Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In his celebrated novella Day of the Locust writer Nathanael West imagined Hollywood as
an apocalyptic nightmare - not the kind served up nightly on Entertainment Tonight, but
the original, pre-conscious apocalyptic nightmare. The story treats the town as a spiritual
sickness that sucks the souls from normal human beings, and offers up starlet wannabe Faye
Greener as a sacrificial offering.
After his caustic look at Times Square in Midnight Cowboy cultured filmmaker John Schlesinger
would seem the perfect director for this almost indigestible story. Schlesinger does as well as
any mortal could in turning it into a movie and succeeds in almost every department. But no matter
how well he nails the difficult moods and attitudes, The Day of the Locust is too
calculated and cold to be broadly accepted as entertainment. A story of hopelessness and
soul-sickness needs to make us care about its characters, and we instead spend our time watching
them with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Aspiring film designer Tod Hackett (William Atherton) takes a room at a Hollywood
bungalow called the San Bernardino Arms. His career takes an upswing when he gets the
attention of art director Claude Estee (Richard A. Dysart) but his personal life is complicated by
his infatuation with the Greeners next door. Elderly vaudevillian Harry (Burgess Meredith) is a
handful, but his aspiring actress daughter Faye (Karen Black) is trouble looking for a place to
happen. Faye is
a vain tease who strings along two Hollywood cowboys living up in Griffith Park, Earle Shoop (Bo
Hopkins) and Miguel (Pepe Serna). Faye's best friend is a high-class call girl (Lea Goldoni) and
Harry's buddy is the diminuitive Abe (Billy Barty). But Faye's oddest conquest is Homer Simpson
(Donald Sutherland), an awkward, emotionally constricted man with clumsy hands and a severe
inferiority complex. She takes terrible advantage of him, much to Tod's dismay.
Without much exaggeration, The Day of the Locust turns 1938 Hollywood into a sunshiny,
cheerful hell. Tod Hackett is doing quite well in a Paramount job that seems to be going
somewhere; but he's fascinated by Faye Greener's side of the city, where the has-beens and wannabes
collide in unhappy denial of reality. Faye is the sickest of all, a beauty so consumed by delusions
of stardom that she's incapable of love. She's too much like the starlet who committed
suicide by leaping from the Hollywoodland sign, as gleefully reported by the tour guide. She strings
along her two Gower Gulch cowboys, losers who can only pick up a few dollars as extras and have to
camp in the hills. She gives Tod grief because he wants a more serious relationship; she's saving
herself for her dreams. When strapped for cash, she turns some tricks through madam Audrey Jennings
(Natalie Schafer from Gilligan's Island) and cruelly abuses the meek misfit Homer Simpson in
a "business arrangement": He provides for her and does all the work, and she spends his money.
Once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt is far gentler with Hollywood than he was with Times Square
but there's still plenty of acid under the diffused California sunshine. Peripheral characters
tend to be grotesques and the featured characters are denied sentimental embellishments. Burgess
Meredith's old vaudevillian is a blithely bitter joker who knows the difference between the big time and
oblivion. Billy Barty's little guy can be vile; when he suddenly becomes an expert in cockfighting with
Pepe Serna's bantams, he's a thoroughly horrible monster. Bo Hopkins' cowpoke is inoffensive and the
kind of Guy Tod knows how to trump, but when terrible Faye decides to get carnal, it's always with
Latin ranchhand Serna.
Unable to use any of Nathanael West's ominous text, Salt and Schlesinger recast The Day of the Locust
in visual terms, seeingly using Tod Browning's Freaks as a guide. That's what we really have
morbid sideshow as observed by Tod Hackett (Browning?). Faye is the monstrous female worshipping the
false idols of Tinseltown. Homer Simpson is Frankenstein's monster, a gentle but crippled soul trapped
in a body he can't seem to control (in the book Homer obsessed over his alien, oversized hands) and
lacking any form of self-confidence. Faye sympathizes to the extent that she's capable but spends most
of her time exploiting, taunting and teasing him, in much the same way that Fritz the hunchback tortured
Boris Karloff. In the end Homer (the Monster) revolts, killing a horrible taunting child (a vision
of Faye) and paying for it at the hands of an angry mob (villagers with torches).
The world of Golden Hollywood is nicely evoked. Tod is no standard-bearer for better values; he protests
the hypocrisy of his smug bosses but steps right up to be sheared when studio head Helverston (Paul
Stewart) offers him a free haircut he can't turn down. Salt wisely moves the book's setpiece, an on-set
disaster, from the opening to the beginning of the final act to heighten the feeling of impending doom.
Studio economics routinely put extras and studio employees at risk, and the spectacle of Tod's
beautifully researched and reconstructed Waterloo set collapsing is a perfect metaphor for the
destruction so devoutly wished. 1
The Day of the Locust is beautifully acted. Donald Sutherland extends the "hulking simpleton"
characters he played in
Die, Die My Darling! and The Dirty
Dozen. He's so tender and inoffensive, I'm surprised nobody ever thought of him for Frankenstein's
monster. William Atherton is a fine hero and didn't get the attention he deserved - audiences expecting
a conventional tale surely look to the Tod Hackett character to straighten out the crooked story.
This has to be Karen Black's finest hour. Faye Greener could easily be a stereotyped Harlowesque tramp
but Ms. Black consistently finds a way for us not to condemn her out of hand, even when she's
digging her own career grave by putting on airs with Richard Dysart's big wheel.
She's out of control in a sad, sordid way, a woman who's "saving herself" for Clark
Gable but ends up the center of lust at a cheap party in the Hollywood hills. Black was heartbreaking
ever since I saw her in You're a Big Boy Now, and she doesn't let this big-break role down.
I'm probably wrong, but the title of West's novella communicates to me a reference to the Book of
Revelations, with its omens of destruction represented by demonic insects. There's probably some
entirely different connection. With Geraldine Page's revivalist charlatan stirring up Jesus fervor
(in a scene much more convincing than the theatrics of Elmer Gantry), the film easily achieves an
"end of days" vibe.
The Day of the Locust winds up in a terrifying Grauman's premiere that goes completely nuts
with a convincingly chaotic riot, where an announcer whips up the crowd because he thinks they're
excited about a stupid show called The Buccaneer. They're really a vicious mob, all come to
Hollywood Blvd. to quench some unfulfilled inner desire. It's a wanting of something that can't be
possessed, a glamour greater than ordinary life and they'd just as soon kill the stars they see as
adore them. With palm trees collapsing in flames and mobs trampling people underfoot are so overblown
that one has to remember that it's straight from West's novella. Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah
Clare achieved a similar dream-consumer fury with his "dog food commercial ending" that interrupts
his Grauman's premiere.
The only mis-step on Schlesinger's part isn't really a mis-step as much
as it is something we don't want to see - at the height of the carnage we are given visions of
Tod Hackett's "mural of terror" artwork back on the wall of his apartment. The ghoulish
faces from his art studies show up among the rioters, and for a moment The Day of the Locust
starts to look like Night of the Living Studio Premiere of the Dead. The movie's themes are
resolved, but what we really have invested in are the characters and they're mowed down like so many
extras hit by Noah's flood. My response in 1975 was to go read the book, where I found a wonderfully
disturbing tale of doom. Ordinary moviegoers need a free-standing experience, and I can see
where they'd leave the theater making faces and wondering what it all meant. 2
Paramount's DVD of The Day of the Locust sparkles in this enhanced transfer, and at 144 minutes
shows no sign of low bit-rate problems. The audio is in the original mono or a new 5.1 remix. Some
scenes may appear soft, but I am advised that the heavy diffusion was Schlesinger's desired visual style.
With no contemporary stars to turn into portrait-themed key art, Paramount has used the original
poster art that places a garish blow-up doll image of Karen Black over a riot scene. This is
another no trailer, no commentary, no nothing plain-wrap release, but still an excellent quality
feature presentation at a bargain price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day of the Locust rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 6, 2004
1. The obvious precedent for
this was at Warners in 1927 when a number of extras were drowned in a flooding scene for
Noah's Ark. It was a case of flagrant endangerment and remained legendary in Hollywood, where
studio lawyers and "downtown influence" could sanitize practically anything - involuntary manslaughter,
2. An author with a similar misanthropic cynicism (maybe more) is
Charles Finney in The Circus of Dr. Lao, a devastating social satire that (like Nathanael
West's Miss Lonelyhearts) is not recommended to people with depression problems! It's
absolutely nothing like George Pal's sentimental movie.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson