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.


JRSM said...

This blog is giving me so many intriguing films to hunt down. You want to drive me to the poorhouse!

agathalynch said...

"My best guess would be the Italian Alps, or Northern Spain," - that's exactly what I thought too.
I like what you wrote about the movie, there's not much information about it on the internet

Anonymous said...

Very nice review. A film definitely to be (re-)discovered.
There is a Korean DVD which is at least anamorphic compared to the Durch Paramount DVD.
Beautiful Camera work by Henri Alekan (Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast")and two excellent actors.
The film was shot in Spain.
In the interview book with Losey by Michel Ciment the director says that he liked a lot of sequences in "Figures".
But the production was difficult because Losey had arguments with the financiers and McDowell said in later interviews that it was a very exhausting shoot. He also says that Robert Shaw extremely competitive and McDowell decided just to keep out of his way.

Ben said...

Thanks for your comment, and for all the additional info.

I still really like this film, but yeah, if his performance is anything to go by, Shaw seems to been in a pretty 'extreme' state of mind at the time...

Since writing this post I've located a pretty good bootleg copy of the film that I'm happy with, but it would be great to see a bigger/better official release one day... I still think it's very under-rated.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the film needs a much better treatment on Blu-ray. But I'm afraid they will never do it. Paramount isn't even interested in a fine release of "Black Sunday" (1977, John Frankenheimer) which also a fantastic Robert Shaw-movie.

Indeed, Shaw was something else. I think he was one of the best actors that ever lived but he was recklessly underrated. So sad that he died so early. Incredibly intense and those piercing steely blue eyes...He seemed to be a complex person and while many loved to work with him (Sean Connery, Nick Nolte, George Roy Hill) others found Shaw's competitive side very hard to cope with, like McDowell and Richard Dreyfuss.

This may interest you, an excerpt from a Q&A with McDowell in 2004:

Audience member: Would you care to comment on Figures in a Landscape [Joseph Losey, 1970].
MM: That was hard, only from the point of view of the physical thing of running, running, there was me and Bob Shaw, and if you're tied to Robert Shaw for four months... [laughter] he is a great man, Robert was a wonderful man, but four months... it was tough, but Joe Losey was a remarkable director actually, and I'm very, very glad that I did this. It was my second film after If.... I was totally green. I had no idea what I was doing. I know that this was this Barry England book... Figures in a Landscape was the hot property of the year, and every actor, every young actor in England wanted to play this part. At first it was going to be Peter O'Toole for the other one, and then he pulled put. The director that cast me was a very fine Hungarian called Peter Medak, who's gone on to make some really wonderful films. What's the one he made with Peter... Ruling Class [1971].
PR: Ruling Class, that's right, yes.
MM: Anyway, he's a fabulous director, and a very sweet man. He cast me in the movie and... because I was 'H-O-T,' as Lindsay would say, after If.... and I was the sort of flavour of the month. And we went off to Spain to do this film and it was quite extraordinary really, but it was one of those things that really... the script didn't really work, to be honest. Robert was rewriting the script and... it taught me much more, really, about film than - honestly - If.... because it taught me what not to do. And the pitfalls were very glaring. And I remember, I was great friends with Robert, we got on very well, until the producer called him in his suite in Granada in a hotel. And I was in the suite with him and I heard his conversation, which went something like 'oh yeah? Oh... yeah? So you've seem 'em... the dailies, eh? Oh... what do you mean, over-the-top? What do you mean? Ah fuck you, what do you know anyway? Eh? Oh yeah? Well who says we'll have to redo it? Oh. Well have you spoken to Joe? Eh? How was Malcolm? Oh was he?' [laughter] I saw this idiot after 25 years. His name was John Kohn. He's not with us any more, I'm afraid, but I said 'do you ever remember that call? I was sitting there, and from that moment on it was over.' He was very competitive... so he had it in his mind he wanted to do a Mifune performance - very large, maniacal, crazy. And so I literally took one step back and observed. And that was it. That was it. I didn't try and do anything else. I just watched him and listened to him and took a lot of shit on the way, but still...

- cheers!

Ben said...

Wow, fantastic stuff. Yes, I've always really liked Shaw - pity he'll just be known forever as "that guy from Jaws". His books sound interesting too - I've got one lined up to read at the moment.

Thanks again for all the additional info - I really appreciate it (and hope you didn't have to transcribe that whole Q&A extract just to post it here!)

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

you are welcome.

I took a lot of research into Shaw. I will soon continue to do the tribute webpage from which you got one of the pictures in your article.

His books are excellent, too, yes. It's also sad that nobody seems to know that he was a very good writer (he always said that he wanted to be remembered much more as a writer rather than an actor). Sadly, his books are out-of-print. I loved the "Hiding Place" and "The Sun Doctor" while the most impressive work might actually be his most famous on , the play of "The Man in the Glass Booth". This is really extraordinary and very unique. If you are interested I could send a copy. I think it is in a class with Pinter. I strongly recommend to read it before watching the film version from which Shaw got his name removed. Those people who saw the film version not having read the play found the material compelling. This is different when you read the book before. And although Shaw could be difficult I think he was right on that one. First of all, the aesthetics of the film looks extremely poor. Production was by the Ely Landau corp. who did a lot theatre-on-films in the 70s. John Frankenheimer, who did "The Iceman Cometh" for him, had this to say about those productions: "Like all of Ely's stuff, the ideas were marvelous and the execution was terrible." Secondly, they decided to make it more emotional, more romantic. Bad choice. And I think they should have done it with Donald Pleasence in the lead who was in the original stage production. As much as I respect Maximilian Schell I think he has overdone this one and missed the point of the extremely complex character Goldman.

So, if you like to read t I will write through the E-Mail adress which you posted here...

Ben said...

Thanks for the offer - yes, would be an interesting read if you don't mind sending a copy across.

As I say, I've got a copy of 'The Sun Doctor' lined up to read at some point in the future, so maybe I could tackle it at the same time...

Good luck putting the Shaw website together - remind me what the address is and I'll definitely give it a look.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

hope you are doing fine. -

Just want to let you know that "Figures in a landscape" seems to be released in Germany on August 30th in what may be the best DVD so far: The distribution label announced that it will be a new transfer and the film will appear in its original theatrical anamorphic widescreen. The audio options will be English and German. An original theatrical trailer will be included and a booklet with some production notes (only in German). As good as this news is, if it is really a new transfer why don't they release it as a blu ray?? Completely incomprehensible to me. But you might be interested anyway:


All the best,