Barking mad: Criterion unleashes 1971’s brutal ‘STRAW DOGS’ and 1948’s ‘THEY LIVE BY NIGHT’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

The Criterion Collection sniffs out a haunting story of violence and a Bonnie and Clyde-type film noir for its releases this month.

STRAW DOGS (1971)
Not rated, 118 minutes.
Director:
Cast:
Available today on Blu-ray and DVD through the Criterion Collection.

STRAW DOGS is a feature film that unpacks the violent urge that stews within the human soul. The crime-thriller, starring Dustin Hoffman, examines this primal aspect and paints a dark picture of humanity.

Sure, plenty of films since the dawn of cinema have dealt with the theme of revenge, but up until STRAW DOGS’ release in 1971, none were quite as visceral or brutal as this. The last 20 minutes alone — during which people are scalded with boiling whisky, clubbed to death, blown to pieces by a shotgun and, my personal favorite, decapitated by a bear trap — is downright vicious.

The film follows a young American mathematician, David (Hoffman), and his English wife, Amy (Susan George), who move to the British village where her family grew up. The plan is to fix up the place while David gets his work in order. However, they are taunted and bullied by the local handymen (Del Henney and Ken Hutchison, among others) who are hired to do construction on their property, and things get out of line and hard to watch not too long after.

STRAW DOGS was the first film that wasn’t a Western from director Sam Peckinpah (THE WILD BUNCH). It’s a shame he didn’t do more before his death in 1984, because he showed every indication of succeeding in genres outside of the shoot-’em-up movies he was known for.

STRAW DOGS may not go down smoothly, especially because of its infamous double-rape scene, but the tension throughout, exceptional performances, and Criterion’s sharp 4K digital transfer and special features mark its territory in film history.

Grade: B

Extras: The Criterion Collection release includes a 2003 audio commentary by author Stephen Prince, a documentary about the making of the film (“Mantrap: STRAW DOGS — The Final Cut”), a documentary centered on the director (“Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron”), a conversation between film critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode, new and archival interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, TV spots and trailers, and an essay by scholar and critic Joshua Clover.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948)
Not rated, 95 minutes.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da SilvaJay C. Flippen
Available today on Blu-ray and DVD through the Criterion Collection.

When the movie world is constantly developing its methods for telling stories, it’s easy to recognize the faults in cinema’s past. Sometimes the movies you loved back in the day don’t play as well today. Technology and acting techniques have grown since the Golden Age to make movies feel more lived-in and believable.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, not to be confused with Ben Affleck’s lackluster LIVE BY NIGHT, is one of those rare, timeless movies that still holds up remarkably well. It centers on two Bonnie and Clyde-like figures (Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell) who are trying to escape their past, but their criminal activities send them straight to a doomed destination.

This 1948 black-and-white debut from Nicholas Ray (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) was nearly forgotten. Thanks to Criterion, more viewers can see how passionate and lyrical of a film it is, especially for its early use of helicopter shots and shocking direction with its characters.

Grade: A-

Extras: The Criterion Collection release includes an audio commentary featuring film historian Eddie Muller and Granger, a video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith, a 2007 short piece, illustrated audio interview excerpts from 1956 with producer John Houseman, and an essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.