife open to invasion. In fact, he becomes an accomplice when he accepts the invitation to become “one of the boys” by going hunting with the cat-killers. Having set David up in a variation of the old snipe-hunting routine (which unbelievably he doesn’t pick up on for hours), Venner returns alone to Amy and baits her with “Would you like me to leave? I will, you know.” They both know what David has denied, that the cat-killing signaled that the Sumner home, and Amy herself, are not posted against trespassers and poachers. David having failed to take care of her, Amy responds to a brute able to discipline her and to claim her in spite of herself—no one begins a rape by taking off his glasses and setting the alarm clock.

Peckinpah’s “rape” is sexually overpowering and psychologically accurate; the alternation of lust and gentleness, of raised fist and caressing hand; Venner’s refusal to let Amy move even when her hands no longer resist, but move to hold him. Even in these post-feminist days of enlightenment, a few women must still exist who can empathize with Amy’s response to a man arrogant in his sexual power over her (Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook compares such a man to “affectionate, non-sexual, civilized men”: “when he looked at a woman he was imagining her as she would be when he had fucked her into insensibility”).

Susan George and
Susan George and Del Henney

At the climax of the “rape,” Peckinpah cuts to the fireplace where the flames suggest the heat of single-minded passion; in an earlier bedroom scene with David the camera most often sought out the lovers reflected in a mirror. Mirrors are not indicative of wholeness, but of the double-mindedness of watcher and watched, mind observing passion. Cut from fireplace to David who has shot a bird and has its blood on his hands, is for the first time in touch with the rhythms of life and death, perhaps even learning to think in his blood—and Amy begs Venner to “hold” her, the meaning going beyond an embrace to her need to be held as ground is held, as one house-holds. But she has unleashed too many of the dark gods, and Venner cannot protect her from Scott and his gun. The brooding Scott lacks even Venner’s gentler impulses; for him, sex is rutting and he mounts Amy cat-style so that she learns the best and worst lived-out fantasies have to offer.

Both Amy and David have taken steps toward growing up, but the lesson is fully accomplished only after they are forced to go further back into the darkness behind the brain to face the amoral child who resides in our primitive past as well as in each individual’s unconscious. Peckinpah knows that children reveal the sociopathic tendencies adults have learned to suppress or control, and he opens Straw Dogs with unfocussed black and white images of children playing in a cemetery, dark surreal angels of death wavering over tombstones. Focused and in color, that disquieting vision resolves itself into a pleasant scene of children playing, some of them ringing and teasing a little white dog. (Remember those cute little kids enjoying the ants devouring the scorpion in The Wild Bunch?)

After Amy’s “rape,” the children are let out to play without any adult supervision in what becomes a kind of Walpurgisnacht. At the church social, the preacher-buffoon’s pitiful magic-show of religious mummery cannot exorcise the anarchic forces of sex and violence gathering power around him. Nightmare is loosed as Amy flashes on her rape, the Cornwall animals pant, noisemakers hanging lewdly from their mouths, and the children mindlessly whistle and gobble red mush. Janice, the village Lolita, draws the village half-wit (David Morgan), a child caught in a man’s body, out into the night where she teaches Niles to light candles and sin. As the church bell tolls, a black-cloaked young people’s choir enter the church, piously clutching candles, the preacher mouths platitudes, and the Cornwall men mount their hunt for the “dirty pervert” upon whom they’ve projected their own dark fantasies.

Amy doesn’t want Niles (accused of rape) in her house, though she welcomed Venner’s entry; it is David who must assume belated responsibility for “holding” his home and those who shelter there. Throughout the film, the staircase in the Sumner home has become a kind of visual equivalent of the couple’s attempts to reconcile their differing perspectives on reality, to grow up. Earlier in the film, from the head of those stairs, Amy threw down the gauntlet of her challenge to David to commit himself, and she announces from the staircase her refusal to “care” for Niles. David finally takes up that challenge: “I care. This is where I live. This is me. I won’t allow violence against this house.” (Again, these ups and downs recall the symbolical falls—into knowledge—David and Susan experience in Bringing Up Baby, not the least of which is Susan’s climactic climb to and fall from the top of David’s precious dinosaur.)

The last vestige of civilized restraint, adult control, disappears with the murder of the major/magistrate. Monstrous “children,” silhouetted in the fog, careen about the house on tricycles. The “rat man” becomes a kind of traditional jester, a lord of misrule, with his false red nose and hysterical cackle. He had earlier told David that he felt closer to rats than people: “Their dying is my living; rats is life!” David learns the significance of this as he systematically beats back the human vermin from the windows and doors of his home, his rational defenses as shattered as are his glasses. He deals with Amy’s failure of nerve just as Venner handled her sexual teasing—with the threat of violence (both control her by dragging her by her hair). David’s white strained intensity has the feel of extreme shock as he stops Niles’ attack on Amy by shaking his head “no-no” as though he were admonishing a naughty child, as he slowly raises and lowers the poker over the body of the “rat man.”

Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner: "a man at the end of his tether"
Dustin Hoffman's David Sumner: "a man at the end of his tether"

He’s a man at the end of his tether—but those ponderously heavy and drawn-out struggles also suggest the motion and tempo of dreams. And it is the logic of the unconscious that is being worked out in this horrific blood ritual, guaranteeing that David and Amy may become adults—this dying is their living. When Amy, on the staircase landing, shoots the man on David’s back at the foot of the stairs, she is returning her allegiance to him, giving back the respect he lost when he left her undefended (ironically, she too was assaulted from the rear). The look they exchange as he leaves with Niles is one of mutual understanding, as from a man to the woman he has claimed and defended, one whole adult to another.

We, the audience, as well as the Sumners, have participated in the horror and almost exultant catharsis of this elemental drama. (“Did you participate, sir?”) The Greeks knew the benefits of communal theater in which archetypal fantasies were given life and laid to rest within the magic circle of the stage. Once religion was closely allied with drama, and the community vicariously participated in primitive ceremonies which propitiated the gods of light, as well as the gods of darkness, insuring the well-being of all for one more year. We’ve left those rites far behind, and now we seek our salvation in anti-depressants or gluttony or video games. Perhaps films like Straw Dogs are all we have in the way of communal reenactments and catharsis through drama.

Arthur Knight, criticizing the film in Saturday Review (December 18, 1971), used examples to indict Peckinpah for “repulsive and sick-making” violence that do not visually exist in Straw Dogs: “He positively revels in the details of mayhem … a man blasted full in the stomach by both barrels of a double-barreled shot-gun, another beaten to jelly with a poker.” It is Knight whose imagination has supplied these details because a smear of blood is the “detail” of the shooting he mentions, and at no time do we even see the man who is struck with the poker—no stomach, no jelly. Perhaps this only proves that the paradigms for violence reside in our own souls and must be recognized and dealt with—with the respect due the dark gods, not with the irreverence of repression and Sunday School denial.

© 1972 Kathleen Murphy

Direction: Sam Peckinpah. Screenplay: Sam Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, after the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams. Cinematography: John Coquillon. Production design: Ray Simm; art direction by Ken Bridgeman. Editing: Paul Davies, Tony Lawson, Roger Spottiswoode. Music: Jerry Fielding.
The players: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughn, David Warner (uncredited), Del Henney, Jim Norton, Ken Hutchison, T.P. McKenna, Colin Welland, Sally Thomsett.