The Criterion Collection regains the rights to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, presenting a brand new Blu-ray edition featuring a 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation taken from a new 4K restoration scanned from the original 35mm negative. The film is also presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 as opposed to Criterion’s original DVD’s 1.78:1 ratio.
Putting it nicely Straw Dogs isn’t the prettiest looking film yet it somehow ends up looking stunning on this new edition. Though it can be a bit colourful in places—like the community activity that occurs closer to the end of the film—the colour scheme is primarily limited to grays and browns, but they’re rendered very well, never looking faded or washed. Whites look nice and black levels are especially good, which serves the film’s low-lit finale rather well and allows the image to still deliver an exceptional amount of shadow detail.
But it’s the amount of detail that is present that is most striking, and just how well the overall image is rendered. I haven’t seen the MGM Blu-ray (I was happy with the Criterion DVD and never got around to it) so can’t directly compare of course, but it’s really hard for me to imagine it looking anywhere close to this, especially since MGM was quite content to simply reuse older high-definition masters made for DVDs on their Blu-rays at the time. The digital presentation we get here is really striking. It’s incredibly filmic, delivering every fine detail and every texture of the country property and the village—and in the various sweaters that appear, where you can make out every knit and every stray wool hair. But the presentation’s most impressive moments are during the climax, which take place in a fog. The rendering of the fog is especially clean and I didn’t detect any signs of banding or noise of any sort. That fog is cleanly rendered and looks wholly natural.
In all it’s a stunner. It’s still a fairly ugly looking film, by design of course, but this new presentation and restoration really revives the film. This is a gorgeous looking restoration. 10/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion’s previous DVD special edition was a pretty great edition, looking into the film’s making, director Sam Peckinpah’s career, while also tackling the controversies that still surround the film to this day. It was a solid set of features. Thankfully most of that material has been ported over to this new edition with some new material added on.
Still here is the excellent commentary by Stephen Prince. He begins the commentary by stating he will prove that Straw Dogs is Peckinpah's masterpiece and much to my surprise he pretty much does that, or at the very least makes you strongly consider it. 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 and is not afraid to tackle its controversies, primarily the rape scene. 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. While I already had a high opinion of the film, despite some of its admittedly very questionable moments, I still found Prince’s track gave me more of an appreciation and understanding of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who absolutely despise the film—which wouldn’t be hard—came away with at least a better appreciation of it.
Not on the previous DVD edition but found here is Mantrap: “Straw Dogs,”—The Final Cut, a 52-minute making-of documentary hosted by Mark Kermode and featuring interviews with a number of members of the cast and crew (including but not limited to Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, David Warner and many others). Through the various interviews we learn about the development of the film and the many difficulties faced along the way. Unsurprisingly Peckinpah could be difficult, him and Hoffman butting heads pretty consistentand we hear from George just how nasty he could be to her, particularly about her reservations in doing the rape scene. His drinking was also a problem and when a number of technical difficulties consumed the production the first few weeks he came very close to being fired (though Hoffman may have also pushed for that). There are lighter moments scattered about, though, like the source novel’s author, Gordon Williams, joking about how much Peckinpah hated his novel, and the revelation that Hoffman, in order to get the appropriate response from the actors when he first walks into the pub, walked in with no trousers. With other details about its release and reception it’s a well-rounded, very thorough documentary, expanding on a number of subjects Prince covers in his track.
Criterion then carries over Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron, a 94-minute documentary about the man. The previous release actually excised most of the film clips found within it but they have been reinstated here. Through a number of interviews with family and friends (including but not limited to Kris Kristofferson, Jason Robards, and James Coburn) we learn about his early life before getting to his film career, his views on the world, women, working with actors, and then his substance abuse, all of which help us gain a bit of a better understanding of the man and his work. It’s a really good documentary and it’s nice to get it all with the film clips back in place (though it’s still not as good as Arrow’s offering on their UK edition of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which contained hours and hours’ worth of deleted interview material).
The same 7-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage found on the DVD is also here, looking to have been filmed for television in black and white. This short segment gets interviews with Hoffman, George, and Peckinpah, and through these we get some details about the film but not much. The video is in rough shape and the audio for around the last minute, which is basically a montage, is silent.
Newly added is a discussion between filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode and Michael Sragow, who go over the editing process of the film and what it was like editing for Peckinpah. Spottiswoode and others worked on the film and Spottiswoode talks a little about the scenes he worked on. He spends a lot of time talking about how Peckinpah worked with his editors, which was a difficult relationship not too surprisingly. Some scenes did prove to be trouble for the editors: the rape scene was one that was very difficult and the editors had wrestled with it, and apparently no one wanted to work on the sequence where Tom’s foot is blown off. There were also various cuts of the film, and some executives wanted a 3-hour film, though Peckinpah and the editors knew that was a very bad idea. Though it’s obvious from Spottiswoode’s stories (and the other stories scattered around the supplements in this disc) that Peckinpah could be difficult he obviously still respects the man and tells his stories with good humour and credits that experience in helping him with his own career. It’s a wonderful 36-minute conversation and I’m very happy Criterion put the time in in getting it.
Two interviews from 2002 found on the original DVD are included: one with actress Susan George and another with producer Daniel Melnick, both of whom also appear in the Mantrap documentary. 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, which also led to her international stardom. 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. The same subjects are basically covered in that previous documentary but the interviews expand more on them.
Another 2002 interview with Peckinpah biographer Garner Simmons is included. During his discussion he talks about the difficulty in trying to get to know Peckinpah at first as he was always combative and hesitant to open up, but he says it was in having these conflicts with him you were able to get closer to him. Simmons feels Peckinpah is misunderstood, particularly in his portrayals of violence, which Peckinpah used to make audiences feel uncomfortable, not to glamourize it, and he feels to understand the man you really have to look at all of his work, as pieces of him and his world view are found in all of the films and their respective characters. It’s a quick 10-minutes but nicely adds on to the discs portrait of the filmmaker.
Linda Williams, professor in Film & Media and Rhetoric at UC Berkeley, next provides a new interview covering the film’s various controversies and also looks at how sex and violence became more prominent in films during this time period, not too long after the abolishment of the production code. Specifically to Straw Dogs she addresses the violence in the film, focusing more on the central rape scene: though the end result is certainly horrific, the scene unfortunately plays out in an incredibly misogynistic way (“no” really means “yes,” she just needs to get into it, etc.) and this is where a lot of the criticisms against the film focus on. It’s a great analysis of the film in the end, with Williams clearly pointing out its faults but she also defends it, addressing areas she feels people misunderstand. For example, despite the film’s clear misogyny she doesn’t agree that the film ultimately condones any of the characters and certainly doesn’t celebrate violence and rape. She also feels it is important to have films like Straw Dogs to not only show how things progress but they also serve a purpose in getting a conversation going, even if the film is on the wrong side of a subject, when the topics may otherwise not come up. It runs 27-minutes.
Like the DVD the supplements end with the film’s theatrical trailer and 3 TV spots. Surprisingly Criterion also includes a booklet featuring the same content as the booklet in their previous DVD edition: an essay on the film by John Clover and then a reprinted 1974 interview between Andre Leroux and Peckinpah, discussing his work and his use of violence in films, which was a response to what he felt was Hollywood’s way of trivializing violence in films.
Sadly not everything made it over from the DVD. The isolated score is missing, as is the text feature that showed Peckinpah’s responses to the various criticisms thrown at the film. The biggest surprise, though, is the removal of the On Location BBC segment that was on the previous release. It was a 26-minute feature filmed on location during the shooting of Straw Dogs. The piece ultimately had less to do with Straw Dogs and was more about Hoffman and his career up to that point, but it did also feature material with Peckinpah, like his habit of throwing a knife to help himself think. Since Criterion has dropped other BBC features between releases (like with The River and Short Cuts) it has been assumed they are unable to obtain the rights to them again.
Still, despite these losses, I felt this edition was even better than the previous one. It’s not an easy film, and it’s not hard to be immediately repulsed by it. But I thought the supplements offered a fair and well-rounded examination of the film, and all of them are well worth the effort to go through. 10/10