Noir Classics: They Shoot Horses Don’t They – Horace McCoy by K. A. Laity

they shoot book

‘Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people.’

Among the pantheon of terrific women in noir, Gloria Beatty manages to stand out. Debbie Downer got nothing on her. From the first page of the novel we know her fate: Robert Syverten remembers shooting her on the pier as his sentence is read out in court. The book moves back and forth in time but Gloria’s doomed hateful spite never relents.

McCoy’s novel was published in 1935 in the depths of the Great Depression. The two of them have both drifted to California to get in the pictures: Gloria as an actor, Robert as a director. While there’s something almost child-like about Robert’s obsession with the movies, Gloria sees the industry as an avenue to power – and one from which she has been unjustly barred. They meet by accident but strike up a conversation.

Gloria’s quick summary of her past includes being orphaned, preyed upon by her uncle, disparaged by her aunt, shacking up with a Syrian who chewed tobacco all the time, and then taking rat poison, but not enough. Movie magazines in the hospital convinced her the good life awaited in Hollywood.

Discouraged with their lack of success the two enter a dance marathon. These brutal contests were the pre-cursors to modern reality television. In the film version, Gig Young’s ruthless MC sums it up, ‘‘They just want to see a little misery out there so they can feel a little better maybe. They’re entitled to that.’ Of course it’s his job to goose up the narratives: mere human suffering isn’t enough. The audience needs to know who to root for. 

If their stories weren’t good enough, they’re happy to invent some., including trying to bribe contestants into getting married. The goal of winning seems impossibly far away, so the dancers focus on trying to win sponsorships. That proves difficult for Robert and Gloria as she’s never met a person she didn’t talk down. She comes to blows with James, the partner of the young pregnant woman, Ruby, for trying to persuade her to have an abortion. ‘What’s the sense of having a baby unless you got dough enough to take care of it?’

The floor judge, Rollo, tells Robert, ‘Try to keep Gloria piped down,’ but the truth is as he says, ‘That’s a hard job.’ Tensions get higher for everyone as the show runners amp up the drama. People drop from exhaustion, falling to the floor without warning. ‘Customers at a marathon do not have to be prepared for their excitement. When anything happens they get excited all at once. In that respect a marathon dance is like a bullfight.’ More and more and more,’ Gloria mutters, ‘I wish I were dead.’

‘Isn’t there something I can talk about that won’t remind you that you wish you were dead?’ I asked.

 

‘No,’ she said.

It’s not enough to have them dancing all but ten minutes out of every two hours. First they have sprints, then it’s the derby. They paint an oval on the floor and make the partners run against each other. The slowest get eliminated. After the notorious arrest, the crowd watching has been swelled by celebrities. Movie star Ruby Keeler fires the first starting gun. If one of the pair falls, the other has to make two laps on their own to count as one.

they shoot film

The dancers grimly fight and the crowd bays for blood. One bright spot for Robert is the elderly woman Mrs Layden, who takes a shine to him and helps get a sponsor for the pair. In the end even she warns him against Gloria’s black downward spiral, though we know it will be too late. ‘Gloria’s not the right kind of girl for you.’

Moral guardians show up to protest, thugs join the celebrities, and charleyhorses, trauma and just plain exhaustion continue to take their toll as the novel grinds to its grim conclusion. ‘This was one day Gloria had no reason to be morbid, but she was more morbid than ever.’ When someone winds up dead, she mutters, ‘I wish it was me.’

Though the novel is more bleak than the 1969 film, it’s not by much. They use the tag line, ‘People are the ultimate spectacle’ which retains a chilling truth. The screenplay by James Poe and Robert E. Thompson lifts a lot of the original dialogue directly from the book. Sydney Pollack directed a fantastic cast most in one big set, some of whom were really playing against type, especially Red Buttons and Gig Young as the ruthless MC. Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia shine as the young pregnant couple and Susannah York has an ethereal fragility. There’s even bonus Michael Conrad and Al Lewis!

Michael Sarrazin captures the dreamy Robert very well. There’s a scene in the novel where he’s spellbound by the touch of a sunbeam that would seem impossible to capture but it’s perfect.

Of course the real star is Jane Fonda as Gloria. On the heels of Barbarella no one could have predicted a bigger transformation. She nails it from the get-go. Supposedly then-husband Roger Vadim talked her into it because he thought it really nailed existentialism. She becomes the dark, hopeless void of existence in the film. Not whining or carping, but embodying the bleak lack of hope that she voices in the novel: ‘I’d be better off dead and so would everybody else. I ruin everything I get around. You said so yourself.’

If you’re in the mood for bleak, this will suit.

K A LAITY