Hoping to flee the violence of life in New York, American mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) and his new wife Amy (Susan George) relocate to her home village in rural England. They take on the task of renovating her folks’ old farmhouse while David attempts to write his first book.

Almost immediately they rub the residents up the wrong way. David’s convertible car sticks out like a sore thumb – as does his accent in the local pub. So much so that the landlord calls time as soon as David opens his mouth. His open shows of affection towards his missus are also not commonplace among the villagers employed to work on the farmhouse’s roof.

In particular, local bloke Charlie (Del Henney) seems unsettlingly interested in Amy. He did, after all, date her in their youth. Very much in love with his wife, David is nevertheless perturbed to see how she flirts with her old acquaintances when his back is seemingly turned.

Still, all of this seems insignificant as they get busy working on the farm, and petting heavily in-between. But little instances soon grow in stature throughout the course of the ensuing few days: Amy’s provocative attire turns the workmen on and has Charlie pining for the good old times; village simpleton Niles (David Warner) arrives back on the scene, playing with young local girls – much to the chagrin of those who believe him to be a paedophile; pranks such killing David’s cat and, er, raping his missus while diverting him on an afternoon of grouse shooting slowly chip away at the mild-mannered yank’s demeanour.

Events inevitably spiral towards violence when a local girl goes missing, and David chooses to side with Niles over the matter of his innocence.

"I will not have violence against this house!" David famously declares, as he and Amy prepare to stand up against a gang of angry villagers trying to break into their home. It’s a telling – and, indeed, damning – example of what it is that drives this man to breaking point; what it is that he holds most sacred.

I doubt STRAW DOGS needs an introduction on these pages. Nor, I suspect, does the controversy it stirred upon its original 1971 release. Director Sam Peckinpah – a man whose THE WILD BUNCH, a consummate piece of filmmaking, was seen as one of the most violent films ever when shown theatrically in the late 1960s – made a film about the psychology of violence (and the psychological fallout that follows it) ... and got royally misunderstood. For decades.

This resulted in the film attracting a ban in the UK that wasn’t lifted until it was finally released uncut (as it is here) in the early part of the 21st Century.

Seen now, in 2011, the film still packs a considerable punch. But it’s surprising upon revisiting it to realise just how little graphic violence there is. Even the film’s most contentious scene – the infamous "Is she enjoying the rape? Is the second rape buggery?" sequence – is quite subtly handled. Too subtly, many have argued: resulting in the need for the second question surrounding whether George’s poopipe is ever actually violated.

The final act is an exhilarating succession of violent altercations as David protects what is his, and the film most blatantly recalls the Western that it’s eluded towards being throughout.

Filmed on location in Cornwall’s Lamorna Grove, STRAW DOGS looks beautiful as cinematographer John Coquillon captures the local countryside in admiring Eastmancolor, understanding its paradoxical tranquillity and isolation perfectly. The setting becomes very much another character of the film, thanks to Coquillon’s keen compositions and Peckinpah’s intelligent pacing, which allows such detail to really count.

This doesn’t mean the script – from Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman, based on Gordon Williams’ novel "The Siege of Trencher’s Farm" – can afford to slacken off. After all, the film is close to 2 hours in length (117 minutes, despite the back cover stating 113 minutes) and while attractive visuals help, they don’t propel drama by themselves. Luckily, we get a nicely tight bite of realism, filled with believably fleshed out characters and a thought-provoking refusal to portray anyone as the out-and-out villain of the piece. It’s ferociously intelligent fare.

It’s equally important then that Peckinpah has a cast to hand who understand his intentions and play things pitch perfectly throughout. Hoffman is superb, a coward who frustrates his wife for much of the duration before coming into his own and brutalising even her when cornered. George has never been better, or more effortlessly sexy. Warner is Warner, brilliantly weird. Henney, meanwhile, is backed up tremendously by Peter Vaughan, T P McKenna and especially Ken Hutchison throughout.

A classic, pure and simple – and one of the key films of the 1970s, which helped change the face of the cinema’s portrayal of violence forever.

Freemantle Media’s region-free blu-ray was first announced a couple of years back. It’s been a long time coming, and I suspect it is only seeing the light of day now on the back of the new Hollywood remake. Conveniently, it also marks the 40th anniversary of the original.

The cover boasts that the film has been "fully restored". Blacks are solid, colours are strong and images are clean in this 1.78:1 (16x9), 1080p HD transfer. But the film looks older than its 40 years, and the presentation suffers from overblown contrast at times that doesn’t sit well with occasionally heavy DNR. Brighter, cleaner and exhibiting much more detail than the old standard definition release, this offers a definite improvement over previous DVD presentations. However, there is still room for improvement here: there are occasions where it looks like a black-and-white film that has been artificially coloured in. I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the apparently lovely-looking American region-free blu-ray release (a barebones affair, save for a trailer) looks far superior.

English audio is provided in a faithful 2.0 track, which is clean and decent throughout. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read.

The disc opens with a literally shattering animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.

Extras are largely lifted from Freemantle’s Special Edition DVD from 2002:

Two audio commentary tracks. The first is from Peckinpah biographers Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Paul Seydor. As you can imagine, it’s a fairly serious and academic listen, but is at least fluent and packed with facts. The second chat track comes from the director’s former personal assistant Katy Haber. This is a more engaging proposition, even if it suffers from pregnant pauses on occasion.

Jerry Fielding’s score is here as an isolated option while viewing the main feature, and much appreciated its continued inclusion is.

We also get the archive 7-minute on-set documentary from 1971, complete with a young Hoffman showing just how geeky he naturally is in interviews.

The 2002 video interviews with George, Simmons and producer Dan Melnick have also been ported over. These remain good viewing, and between them offer 67 more minutes of bonus feature fun.

The film’s original theatrical trailer, 3 US TV spots and 2 US radio spots will also be familiar to those who own the UK special edition DVD. As will the plethora of stills provided.

Lots of interesting notes on the film’s history of censorship and controversy, plus cast and crew filmographies, have all been made available previously too. Incorporated in this sub-section which is entitled "Background", we also get reproductions of letters from the filmmakers at the time, notes on a deleted scene, an explanation of the film’s title and some other interesting titbits of trivia. You’ve seen it all before, but they remain worthy of your time regardless.

So, what’s new on this release? As far as I can see, the only new extra is a 3-minute montage of clips from the film demonstrating the before and after effect of the new HD restoration. These employ a split-screen technique and play out silently. In fairness, they do highlight how drab the old DVD looked in comparison to the new transfer. But, considering the HD restoration process appears to be something of a black art, it would’ve been nice to gain some knowledge as to its mechanics. Maybe then the likes of Arrow and Blue Underground could do their own restorations in-house and tell people like LVR to get fucked.

STRAW DOGS remains a classic, powerful and deeply impressive meditation on the violence that lies dormant inside all of us. It’s brilliant filmmaking, and features a fantastic turn from Hoffman at its heart. George is at her best; but that could be down to the tight white tops and lack of underwear beneath them...

I dread seeing the remake, such is the iconic singularity of Peckinpah’s film. While Freemantle’s blu-ray edition may fall shy of being ‘definitive’, it’s still the best version the original film has ever enjoyed in the UK. The transfer is flawed but still an improvement over the standard definition alternative, and certainly isn’t a complete disaster.

Also available on DVD.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Fremantle Home Entertainment
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review