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Paramount Studios presents
"I never thought what it would be like when she went away."
DVD ReviewBack in the late 1930s, at the height of Hollywood's heyday, author Nathanael West dared to expose the movie colony's seamy underbelly. His dark and disturbing novel, The Day of the Locust, explored uncharted territory at a time when the starry-eyed public regarded Tinseltown with god-like reverence. Not even the folks at Central Casting could dream up the gallery of grotesques, misfits, bimbos, opportunists, and assorted fanatics that populate West's bizarre tale. And although Hollywood produced many self-critical studies during the 1950s and 1960s, thirty-five years passed before the industry felt ready to adapt West's masterwork for the screen.
Director John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) undertook the task, and at once creates an unsettling, almost eerie atmosphere as he introduces the main characters. Most reside at the dilapidated San Bernardino Arms, a boarding house whose décor is described by aspiring art director Tod Hackett (William Atherton) as "early earthquake." Like most young hopefuls, Tod harbors big dreams, and manages to ingratiate himself into the inner circle of studio executive Claude Estee (William A. Dysart). Estee exposes Tod to wild parties where hookers, stag films, and copious amounts of liquor comprise the entertainment. But Tod only has eyes for Faye Greener (Karen Black), a platinum blonde extra who teases him to distraction, and becomes his ultimate sexual obsession. Faye's insatiable ambition inspires extreme behavior, yet Donald Sutherland's religious fanatic, Homer Simpson (yes, Homer Simpson!), hopes to tame her—or does he secretly desire her, too?
West's Hollywood possesses little of the glitter one expects. Everything tawdry and unpleasant, from high-class escort services to low-class cockfights, is depicted in Waldo Salt's literate screenplay. The constant barrage of seedy scenes can be tough to take, and the lack of likable characters keeps one emotionally detached, but Schlesinger manages to maintain interest despite a maddeningly slow pace. West's mélange of downtrodden, disillusioned losers and biting social critique drive the film, and substitute for a cohesive plot.
The Day of the Locust often drags during its 144-minute running time, but hanging on until the horrific climax yields great rewards. Schlesinger creates a riveting orgy of destruction and rage, as a glitzy movie premiere spirals into bedlam. An act of senseless, brutal violence turns a hungry crowd of starstruck onlookers into a raving swarm of locusts who overrun everything in their path. The dazzling yet deeply disturbing sequence is the focal point of The Day of the Locust, and although it sums up all the alarming, subversive aspects of our celebrity culture, it doesn't seem like it belongs with the rest of the film. The abrupt ending following the carnage doesn't help, but allows the climax to resonate long after the movie ends. Unfortunately, little has changed since the 1930s, and it's all-too-easy to imagine the exact same episode transpiring today.
The ensemble cast seems to relish creating their wacko characters, with Sutherland a particular standout. Although he doesn't appear until well into the film, he makes a notable impression, and keeps Locust appropriately off-kilter. As the Jean Harlow wannabe, Black does her best with a tough role, and Burgess Meredith garnered an Oscar nomination for his turn as a seasoned vaudevillian reduced to selling potions and magic tricks door-to-door. The real surprise, however, is Atherton, who's made a comfortable living in recent years as Hollywood's resident smarmy jerk. But in the days before Die Hard, Atherton nabbed a few decent leading roles, and Tod Hackett was one of his best. He breathes life into the complex character, and cleverly shifts our sympathies as the film progresses.
A damning indictment of Hollywood excess during the depths of the Depression, The Day of the Locust limps along on the strengths of its freakish characters and distasteful scenes. Like road kill, it's hard to look away, despite our disgust. The brilliantly conceived, stomach-churning climax, however, is one of the great scenes of '70s cinema, and once seen, won't be easily forgotten.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: A dreamy, gauzy quality pervades the widescreen anamorphic transfer, which compliments the period setting while giving the film the slightest surreal flavor. The accomplished cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) earned an Oscar nomination for his work, and his sparing but effective use of color is well rendered. Detail is quite good, too, even in the darkest scenes, and only a few minor defects dot the print.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 audio possesses wonderful depth and presence, and although the surrounds only kick in occasionally, subtle ambient effects can be detected throughout. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and John Barry's music score nicely fills the room. For a film from the mid-1970s, this multi-channel track provides exceptional sound.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: Nothing, not even the film's original trailer, dresses up this bare bones disc. John Schlesinger and Burgess Meredith may be gone, but reuniting Black, Sutherland, and Atherton for a commentary track would have been inspired.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsThe Day of the Locust delves beneath Hollywood's tinsel, and depicts how the film industry chews up and spits out the naďve crusaders who come to pursue their dreams. The finale is unforgettable, but the rest of the movie, despite fine performances, plods along, and leaves a bitter aftertaste. Paramount's above average transfer and impressive audio add luster to the story, but unless you're in the mood for a disturbing downer, it's best to skip this sordid saga.
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