THE DAY OF THE LOCUST earns ample respect for the beautifully crafted parts that make up the dark-souled vessel, with gutsy performances, a lavish production design and some memorable set-pieces. As pure entertainment it’s a challenge of continually rough, dispiriting, often ugly going. That was as intended by director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt in their 1975 adaptation of misanthrope Nathanael West’s scathing 1939 novel.
Sun-dappled Hollywood, California, the late 1930s. Talented artist ‘Tod Hackett’ (William Atherton)plods away as an underling in a movie studio, when he gets a chance to move up in the Art Direction department, working on a prestige epic about Waterloo. His low-rent bungalow cronies and fellow hopefuls include desperate, untalented wanna-be ‘Faye Greener’ (Karen Black), her sleazy has-been-vaudevillian father (Burgess Meredith) and assorted hangers-on, losers and creeps. Then there is an industry outsider, the kindly, repressed, very strange accountant ‘Homer Simpson’ (Donald Sutherland). The lust v. luster collision of their varied selfish but interlocking pipe dreams with the harsh bottom-line reality of show biz makes for apocalyptic reckoning.
“Oh, Lord, forgive me for harboring such unworthy thoughts, but sometimes I wish I could tear it all down!”
West’s baleful take on Hollywood, California, America, people in general, was to parade grotesque characters, grasping, needy and pathetic, with just one (Simpson, played to gawk-perfection by a sympathetic Sutherland) displaying redeeming qualities (which don’t help him). Over 144 minutes, the cruelty, avarice and all-round distaste steadily accumulate to a fiery whopper finale signifying the eventual destruction (heavy implication is it’s deserved) of the mocked-up movie capital, the fools gold of the Golden State and the underlying lie of the whole country and capitalism. Bring the kids! *
Though the one-sided acid-bath tone hurts, the multi-layered delivery is first-rate. Good as she was in Five Easy Pieces and The Great Gatsby, Black’s full-on portrait of the vacant, vicious vixen Faye was her career high point. Meredith’s gleefully unsavory has-been is a blast of high-octane energy so intense he looks like he—the actor, not the character—will have a stroke on camera: it won him a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the Supporting category. Other excellent work comes from Richard A. Dysart as a blithely cold-hearted studio big shot, Geraldine Page in a cameo as a snake-oil revivalist preacher, Billy Barty as a coarse bookie who loves cockfights (watching him blow blood off a chicken beak is not something you see every day). 13-year-old Jackie Earle Haley goes drag, playing the hateful child star emulator ‘Adore Loomis”.
Budgeted at $4,040,000, the tally eventually came to $7,000,000, which riled Paramount execs. The studio was in a 30s retro-mode, unveiling Chinatown, The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon, with this gothic slam on the excesses of tinsel town and its warping of reality making for a hard sell to a public that usually went to movies to escape. It’s often cited as a flop, coming in 44th for the year, yet sources still show it grossing a healthy $17,793,000. Like the book, ignored on release and now lionized, the film’s reputation continues to grow. Speaking of festering mob mentality, there are 850 extras crushing each other in that insane riot sequence that is the hallucinatory climax. It’s superbly handled, as is the frighteningly-staged collapsing of the sets during filming of the Waterloo scene—a bravura piece of direction (production destruction).
Playing against the human misery is the superb cinematography by Conrad Hall, which drew the pictures other Oscar nomination. The camerman employed nets and silks in diffused lighting, the amber palette suggesting the lulling fantasy aspect of Hollywood and that ever-seductive California ambiance. Hall: “We wanted to produce as much glamour as possible in a non-glamorous situation with non-glamorous people who were doing non-glamorous things—people who were walking around in bathrobes, while all over the place there were pictures of movie stars”…with the focus on “the losers of Hollywood, the people who, like moths, are throwing themselves against the flame of fortune and beauty and romance.”
With John Hillerman, Bo Hopkins, Pepe Serna, Lelia Goldoni, Natalie Schafer (as a madam), Nita Talbot, William Castle, Paul Jabara. Music by John Barry.
* What would Movie Lore be without trivia? Though she kept working—170 of her 202 credits came after this one—Karen Black claimed her career was ruined by the film. 36 at the time, she also featured that flush 1975 in Nashville and the classic final segment of Trilogy Of Terror.
Screenwriter Waldo Salt was a contemporary and friend of Nathanael West. West’s lacerating 238-page novel sold but 1,480 copies when it was first published. He died before acknowledgement came due (now a sort of canonization), crashing his car on Dec.22, 1940, killing himself and his bride. His close friend F. Scott Fitzgerald had died the day before. West was 37.
And— all the effort that went into researching the right look with costumes, props and sets—the movie premiere disaster at the climax–The Buccaneer—well, someone forgot to check–or didn’t care (contempt for audience- as well as accuracy)—was not about Waterloo and it came out in ’38, not ’39. “Hooray for wah-wuh-wah…..”