Written by: Christopher O’Neill on December 3rd, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: UK, November 29th, 1971
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: David Zelig Goodman and Sam Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams)
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, Del Henney, Ken Hutchison, T.P. McKenna
BluRay released: October 24th, 2011
Approximate running time: 118 minutes (misprinted as 113 minutes on the sleeve)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85.1 Widescreen / 1080 Progressive
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo English
BluRay Release: Fremantle Media
Region Coding: Region A, B, C
Retail Price: £17.99
“Quiet American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his British-born wife Amy (Susan George) relocate to Amy’s rural English hometown in an attempt to flee the violent social unrest brewing in the US. When David hires some locals, including a former boyfriend of Amy’s, to repair his barn, the couple find themselves being subtly harassed and bullied by the workmen. The more the pacifist David ignores the problem, the more the harassment intensifies, leading to terrifying consequences as he ultimately finds himself forced to defend his home and his life, discovering a frighteningly vicious side to himself as events escalate towards a bloody climax.” – Blu-Ray synopsis
Often dismissed by critics over the years as being a high profile exploitation picture, Straw Dogs is too complex to be shoehorned into such a simplistic reading, as it is a rich multilayered work that is arguably Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece. Still as controversial and the cause of much debate in 2011 as when it was first released in 1971, Straw Dogs is a deeply unsettling and angry film that reflects the social and political unrest in America of the time. Co-writer and director Peckinpah took the source material – a competent but rather tawdry paperback page-turner – and expanded it into a confrontational morality play on the darkest aspects of human nature. As a study of psychological and physical violence, the film is relentlessly scathing in its examination of all its characters, few of whom come across as particularly sympathetic in a conventional narrative sense.
While the plotline is essentially a modern-day western relocated to the British West Country, the moral codes usually associated with that genre are absent and instead the overall tone is transgressive and nihilistic. It’s depiction of a passive-aggressive intellectual forced to meet his violent intruders with head-on brutality is ambiguous, since Straw Dogs does not end with a enthused sense of heroism, but rather a bleak emptiness. Throughout the film, there are several instances where the gang of villagers provoke David to see when he will stand up to them, but he continuously averts confrontation and fails to prevent animosity from escalating. In reality, his attempts to subtly deal with his intimidators, rather than meeting them with equal force, may reflect how many viewers would handle a similar situation, thus making Peckinpah’s film a provocation in audience response.
Framed at the correct aspect ratio of 1:85:1, Fremantle Media’s Blu-Ray transfer of Straw Dogs is a huge disappointment. A brief featurette on the disc called Before And After: Restoring A Classic (3 minutes) contrasts the new Blu-Ray imagary with footage from Fremantle Media’s 2002 DVD release (with a shot split in half and each transfer running side-by-side). This earlier edition does indeed look inferior, but this is not just because it is standard definition but also because the transfer was mediocre by any standard, since it is soft and has a dull overcast to it. The high definition image is indeed sharper, but has been manipulated immensely: the contrast and brightness has been boosted, black levels darkened, colours increased, all of which dilute the natural film grain into video noise. The effect makes the picture look dated, like a colour suppliment from a 1970s magazine. Reportedly, the American Blu-Ray from MGM offers a far superior transfer and, image-wise, is the better option.
Presented in stereo, the clean soundtrack is in good shape with no noticable damage or hiss. There is a welcome bonus on another audio option which features Jerry Fielding’s isolated score with additional cues.
Where the UK disc does improves on the US counterpart is in the extra content. Fremantle Media have ported over the features from their DVD release of Straw Dogs, which are all presented in standard definition. There are two audio commentaries, both of which are moderated by filmmaker Nick Redman (A Simple Adventure Story: Sam Peckinpah, Mexico and ‘The Wild Bunch’). The first track features Peckinpah aficionados Garner Simmons (author of Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage), David Weddle (author of If They Move…Kill ‘Em!: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah), and Paul Seydor (author of Peckinpah: The Western Films – A Reconsideration). This is an entertaining listen, particularly since Straw Dogs is such an ambiguious film which allows a variant of interpretations from these writers. The second commentary has dialogue director and Peckinpah’s associate, close friend and PA Katy Haber . This track is a refreshingly different take on the material after the first commentary, not only because Haber was involved in the making of the film – and is incredibly frank when discussing Peckinpah’s work methods and personal problems – but also because she and Redman are British and offer a contrary perspective on the material to the three American commentators. There are three interviews with actress Susan George (24 minutes), producer Dan Melnick (20 minutes), and writer Garner Simmons (23 minutes) , all of which offer a fascinating insight into the complicated and antagonistic individual that was Sam Peckinpah. There is raw black and white footage of a television report shot on location (8 minutes) which is brief but a welcome addition to the disc. Also featured is the US theatrical trailer, three US TV spots and two US radio spots. In addition to these features are on location stills, publicity stills, posters and lobby cards , and text on the history about the film’s relationship to the censors, reviews, filmographies, film facts and letters/correspondence.