The Day of the Locust is a gentle film, at least in terms of Schlesinger’s direction, Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography and John Barry’s score. The film’s softly lit but with a whole lot of focus. Schlesinger wants to make sure the audience gets to see every part of the actors’ performances. He also wants the actors to exist in this dreamland. It’s Hollywood in the thirties, it’s supposed to be a dreamland. Except everything is a threat, possible danger is everywhere. Only Schlesinger doesn’t break that gentle direction until the third act, so he has to figure out how to suggest that danger as gently as possible.
Luckily, he’s got great actors, he’s got Hall, he’s got Barry, he’s got editor Jim Clark who does an unbelievable job cutting the film. Day of the Locust is a film about terrorized people who don’t realize they’re terrorized until its way too late.
The film opens with William Atherton moving into a not great apartment complex and getting a job in the art department at Paramount. He’s got a rather attractive neighbor, Karen Black, who works as an extra. Black lives with her father, played by Burgess Meredith. The first twenty or so minutes of the film beautifully establishes the grandeur of thirties Hollywood through Atherton’s perspective. Once Meredith shows up, however, the film becomes more and more Black’s.
Eventually, as Atherton’s attempts to woo Black go unsuccessful, Donald Sutherland shows up. He’s not in L.A. for the showbiz. He’s an accountant and a delicate person, something Sutherland essays beautifully. The thing about the acting in Locust is all of its great, it’s just great in completely different ways. Atherton’s story arc, for example, eventually becomes entirely subtext. A long take on him here, a cut to his reaction somewhere else. His character development becomes background, even though he’s somehow always the protagonist.
Sutherland falls for Black too. Just like Bo Hopkins does. Just like Richard Dysart does. Black doesn’t convey malice or even indifference to her suitors, she just doesn’t return their affections. Waldo Salt’s script is extremely complicated in how it deals with Black’s character. She’s never kind, but occasionally gentle. She’s rarely mean when sober, but when drunk she’s vicious. Her character, just like most of them in Locust, is inevitably tragic.
The Day of the Locust‘s characters’ tragedies stem from their unawareness. They’re victims, whether they know it or not. And they only way to succeed is to victimize someone else, which can even be a mutually beneficial arrangement. It’s a rather depressing film. Of course, Atherton’s protagonist is never looking for happiness so much as he is for beauty.
Black’s performance makes the film. Sutherland’s great, Meredith’s great, Atherton’s excellent in a slimmer role than the others, but it’s Black who makes The Day of the Locust so devastating. At least until the final devastation, where Schlesinger and Salt shatter the already shattered dream. For all Schlesinger’s excellent fine, gentle filmmaking, when he unleashes at the end of Locust, it’s even better. And editor Clark ably handles it all.
The Day of the Locust is exceptional.