They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) Sydney Pollack

Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! yells out the M.C. (Gig Young) in Sydney Pollack’s bleak but excellent film version of Horace McCoy’s depression noir novel. It is 1932 and dance marathons a phenomena that began in the 1920’s lays the background for this dark tale of losers hanging on to impossible dreams. Like Nathaniel West novel, “Day of the Locust” the characters all have unreachable dreams of being in the movies. The contests were long grueling endurance test going on for weeks, and even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.  McCoy’s novel presents a notable account of what these contests entailed. Hard pressed folks out of work and luck, entered these marathon sessions at their own risk. Promoters created jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and the contestants were fed and had a place to stay for the length of the contest. McCoy’s 1935 novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published. In 1969 it was made into a magnificent movie starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young. Not a Hollywood novel per say, the story deals more with people drawn to Hollywood but unable to break in remaining on the peripheral of the business. 

In flashback Robert (Sarrazin) is recollecting a crime he committed as the story unfolds. As a young boy he experienced the death of a horse his father shoots to put out of its misery after breaking a leg. As an adult Robert a wannabe film director wanders into a dilapidated ballroom situated along the Pacific where a dance marathon is just getting underway. Unwittingly, Robert is enlisted as a partner for Gloria (Fonda) a hard, bitter, cynical woman with movie magazine dreams of breaking into the movies. Gloria’s last hopes seem to lie in being discovered though at this point she looks tired and older than her years.  As the marathon drags on and couples fall by the wayside Gloria’s desperation deepens and seeing death as her only way out. She convinces Robert to help her put an end to her bitter misery as she pulls a gun out of her bag.

 The cast includes a who’s who of desperate characters; there is Alice (Suzannah York) a Jean Harlow wannabe and her partner Joe, a would-be actor, James (Bruce Dern) and his pregnant wife (Bonnie Bedelia), and Harry (Red Buttons) a middle age sailor and his partner. The marathon is a grueling affair with only 10 minute breaks every two hours for sleep bathroom and any other breaks needed. Running the entire circus is the sleazy master of ceremonies, Rocky, Gig Young in the performance of his life. Throughout the film he entices the on looking crowd about “these wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping, as the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues…!” 

McCoy’s novel reads like a screenplay (I read this back in ’69 or ’70) similar in structure to “The Maltese Falcon” or more recently Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” novels. Adapted for the screen by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson the film keeps intact McCoy’s dark scenario though the screenwriters did flesh out some characters, like Rocky and even added a few new ones. 

Pollack gives us no light at end of the tunnel. The film is an existential nightmare. However, it was this philosophical view that made Roger Vadim convince his then wife Jane Fonda to take the role after she had previously turned Pollack down when the role was first offered. For Fonda, it was a career changing part. Up to this point her roles was generally light comedies or sexy semi dressed pinups, many in her husband’s own films. Here Fonda had a role she could sink her acting chops into. As Gloria, quick with the quips, hard edged, learning long ago to expect little and get even less. Gloria is a complex character with many shades and all of them are dark and desperate. Arguably, this may be the finest performance of her career. Fonda is not alone in giving a good performance, the entire cast is at their best, Suzannah York, Michael Sarazzin, Red Buttons and Bonnie Bedelia are very fine.   

With “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Pollock depicts an atmosphere of desperate lives filled with foul air, stale beer, cheap sex, sleepless nights and endless despair.



13 comments on “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) Sydney Pollack

  1. Gary says:

    “They Shoot Horses,” definitely a film I admire, is one I just cannot watch today (which I know is totally inconsistent with my admiration for “Last Summer.”) Regardless, it is a brilliant allegory of despair. But you want to talk about a real downer, how about “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” a film which truly made me physically ill. But, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing Diane Keaton ever did.
    Raieses a good point–does a great film necessarily have to be entertaining. Think about, also, “Days of Wine and Roses.”


    • John Greco says:


      Pesonally I have never had a problem with a film that is a “downer” as this one is as long as it is true to what they are trying to say. The problem with many films is for 85 mins they hit you with all this despair and hard luck and then tack on a false happy ending.

      A great film does not have to be entertaining but it does need to draw you emotionally into the story and the moment. TSHDT I do not believe is entertaining as say WEST SIDE STORY or AVATAR are entertaining. TSHDT moves you more on a different level. It is insightful, emotionally moving, at times shocking, and sad. Like any art, movies should convey feelings whether they be happy, sad or gut wretching.

      I agree Keaton was excellent in “Goodbar”

      Thank you sir!


  2. Judy says:

    I thought this was a fine film and it was interesting to see it after watching the contemporary treatment of those dance marathons in the early scenes of the James Cagney film ‘Hard to Handle’ which you and I have discussed in the past, John. Must say that I didn’t find the ending of ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ believable, though – I know it is what everything is building up and that it is in the book, but I didn’t think it was anywhere near as convincing as all those gruelling scenes in the contest. One of your best reviews.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy. Interesting on your take on the ending. I found it believeable. Fonda’s character was a beaten individual from the beginning of the film. She had nowhere to go and her life life seemed crippled, wounded. The film is probably a little heavy handed in doing this but, at least for me, I was okay with it.

      I agree with the comparisons to “Hard to Handle.” In some ways the beginning of both films are fairly similar. Thanks again!


  3. leclisse says:

    Great review, John! I rewatched this film last night, as our discussion on KLUTE got me thinking about it again. It’s rare to see such a work in which all the actors are so uniformly excellent.

    Before seeing TSHDT, I don’t think I had any idea that these kinds of dance marathons existed. The combination of performances with the incredible production and direction on Pollack’s part give viewers a tragically authentic piece of the desperation of the Depression. It feels so authentic that it can be rather difficult to watch, but never fails to consistently mesmerize me. What a brilliant, timeless work.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much.Pollack is a wonderful director of actors. He manages to get the best out of whomever he works with. As a dramatic actress Fonda really came into her own here standing out of the shadows of her father.

      It you ever get the chance, check out a film called HARD TO HANDLE with James Cagney which is centered around dance marathons also and was made in the early 1930’s. It sometimes pops up on TCM if you have access to it.


  4. […] They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – Sydney Pollack (****) One of the bleakest films to come out of the late 1960′s. Superb acting by the entire cast led by a career making performance by Jane Fonda as Gloria.  Full review at24frames. […]


  5. […] John Greco’s latest stellar review, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is showcasing at “The Twenty Four Frames”:                                         […]


  6. J.D. says:

    Excellent review. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen this film and see it occasionally on Turner Classic Movies’ schedule. I really need to check this one out based on your fascinating comments!


    • John Greco says:

      R.D. Considering what I see you watch and write about I think this film would fit right in. Hope you get the opportunity to see it.


  7. Sam Juliano says:

    Jane Fonda and Liza Minelli were the Oscar favorites, with Fonda’s work on this “existential” dance marathon film perhaps the favorite. Maggie Smith’s win for THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE was however the right choice for a few reasons. Still, the acting in THEY SHOOT HORSES as you note is uniformly excellent, and I well remember running through the rain back in 1969 at 15 years old to see this film in a Jersey City Theatre. It’s like yesterday. As always, a masterful piece from every direction here!


  8. vinnieh says:

    Great review, the part with Alice in the shower is a heartbreaking moment and a fantastic performance by Susannah York.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Vinnie,

      York is excellent in this as is Jane Fonda in a very bitter performance. For me, this is Pollack’s best film.


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