The Day of the Locust (1975)

2011 #38
John Schlesinger | 137 mins | TV | 18 / R

The Day of the LocustAdapted from the novel by Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust is a slightly scrappy film about the seedy underside of Hollywood’s golden age. The plot is neither here nor there in many respects — the film is about the grotesques who are attracted to Hollywood, and that being exactly what it feeds on. The bizarre, surreal ending definitely makes more sense if you’re already thinking about the film in this way.

The magnificent riot at the end is a tour de force of cinema that single-handedly almost justifies that whole theme — it’s what happens when their frustrations at dreams not being realised overflows. It could be argued it makes an easy juxtaposition — of fans baying for stars at a premiere with a revenge-fuelled mob baying for blood — but it’s still a just one. It’s capped off by the way one turns into the other, and how that turns into a kind of apocalypse. I don’t know how it’s meant to be read, but I choose to take it that way

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) If the riot is a literal apocalypse, then the next scene becomes an afterlife-set coda. It’s very brightly lit and white, like a Heaven, and Faye is still there — still in Hollywood, exactly where she’d dream of being — while Tod is gone. She’s looking for him, back at the Bernadoo where she was kinda happy, and she wants him after all — but he’s not there; he doesn’t want her. It’s a tenuous reading for a film that seems to be a real-world drama, maybe… but not a wholly unsupported one — it’s a flat-out unusual scene.

Homer Simpson. Not that one.Also brilliantly staged is the collapse of a Waterloo battle set. Appropriate as it’s one of the novel’s most memorable moments.

Despite having top billing, Donald Sutherland’s part is a beefed-up supporting role. Except he’s so good in it that he fairly steals the film. And despite fourth billing, William Atherton is ostensibly the main character. I don’t know if the film takes lengthy asides from him because they cast a fourth-billed-level actor, or if they cast a fourth-billed-level actor because the film takes lengthy asides from him, but either way these long-feeling stretches away from the only character we’re really encouraged to identify with dilute the film’s drive. Primarily for this reason, it could do with being shorter. Interestingly, the novel is a mere 163 pages (in my edition), meaning the film is close to translating it at a rate of a page per minute, which is rather extraordinary — very few adaptations do so little condensing.

(You probably recognise William Atherton from slimy supporting roles in Ghostbusters and the first two Die Hards. Believe it or not, his Ghostbusters character is available as an action figure. That is madness.)

Who ya gonna call?The Day of the Locust may be a mess, or it may be a flawed masterpiece. It may very well be both. For much of it’s running time it pootled along at 3 stars, pushing down toward 2 the more diluted it began to feel. But seeing the completion of Donald Sutherland’s performance in the final scenes, plus the way those scenes seem to draw together the whole film, revealing and fulfilling themes I hadn’t even noticed developing until that point, in a spectacular orgy of apocalyptic violence… well, the stars suddenly ratchet back up.

4 out of 5

The Day of the Locust is on Sky Movies Indie tonight at 9:30pm, and at various other times throughout the week.