Noirvember: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
“I’m not lecturing,” I said, “but you ought to change your attitude. On the level. It affects everybody you come in contact with. Take me, for example: before I met you I didn’t see how I could miss succeeding. I never even thought of failing. And now — “
“Who taught you that speech?” she asked. “You never thought that up by yourself.”
Gloria Beatty is dead from the first moment we see her.
Quite literally: the very first scene in Horace McCoy’s rigid, impossibly bleak 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?* is its narrator recalling how he put a pistol to the side of her head and blew her brains out, and how she smiled as he did it. But she’s gone even before he pulls the trigger; she’s already dead and buried in her mind from the moment they first meet, and is just waiting for someone to make that vision a reality. There are a number of fairly substantive differences between McCoy’s book and the better-known but inferior 1969 film adaptation by Sydney Pollack, but this is the first and the most important: Pollack keeps us guessing as to Gloria’s fate until the end. It doesn’t come as a surprise, exactly, but Pollack plays around with the framing device to save the reveal until the film’s climax. In the novel, however, we know Gloria is a dead woman from the first page of the book. We know who killed her, why he did it, and what’s going to happen to him because of it; and it’s this knowledge that makes the novel of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a true noir work of art.
One of the fundamental elements of noir, one of the key ingredients that separate it from other types of similar crime dramas such as the hardboiled detective genre and the thriller, is the pervasive sense of doom. True noir is populated with lowlifes and failures who, more often than not, are at least aware of, if not always resigned to, their inevitable fate. A well-done noir should play out like a Greek tragedy, both in its artfulness and in its inevitability. To this end, most noir novels and films offer pretty prescriptive gender roles: it’s the man who is the doom-struck victim of circumstance, while the woman is the femme fatale who uses her sexuality and drive to lure him to that inescapable fate. They Shoot Horses is a terrifying reversal of that order.
Gloria Peatty is no Sherry Peatty, no Cora Smith, no Phyllis Dietrichson: her only ambition is to die. Life has crushed and broken her in ways that are spelled out quite frankly for a novel written at the height of the Depression — a nifty proof of how the disreputable nature of pulp fiction allowed it a freedom denied to more respectable literature. Her immediate family was wiped out by the influenza epidemic; the uncle who cared for her also used her for sex, only the first of many times she was raped. She got no education and learned no skills, and had no money to elevate her out of a poverty only worsened by the ruined economy. A suicide attempt further wrecked her already tenuous health. By the time she drifted to Hollywood in search of some kind of success, she already looked ragged for her age. She drifts randomly into the orbit of a weak-willed, dopey wanna-be named Robert Syverten, and they enter a marathon dance competition, lacking anything better to do.
She is not beautiful. Robert doesn’t seem to be attracted to her at all — he thinks she’s rather plain and has little chance of becoming a film star or even an extra. But he is an innocent, ignorant drifter himself, and lacks any kind of power against his own fate, so he is the perfect candidate to become haplessly stuck in her morass of negativity. In the film, Gloria is sad, rebellious, a manic-depressive misfit, portrayed by Jane Fonda more in sorrow than in anger, but in the book, she is furious, elemental, enraged at the world that has ruined her. The relationship between moping, helpless Robert and acid-spitting Gloria resembles no other film couple so much as it does that of Al and Vera in the equally stripped-down Detour: Robert, like Al, just treads water with an aggrieved look on his face until he’s almost drowned, while Gloria, like Vera, is a violent, contemptuous force of nature — only all her hatred is directed inward.
As the dance contest drags on and on, and as the contestants — whose stench, exhaustion and pain McCoy’s tight prose makes you feel on every page — become more and more exhausted and hopeless, the focus stays squarely on Gloria. Another key difference between book and film is that the movie makes the marathon operators out to be much bigger crooks than they are in the book; while this gives Gig Young (who would later carry out a real-world murder-suicide that would be right at home in a noir novel) a chance to deliver a memorably oily performance, it opens up the narrative into a larger, ’70s-style ‘comment’ about the manipulation of little people by the forces of society. McCoy’s story is much smaller, and all the more effective for it: it is far more bloody (murder is ever-present amongst the dancers, whether they know it or not), the ending is less ambiguous, and by keeping its attention squarely on Gloria’s spiraling desperation and Robert’s utter inability to apprehend it, it makes every element of the existential conflict more vivid, right up until the inexorable end.
This is why, to my reading, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is often mistakenly affiliated in terms of influence. Because of timing and setting, it’s frequently compared with the works of Nathanael West, who also wrote of the grimy, unspectacular corners of Hollywood glamor and the failures and human catastrophes that occurred there. But had it been written only a while later, it would have fit right in with the novels of Jim Thompson, the epic poet of despair and doom. The flashbacks of Robert Syverten strongly resemble the interior monologues of Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, with homicidal malice replaced by fatal indifference and misunderstanding; and the flecks of blood decorating the exterior edges of the central narrative are early warnings of the grotesque details of Thompson’s books.
As sure-handed as McCoy is with his characters (Gloria’s malignant hatred of another contestant for presuming to bring a baby into a spoiled and hopeless world, and her memorable explosion at the hypocrisy of a pair of moralizing church ladies, are two of the most effective scenes in pulp fiction), he is also careful with its structure. Pollack had his screenwriters invent new characters and expand the history of others, to engage the moviegoing audience. It’s a good move (the book was originally optioned by Charlie Chaplin, and it’s terrifying to contemplate what he would have done with it), but the book has no time for such fripperies. It moves along at the pace of the rallies the contestants are forced to compete in, almost brutally fast and punishing. The few flaws in the prose are scabbed over by this fatal velocity.
The history of the book itself is intriguing, as well: McCoy, who did odd jobs to support his writing career, was a bouncer at a Dallas nightclub where he saw a dance marathon of the kind he depicts in the book, and became obsessed with the notion. He finally turned it into a novel — one where he worked closely with the designers to create its typographically ambitious framing device — after numerous false starts as a short story, a stage play, and even a musical with the unfortunate title Marathon Dancers. He died long before the movie was made, so we’ll never know what he would have thought of it. But the film, while worthwhile and probably the best of Pollack’s career, suffers simply because it replaces squalor with spectacle at the wrong moments, desanguinates the book, and gives us a little too much time to breathe, while the novel simply grabs and twists until the twitching stops.
Like noir itself, the reputation of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is largely attributable to French critics, who embraced its dark vision of weak people trapped by their own failures while Americans largely ignored it. Reading it in all its hissing violence and sex might shock those who have only seen the film. It plays to McCoy’s strengths of characterization and efficiency, but has a few hidden charms in its clever use of imagery (Robert links the pounding of the Pacific waves beneath the dance hall, located above the waters on a pier, to his own heartbeat, and his only regret after being sentenced to die for murdering Gloria is that he’ll never see the beach again). But mostly, it surprises because of its clockwork movement and its audacious tinkering with the traditional roles of a noir novel. It’s probably too much of a stretch to call it a feminist novel, but the way it keeps a wide-open eye on Gloria all through the story not only anticipates the likes of Blood and Guts in High School, but provides a perspective on the psychological ordeals of a noir protagonist that is usually only extended to men. The great irony of Robert’s closing line is that he’s the one who has acted instinctually, mechanically, like a beast in a box, while hostile, shattered Gloria may have been a walking corpse, but it was the shell of a human, not an animal.
*: I’m sure I’m missing some incredibly obvious ones, but this is the only novel I can think of where the title is also the last line of the book. Although I’d have loved it if Faulkner had been able to release one called Women, Shit.