STRAW DOGS – – Peckinpah’s Masterpiece

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The grim black and white photo of Dustin Hoffman wearing broken glasses has become an iconic image among 1970’s silver age scholars.

Movie critics frequently pontificate about director Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (1969) as being his best film.  Why ignore “Straw Dogs”?  (1971.)  Is it because it hits too close to home?

PLOT.  Mathematician-intellectual David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) moves to the hometown of his bride, Amy (Susan George.)  It doesn’t take long to see that he’s out of his depth there among the townspeople, mainly the men who were formerly intimate with his wife.

Mr. Sumner (as they call him) can’t do any handiwork, so they are at work building him a garage.  There’s tension at the bar, where they give him looks, snicker and wait for him to make any kind of mistake.

Amy walks around with no bra, tempting them and as we find out, it was her idea to move back to Cornwall.  Was it to provoke them…and her husband?

Mr. Sumner spends his days on mathematical equations while his sexy wife and her pussycat roam about the house.  Outside the workmen watch Amy who shows off through a window, topless.

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The cat (symbolic of Amy?) is strangled, left hanging by a light cord in the closet.  Amy says correctly, “They wanted you to know they could get into your bedroom.”  (Namely, at her.)  But Mr. Sumner doesn’t rise to the occasion.  Instead, the men lure him off for a “snipe” hunt, leaving him alone in the moors.  Two of them, Charlie Venner (Del Henney) and Norman Scutt (Ken Hutchison) take the opportunity to rape his wife.  (More on this later.)

Afterward, a fed-up Mr. Sumner fires them – all too late.  Amy mockingly calls him “tiger”.  (And doesn’t tell him about the rape.)


The Sumners attend a church social.  Amy wants out – two of her rapists happen to be in attendance.  On the way home, Mr. Sumner accidentally runs into Henry Niles (David Warner), the village idiot, who has just accidentally killed a girl.  (Sally Thomsett as Janice Hedden.)  Taking Niles to his home, the men are aware of what’s happening.  Their intentions are to lynch Niles.  This is where Mr. Sumner finally draws the line.


As the story twists and unfolds, it is uncompromising and unapologetic for its point of view.  That’s the big difference between the 1971 version and the 2011 version.  (Why they remade it, I’ll never know.)

Peckinpah’s bloody finale can’t be topped.  It is all we could hope for . . . and more.

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The Rape.  Graphic, ugly and mean.  Actress Susan George is perfect for this role and she plays it to the hilt.

Dustin Hoffman.  Throughout the years, we’ve all seen Hoffman in a variety of roles.  (Two-time Oscar winner for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and “Rainman” (1988.)  But the Academy deliberately ignored “Straw Dogs” because, well, they’re chicken-shit.  It’s simply too raw for home consumption.  They can nominate him for “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy”, among others.  Not “Straw Dogs”.  That’s why I can’t take the Oscars seriously.  Not then and not now.

Like it or not, there are times when we have to prove ourselves.  It may not be through an orgy of violence like “Straw Dogs”.  But it will happen.  You can’t escape it.  You can’t get by with being nice and civilized.  Not anymore.

Technically, “Straw Dogs” is brilliant.  Special mention must be given to cinematographer John Coquillon.  Any serious cameraman would kill for shots like this.

Hoffman’s face becomes flat, an expressionless death mask.

Coquillon, along with Jerry Fielding (music) were frequent Peckinpah collaborators.  For me, this is Fielding’s best work.  Sly and sinewy, it gets under your skin.

While “Straw Dogs” may sound dour and depressing, it has its own sense of humor.  Example:  Hoffman as Sumner holds a rifle on one of the men, Scutt (one of his wife’s rapists) which misfires.  Scutt laughs until Sumner starts beating him to death.

Jim Norton as Chris Cawsey wears a clowns nose and circle around the house on a little bike giggling during the carnage.

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When the men are fired from working on the garage, they’re offended.


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“Straw Dogs” is currently available on the Criterion Collection.

Formerly available on MGM DVD

Text © 2022 – EricReports