One of Sam Peckinpah's most controversial efforts, this film came out at a critical moment in the early 1970s, released in the same month as both Dirty Harry
and A Clockwork Orange
, causing a furor over film violence. Based on a little-known British novel, the film casts Dustin Hoffman as a bookish American mathematician on sabbatical in rural England, in the town where his young bride (Susan George) grew up. He finds himself forced to defend his home against an assault by local toughs, and discovers a frighteningly feral and vicious side to himself. Though Straw Dogs
has a reputation for graphic violence, it actually looks tame by contemporary standards. Instead, the violence is psychological, and the suspense and shocks are induced by the editing--you're more terrified by what you think you see than by what you are actually shown. --Marshall Fine
Despite its superior tone and a few debatable assertions, the Straw Dogs
commentary by Peckinpah scholar Stephen Prince is astutely observant and thematically cohesive, effectively placing the film in its proper sociopolitical context. Prince's articulate reasoning corrects decades of misguided critical analysis while supporting Peckinpah's artistic intentions, including the fact that Dustin Hoffman plays the "heavy," and not the British bullies who provoke him to violence. The superb BBC documentary Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron
offers perfect balance from the artist's perspective, as a majority of Peckinpah's closest friends and colleagues reminisce about a difficult man who inspired great extremes of passion. Highlights include anecdotes by Kris Kristofferson and longtime Peckinpah associate and screenwriter James Silke, whose shared memories are heartbreakingly poignant.
A 1971 on-set profile of Hoffman offers a fascinating portrait of the actor at the peak of early success, eager to transcend his Graduate persona. Similar British archival clips show Peckinpah at work; teasing glimpses of a gentleman who never suffered fools. The love-hate dynamic that Peckinpah inspired is especially evident in the illuminating 2002 interviews with Straw Dogs costar Susan George and producer Daniel Melnick, both full of anecdotal affection, humor, and pride in their controversial film; it's a pity Hoffman didn't participate. Peckinpah himself is powerfully present in written response to critics and detractors, and in a prickly 1974 interview with French-Canadian critic Andre Leroux. Taken together, these and other excellent supplements convey the depth and sophistication of a self-proclaimed violent man who had noble reasons for elevating the depiction and discussion of cinematic violence. --Jeff Shannon