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January 12, 2016

Figures in a Landscape

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Joseph Losey - 1970
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

If the title evokes some kind of abstract painting, that's no accident. The two men seen running in silhouette are eventually seen, but the landscape that they are running through is an unnamed country. It takes a while before the names of the two men, apparently escaped prisoners, are revealed. The men are pursued by a helicopter, operated by another pair of men, unseen save for the back of their helmets. The relationship between these two groups of men is underlined by shots cutting between the helicopter and an eagle, another bird of prey. The helicopter/bird motif is further stressed by one of the tag lines used in the posters for the film.

That very little is explained in Figures in a Landscape may be why Joseph Losey's film was given minimal release in the United States, in the midst of Losey's peak period, commercially and artistically. I saw the film when it played in New York City's First Avenue Screening Room, a small theater with a screen often described as "postage stamp size". This was a theater that provided week long runs for artier fare that was deemed to have no commercial potential. Star Robert Shaw might have attracted a small audience, while Malcolm McDowell was still relatively unknown in his second theatrical film, following If . . .

What I was unaware at the time was that originally Figures was to be directed by Peter Medak, and star Peter O'Toole. Shaw, who also wrote the screenplay from a novel by Barry England, was probably better suited for the physically demanding role as the older prisoner. Joseph Losey is someone not thought of to take on a film involving a lot of running through mountains and beaches, with the occasional firing of guns. In between the mostly house-bound Secret Ceremony and The Go-Between, Losey was in Spain, with a film that takes place primarily out in the open.

Some of the thematic concerns that frequently appear in Losey's films pop up in the beginning of Figures. Arguments based on age and class threaten to get in the way of any plans McDowell and Shaw may have of crossing the border. The two realize soon enough that they are better off together than apart. In what is essentially a two character film, Losey keeps his two actors within the same frame for most of the story, providing the appropriate visual corollary to their shared situation.

Something that I had overlooked when I saw Figures about forty-five years ago, was how grueling the filming would have been for Shaw and McDowell. The two have their hands tied behind their backs for the first half hour, all while dodging the pursuing helicopter mostly through mountains and woods. Later, McDowell and Shaw crawl though farmland that is both flooded and on fire. The fire is caused by incendiary devices tossed for the helicopter. Briefly, Losey makes visual reference to Viet-Nam, the very real war taking place during the time of the film's production and release. Viewers who demand explanations for everything they see on screen will no doubt be frustrated by Figures in a Landscape. For myself, Losey's film still holds up well after all these years.

* * * From Kimberly Lindbergs, prior to the U.S. home video release.

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Posted by peter at January 12, 2016 06:00 AM