The Day of the Locust

Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay: Waldo Salt (based on the novel by Nathanael West)
Stars: Donald Sutherland (Homer Simpson), Karen Black (Faye Greener), Burgess Meredith (Harry Greener), William Atherton (Tod Hackett), Geraldine Page (Big Sister), Richard A. Dysart (Claude Estee), Bo Hopkins (Earle Shoop), Pepe Serna (Miguel), Lelia Goldoni (Mary Dove), Billy Barty (Abe Kusich)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1975
Country: U.S.
The Day of the Locust

The 1970s was a period of great artistic freedom in Hollywood, when the major studios, in dire financial straits after a string of big-budget flops in the late 1960s, turned over the reins to young auteurs and foreign directors. For the first time in Hollywood’s history, major films were being produced by filmmakers who were not craftsmen who had worked their way up through the industry ala John Ford and Howard Hawks, but rather film-school-trained upstarts who had studied the films of the past and knew as much about Hollywood history and film theory as they did about budgets and equipment.

Not surprisingly, then, the 1970s was a great period of self-reflexivity in Hollywood, when filmmakers looked back on Hollywood’s history, casting a spotlight on past eras by either invoking classic genres like the screwball comedy and the western or by making films about the industry itself. In fact, during the latter half of the 1970s, more films were made about Hollywood than in any other period in its history. The collective myths and dreams about the great dream factory was just too enticing a subject to let alone.

With all the genre revisionism and exploding of cherished myths that characterized American filmmaking in the 1970s, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that many of these films about Hollywood were not love letters to the dream factory, but rather sharp, satirical exposés about broken dreams, debauchery, and corruption, sort of filmic companions of Kenneth Anger’s scorching 1975 book Hollywood Babylon.

John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, which was released the same year that Anger’s book was published, is perhaps the most brutal of these films. A fascinating, but frustratingly uneven film, it lays bare the sordidness that eventually follows any broken dream. The one constant among virtually all of its characters is their having to settle for something less—often much less—than they desire, and that brings with it feelings of bitterness, envy, and anger that simmer throughout the film before exploding in both a literal and metaphorical sense, making good on the title’s creepy Biblical allusion.

For most of its two-and-a-half hour running time, The Day of the Locust is a sad, somewhat depressing drama about marginalized figures living on the fringes of Tinseltown in 1938, barely managing to hold on. The central character is Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a young sketch artist who moves into an apartment that still bears a crack in the wall from the great earthquake of 1933, an ominous foreshadowing of things to come. Also living in his complex is Faye Greener (Karen Black), a beautiful blonde would-be starlet who aspires to stardom, but constantly has to settle for bit parts. Faye tends to her aging father, Harry (Burgess Meredith), a once-great vaudevillian clown who is now reduced to peddling a “miracle-cure” ointment door-to-door.

Tod almost immediately falls in love with the radiant Faye, who has an aura of greatness about her even if her life is mediocre at best. She exudes passion and desire, but she is saving herself for someone either incredibly rich or incredibly handsome, neither of which describe Tod. She returns Tod’s affection only to a point; she wants a friend who will help her when she needs it, but nothing more. Tod, despite moving up the ranks at a major studio as a production designer, will never be the kind of man she thinks she wants.

Faye is a crucial character, one who encapsulates the madness of Hollywood. Like Hollywood, she tempts those around them with all she has to offer, but refuses anything but the cream of the crop (which, not ironically, she will never get). She is a tease, but an honest one; she makes it clear where her boundaries are, even as she leads the men around her on. She is impossible to pin down, as she veers from sweet and delicate at one moment, to harsh and cruel the next. She is dangerous because she is capable of virtually anything except being happy and content.

Midway through the film, she moves in with mild-mannered Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), a nervous and shy accountant. They don’t have a love affair, but rather a business arrangement, although said arrangement basically involves Faye exploiting timid Homer for everything he’s worth. He provides her with a home and food and tends to her every whim, and in return she feigns niceties to placate him, although she is just as often cruel and derisive, cutting him down while knowing that he doesn’t have the backbone to reply likewise.

There is great dramatic potential here, but Schlesinger never quite manages to make it come together. Those who celebrate the source novel constantly refer to the surrealism and satire that punctuate it throughout, but little of that translates onto the screen until the climax. Perhaps it is because all of the characters are either loathsome, pathetic, or some combination of both. Tod would seem to be the audience surrogate, and for most of the film he displays a human decency that makes identifying with him not altogether painful, but even he is capable of vicious outbursts, notably when he drunkenly attempts to rape Faye and later when he verbally rips into Homer at a party. The debasement of humanity is the connecting strand of all these characters, and the range of ages—from the elderly and dying Harry Greener, to a genuinely despicable, slightly androgynous would-be child star—suggest that no one is exempt. The vicious claws of Hollywood’s dehumanizing potential reaches across all walks of life.

The Day of the Locust was made by the producer-director-writer team of Jerome Hellman, John Schlesinger, and Waldo Scott, who had previously worked together to great acclaim on 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. There are great similarities between the two films in their aim to unearth the seedy side of American life that the mainstream chooses to ignore. The ugly underbelly of Hollywood, of course, is no great secret and hadn’t been for a long time; after all, the source novel by Nathanael West, who was a screenwriter in the 1930s, was penned in 1939, right at the height of Hollywood “golden age.” Yet, there weren’t many films at the time that were so brutal in showing how abusive the system could be to little people. This is envisioned in literal terms when, during the shooting of a film about Waterloo, a huge section of the set collapses, injuring dozens of people, and no one seems to care much.

That violence, however, is nothing compared to the film’s bloody climax, which takes place at the world premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Buccaneer. Literally bringing to life a disturbing mural Tod is working on in his room (in the novel, it is called “The Apocalypse of Los Angeles”), the climax explodes all the pent-up frustrations that have been simmering throughout the film. At this point, The Day of the Locust literally morphs into an apocalyptic horror film, with the collective monster running amok in a brilliantly edited sequence of great unnerving power that melds fantasy and reality. This sequence is so ruthlessly over the top that it demands to be read metaphorically as the eventuality that must be expected in the face of so much disillusionment. It also brings to light that the preceding two hours were really little more than build-up, and it makes you wonder how much more effective this gruesome finale would have been had the rest of the film been more engaging.

The Day of the Locust DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Monaural
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateJune 8, 2004

The Day of the Locust is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Viewers will immediately notice that the image is very, very soft and heavily diffused, which is the intended look of the film. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall was aiming for a hazy, dreamlike look, so don’t expect sharp edges and fine detail. The print used was fairly clean, with only a few noticeable spots. Grain is evident throughout, but again this is the result of the way in which the film was shot.

The soundtrack is available in either its original monaural mix or a newly remixed 5.1 track. The surround track doesn’t differ much from the original monaural except in some of the music and particularly in the violent climax, when the surround speakers really come alive to envelope you in the hysteria.

No supplements are included.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images Copyright © Paramount Pictures

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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