The first thing that you see in Joseph Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970) is the big black helicopter. It lingers in the sky like a giant buzzing insect or an angry bird of prey. For the next two hours, it will pursue the film’s two protagonists (Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell) in a relentless game of cat and mouse over various terrains of uncompromising beauty. You will never find out who is pursuing them. You will not discover what they are running from. You will never know when these events took place or where. And last but not least, you will never know why they happen. If clarity and conventional storytelling techniques are something you demand from cinema you’ll find FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE a frustrating viewing experience. But if you relish unexpected pleasures and are willing to embrace ambiguity the film might capture your imagination as forcefully as it does mine.
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was my introduction to Joseph Losey. A mistake I made while trying to operate my family’s first VCR led me to accidentally record the film while it was playing on late-night television in the 1980s. I knew absolutely nothing about the movie but I was persuaded to watch it when I saw Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw’s names in the opening credits. I was familiar with their work and fond of them both so I stayed glued to my television as FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE unfurled before me.
The film is an unusual combination of prison break dramas like THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) and PAPILLON (1973) mixed with adventurous pursuits such as THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and THE NAKED PREY (1966). These types of films absolutely enthralled me when I was growing up. Like a lot of kids I often felt prosecuted by the adults in my life as well as my peers and I was eager to escape the small town where I was living. My own desire for adventure made these films seem particularly powerful but over the years they’ve lost none of their appeal. Today films like THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) speak to an entire generation and I can appreciate its allure. In retrospect, FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was my HUNGER GAMES.
The film follows a middle-aged man named MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) and his youthful companion Ansell (Malcolm McDowell) through rocky terrains, over tree-lined hills and up snow-covered mountains as they run from that big black helicopter in the sky. We know they’ve escaped from some prison, detention center or penal colony because their hands are tied behind their backs and they’ll remain that way for the film’s first 25 minutes. Their limited conversation consists of brief stories, anecdotes and shared barbs aimed at one another. MacConnachie is obviously familiar with outdoor survival, unafraid of conflict and enjoys discussing his wife and daughters. But he seems to represent the past. His life is behind him and he bemoans the modern world. He’s bothered by Ansell’s lack of physical strength and inability to fend for himself. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ansell whose life seems to stretch out before him. MacConnachie’s brute strength and macho posturing repel him. Ansell openly expresses mental anguish whenever they’re forced to kill for their survival. He also enjoys reminiscing about his numerous romantic conquests and when Ansell boasts of his sexual freedom, MacConnachie responds with a disgusted growl; “They should have never invented that bloody pill!”
This kind of symbolic culture clash was typical of 1960s cinema but in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE it takes on new meaning as these two lonely figures try to find shared shelter together in an unaccommodating world. Both men are desperate and bound together by their nameless, faceless pursuers and a desire for freedom but what that means to them both is never made clear. In the end we’re left wondering if freedom is ever a possibility for them or us.
Both Shaw and McDowell are talented actors and they’re at their best here, playing two opposing forces that must find common ground and work together in an attempt to escape their tormentors. Rumor has it that Shaw and McDowell didn’t get along very well during filming but that’s to the audience’s advantage. There’s an uncomfortable tension in their back and forth exchanges that adds to the film’s intriguing premise and lends their budding friendship some weight. Besides the rich and rewarding performances of the film’s two stars, one of the movie’s most notable qualities is the unforgettable score by composer Richard Rodney Bennett (BILLY LIAR, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, THE NANNY, EQUUS, etc.). The discordant soundscapes weave in and out of each frame and reverberate in your skull long after the closing credits roll.
The Kafkaesque twists and turns, threadbare plot and dystopian world depicted in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE is at odds with the film’s spectacular natural beauty. Instead of being repelled by what we see we’re drawn to it, intrigued by the film’s mysteries and in awe of its lush scenery. David Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, EASTERN PROMISES, etc.) worked on the film but Losey credited most of the photography to the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Henri Alekan (ROMAN HOLIDAY, MAYERLING, WINGS OF DESIRE, etc.). Their camerawork is extraordinary here and elevated by Losey’s skilled direction. Action films were not Losey’s forte but you wouldn’t know that from watching FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. He handles the dangerous helicopter chase scenes, gunfights and explosions like an old pro, which makes me wish he had explored similar territory more often.
Helicopters made notable appearances in some of Losey’s other films such as THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963) and MODESTY BLAISE (1966) so they must have fascinated the director. In FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE the helicopter becomes its own character. Its godlike presence is constantly threatening even when it’s unseen and unheard. Black helicopters are obviously associated with the military and often suggest political unrest or top-secret operations. But fans of THE PRISONER (1967-1968) series starring Patrick McGoohan might be reminded of the perplexing Rover, a large white floating ball that would corral the citizens of The Village and make sure they didn’t escape.
FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE is often considered one of Losey’s lesser films but I think it’s one of his most challenging, involving and rewarding pictures. Like many of the director’s films, this one was developed from a creative partnership between Losey and the film’s star. And this time that star is Robert Shaw.Shaw’s script was originally based on Barry England’s novel of the same name, which was a powerful allegory for the Vietnam War that focused on two POWs being pursued by an opposing military force. Losey and Shaw were longtime friends and eager to work together but they disliked the book’s original treatment and overt violence. Shaw suggested that he would re-write it and Losey agreed to work with him on the project. Together they managed to transform what could have become a rather ordinary escape thriller into a powerful statement about the very nature of freedom and persecution, which Losey was all too familiar with.
In the 1950s the American born director fled the US after his name was mentioned during the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. Although Losey was never officially blacklisted, he had trouble getting films made in the US and decided to pursue work in England until his death in 1984. Like the tormented characters in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE who vainly search for freedom, Losey didn’t exactly find life easy after leaving America. Many of the problems he experienced in Hollywood during the McCarthy-Era continued to plague him overseas. Losey’s name was removed from projects he worked on and some actors refused to work with him. This kind of persecution was a constant threat to his livelihood and creative impulses. Losey’s confronted these experiences in many of his best films including FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE, which is a wonderful example of his creative prowess.
– Conversations with Losey by Michael Ciment
– Joseph Losey by Colin Gardner
by Kimberly Lindbergs, written for Turner Classic Movies and originally published in 2012