A young American mathematician, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), and his English wife, Amy (Susan George), move to a Cornish village, seeking the quiet life. But beneath the seemingly peaceful isolation of the pastoral village lies a savagery and violence that threatens to destroy the couple, culminating in a brutal test of Sumner’s manhood and a bloody battle to the death. One of the most controversial films ever made, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is a harrowing and masterful investigation of masculinity and the nature of violence.
Criterion’s limited edition of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is presented in its uncut version in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The image has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions. I had only seen the film previously on a Fox VHS, released into the bargain bins. I remember it being a bit of a mess and the Criterion DVD presents a drastic improvement over it.
The print has been beautifully cleaned up, presenting a minimal amount of damage. The colour scheme to the film is purposely drab, heavy in browns and grays, but they’re beautifully saturated and come off fairly bold, a huge improvement compared to the drab, washed out look of that VHS. Skin tones look natural, and blacks are strong.
The image is quite smooth throughout. Detail is quite strong and you can even make out film grain (which isn’t heavy.) I didn’t notice any artifacts while watching, paying closer attention to the foggy sequences during the climax of the film. Fog can usually present all sorts of artifacts on DVD but it looks pretty good here, natural and smooth.
A huge improvement, and a solid transfer from Criterion.
Note: The DVD was discontinued roughly a year after its initial release (due to licensing issues Criterion only had the rights for a year, and even indicated this when they first released it—it’s the only Criterion title to carry a sticker indicating it was only available for a limited time) and MGM quickly put out a movie only edition that looks to have the same transfer.
The Dolby Digital mono track sounds pretty good. I was worried initially as it sounded a little edgy during the opening’s music, but it settles in from there. Dialogue is sharp and clear, which helps with some of the accents (for me anyways.) The action at the end can come off a little dull and hollow, presenting little in the way of range, but as a whole it’s the best track I’ve heard for this film.
The Criterion Collection has put together a rather nice 2-disc set for the film, giving us some wonderful features that look at the movie and the man behind it.
First up on the first disc is a wonderful commentary by Stephen Prince. He begins the commentary by stating he will prove that Straw Dogs is Peckinpah's masterpiece and he pretty much does that. The commentary focuses mainly on the film itself, with some comments about Peckinpah's form of directing and some back stories on the man and his career. He looks deeply into just about every aspect of the film, including Peckinpah's choices in editing, staging the camera and so on and he delivers a very compelling and rather informative audio commentary. He's always speaking and the only time he really ever stops is when he needs a breath or wants you to hear a line from the film. This is actually one of my favourite commentaries, up there with the commentary found on Criterion’s Spartacus release and is a must (I also hope it finds its way onto a future DVD/Blu-ray release.) While I already had a high opinion of the film, I will admit I wasn’t completely sure what to make of it and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot since first viewing it. Prince’s track, like few scholarly tracks, really opened up my eyes to this film, and I’m sure it has the potential to even turn the opinion of someone who has a very negative view towards the film.
The disc also includes an isolated music and effects track, which at times might actually sound better than the original.
Moving onto the second dual-layer disc you will find the documentary entitled Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron. Right off Criterion informs us that scenes from other movies that originally appeared in the doc have been edited out to avoid copyright infringement. The original length of the documentary is about 86-minutes, but without the movie scenes it runs at about 82-minutes. Made by the BBC, the documentary is fantastic. I am a Peckinpah fan, even though I've only seen a small number of his films, but I am pretty unfamiliar with his life, really only more aware of the last few years. The docuemntary begins with his young life and then quickly moves through his acting career, with interviews from family and friends, including James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards and a few others. It also covers a bit about his views of women, his ways of directing his actors and then also touches on his alcohol and drug problem. It's an excellent, very thorough documentary. It is also divided into 3 chapters, though they are not indexed.
You'll also find another short documentary, running about 26-minutes called On Location: Dustin Hoffman. This one is more an interview with Hoffman during the shoot of Straw Dogs, but has very little to do with the movie. The interview covers a lot of Hoffman's career up to that point, including his stage plays and surprising casting of him in The Graduate. He even talks about Midnight Cowboy and then talks a bit about his attraction to the role of David Sumner in Straw Dogs. We also get some time with Susan George and director Peckinpah, of course they talk more about the movie. The documentary does offer some great behind-the-scenes bits, though. We do get to see Peckinpah direct Hoffman and we also get to see his way of thinking: Throwing knives at a door. In the end the segment is just an interview with Hoffman, very little to do with the film, but Hoffman has a lot to say about his work and his feelings on the craft. Definitely worth looking at.
There's about 7-minutes worth of behind-the-scenes footage all shot in black and white. This short segment gets interviews with Hoffman, George and Peckinpah and offers a few insights, but not much. The video is in rough shape and the sound for around the last minute, which is basically a montage, is silent.
And there's still more. You'll also find 2 interviews, one with actress Susan George and another with producer Daniel Melnick. The George interview lasts about 25-minutes and is divided into 4 chapters. She covers working with Hoffman and Peckinpah and confirms that yes she is proud of doing the movie, as it did help her become internationally famous. Melnick's interview lasts about 19-minutes or so and is divided into 5 chapters. He talks about getting the book rights, problems with the productions and of course the controversy over the release of the movie. Both interviews were intriguing and excellent and definitely worth watching.
Probably the coolest feature on here is the selected correspondence from Peckinpah. Here we get four responses from Peckinpah to audience members that wrote him and critics that trashed his film (including Pauline Kael). His responses to the audience members were actually rather funny and his responses to the critics showed he was upset that they didn't "get" his film. A fantastic extra.
You also get a rather long, kind of misleading theatrical trailer and 3 TV Spots. There is also another great Criterion booklet including an essay by Joshua Clover on the film and a reprinted interview with Peckinpah, which makes for a great read.
And there you go. There may only be a few things on here, but they're all excellent and serve to give you a better understanding of the film and even Peckinpah himself, the commentary being the highlight. One of Criterion’s best releases in terms of supplements, fitting into their whole idea of “film school in a box.”
The DVD, as noted before, has been discontinued and a new DVD was released by MGM unfortunately missing all of the supplements. If you’re only concerned about the transfer the MGM looks to contain a transfer that’s at least close to the quality of the Criterion release. But I think the supplements make this release worth tracking down. It gave me a better understanding, and appreciation of a film I already thought highly of.