Tuesday, 25 August 2009
Losey at the BFI, Part # 4:
Figures in a Landscape (1970)
Ok, so put aside everything I wrote about in the ‘Secret Ceremony’ review last month. Clearly Losey did, as this, his next film, is so far removed from its predecessor that it’s hard to see ‘Figures in a Landscape’ as anything other than a deliberate reinvention; a comprehensive purging of the excesses of the ‘Modesty Blaise’/Liz Taylor era, to see him comfortably into the bleaker, more cynical ‘70s.
Unlike Losey’s preceding canvasses of neurotic madness, ‘Figures in a Landscape’ is stark, exciting, original and compelling. Planned and executed with an efficiency that recalls ‘The Servant’ and ‘The Damned’, the film works effectively both as an abstract exploration of freedom and societal constraint, and as a violent action thriller.
Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell are two initially anonymous prisoners who have escaped from the custody of an equally anonymous military force. Hands tied, they are making their getaway across a mountainous wilderness, with a single black helicopter in pursuit.
That’s how the film begins, and that’s essentially how it continues. As the title suggests, the film’s focus is initially the landscape itself, expressed via panoramic long shots and stunning aerial photography. Fittingly given the abstract nature of the story, there seems to be a certain amount of confusion over where ‘Figures..’ was actually shot. My best guess would be the Italian Alps, or Northern Spain, but some online reviews seem to reckon it’s South America while others simply hedge their bets with ‘Europe’. Wherever it was lensed though, the film succeeds in creating the impression of a vast, beautiful militarized deadzone out of some J.G. Ballard nightmare, with Shaw and McDowell merely the figures within it, as inconsequential as a lone shadow shuffling across the horizon-line in a Friedrich painting.
Despite the essential grace as this concept, one hundred solid minutes of such painterly abstraction would, you’d have to admit, get pretty dull. But the film’s masterstroke is in the way Losey takes this initial scenario and, rather than maintaining audience interest in the conventional manner by moving the narrative toward new situations, he instead simply increases the depth, gradually zooming us in closer to the action and adding more texture, detail, threat, variety and potential to the initially minimal scenario, as the bleak landscape opens up to incorporate villages, caves, snow and farmland, as the fugitives free their hands and acquire new supplies and weapons to give them a fighting chance, as their pursuers correspondingly expand their operations to include a whole army of foot soldiers and vehicles, and, most importantly, as our two protagonists reveal their personalities, as piece by piece we learn about their past, their outlooks on life and their developing relationship.
Putting all that aside for the moment though, let’s get one thing clear: ‘Figures in a Landscape’ kicks ass. First and foremost, it’s a bloodthirsty, close to the ground survival thriller, as gritty as any of Peckinpah’s movies from the same era.
The helicopter attack scenes that come early in the film are jaw-dropping examples of the kind of seat-of-yr-pants filmmaking that simply doesn’t happen anymore, executed with no stunt personnel, no cut-in shots and a reckless disregard for the safety of all concerned. There’s just a camera crew getting some shots in at a distance, Losey and a pilot in the chopper with another camera, and Shaw and McDowell on the ground, ducking and diving for dear life, the films name actors mere inches from rotorblade decapitation as they’re strafed and divebombed by the director. Fuck health and safety, the results are absolutely thrilling.
Later on, as the action develops, we’re treated to full-on battle scenes like something out of a latterday Spaghetti Western, as fields of crops burn, engines erupt, guards get their throats silently slit, and we even get at a couple of traditional ‘guy getting shot and falling off roof’ shots to enjoy before Shaw lets loose on a one-man machine massacre, holding down the trigger with gritted teeth. Hell yeah.
The heart of the film though is in the two characters’ relationship. Built up with a great deal of subtlety through a series of fractured conversations and semi-improvised exchanges that play to both actors’ strengths, the characterisations here should serve as an example to all filmmakers who would seek to pad out their thrillers/action flicks with clunky “my daddy died in ‘Nam” type exposition.
Before long we learn that Shaw’s character is Mac, a tough old South London bastard whose personality combines a staunch belief in family values and old fashioned sentimentality with an unpredictable streak of wild, psychopathic rage that was presumably responsible for getting him locked up in the first place.
I remember reading somewhere that on the set of ‘Jaws’ a few years later, Spielberg had to set up a fake bar for Shaw to frequent, with crew members assigned a rota to determine who’d take the role of his drinking buddy and listen to his rantings each day. And that’s definitely the guy we can recognize in ‘Figures in a Landscape’. Though surly and antagonistic at all times, Mac slowly reveals himself as a strange and sympathetic character through a series of off-the-cuff non sequiturs.
“Anybody can have a war these days,” he muses at one point whilst creeping through the undergrowth, “all you need to do’s get some equipment together and start”. In another tense moment, as the pair execute a scheme to get in a shot at the helicopter’s fueltank, Mac breaks his concentration and, apropos of nothing, starts to relate a story about how his wife got her face bitten off by a pub landlord’s pitbull, the night before their wedding anniversary. “I’m… very sorry to hear that”, responds McDowell, before drawing Mac’s attention back to their ongoing life or death struggle.
When the film’s credits rolled, I was surprised to note that Shaw actually wrote the script (based on Barry England’s novel), and I think it’s safe to assume that he put a lot of himself into the character of Mac. On one level, the film eventually becomes the tale of this man’s flawed life and tragic downfall, a trajectory that runs in parallel to Losey’s more abstract and political agenda. In a deeply moving scene toward the end of the film, Shaw shelters from the rain in a mountain cave, gets lashed on stolen whiskey, and begins talking about his wife – how they met, how they courted, married, had kids, argued, split up, learned to live with each other. Soon he’s blubbing uncontrollably as McDowell lies exhausted and asleep. Whatever else Mac may be, at heart he’s just a lonely bloke, far from home, and he misses his wife and kids. Shaw’s performance here rings so true that the scene barely feels like fiction at all.
McDowell for his part acts with exactly the same stylized rebellious swagger he perfected in Lindsay Andersons’ ‘If..’ and ‘O Lucky Man’. His character, refered to only as Hansell, is established as a cosmopolitan man about town, an unrepentant young hustler and womanizer who was presumably incarcerated as a result of some jaunty scam or other, but finds himself woefully unprepared for a running battle through the wilderness. So familiar is his manner, it’s almost tempting to read ‘Figures..’ as one of the further adventures of Mick Travis, especially after he gleefully launches into a more elaborate version of his “I met this fantastic bird down the East End..” monologue from ‘If..’.
As an old fashioned moralist, Mac is disgusted by Hansell’s liberated (read: exploitative) attitudes to sex, and the two spend time bickering over whether or not Mac would dare introduce Hansell to his daughters (“they could do a lot worse than me, y’know..”), the tragedy being that both men seem to know in their hearts that they’ll never have the opportunity to play out that particular drama in real life.
Similarly, Hansell is resentful of Mac’s bullying and brutality, and it takes longer than Hollywood would usually allow for the mismatched pair to extend their uneasy truce into a shaky friendship. And even then, their relationship is grounded on a strictly practical level - Hansell needs Mac’s physical strength and survival skills to see him through, whilst Mac, though he’d never admit it, needs Hansell’s companionship, just as surely as Shaw needed to chew the ear off those random sound techs and teamsters in-between shark attacks.
In the BFI’s program notes, Losey is quoted as saying that he was unsatisfied with the film’s ending, and that audiences often found it too ambiguous, or missed the point. And emotionally speaking, it is indeed ambiguous, with the viewers’ sympathies being torn in any number of directions. But in political and thematic terms, Losey could scarcely have made his point more clearly, and the conclusion is as bleak and uncompromising as that of ‘The Damned’. After soldiering on through untold hardships in the flight from imprisonment, the film seems to tell us, the fate of the individual is simply to be delivered into the hands of a different brand of faceless, totalitarian authority. Our only choice, Losey implies, is in whether we want to die on our feet, or live on our knees. Which do you choose, we are implicitly asked, as the helicopter camera zooms out one final time, and the figures arranged on the snow-covered landscape are reduced again to a meaningless pattern of black dots, their humanity nullified forever by distance.
An extraordinarily powerful film that ranks alongside ‘The Servant’ and ‘The Damned’ as one of Jospeh Losey’s best works, ‘Figures in a Landscape’ would seem to have been systematically underrated ever since its release. Most critics seem to have been confounded and underwhelmed by the picture, and at the time of writing it remains out of print on DVD. There’s currently one Region 2 copy available second hand on Amazon, but you might be out of luck for the moment cos I’m gonna order that one. I hope this situation can be rectified one day, as this is undoubtedly a film that demands a wider audience.