Sandwiched between the notoriety of Boom! and Secret Ceremony on one side and the critical success of The Go-Between on the other, Figures in a Landscape is not one of director Joseph Losey’s better known films, which is a pity. An often striking effort, Figures is both a violent action film and a chilling allegory. While not entirely free of pretense, its charged energy is channeled and refracted through a forbidding, distant view of events that makes it linger in the memory.
MacConnachie (Robert Shaw, who also wrote the screenplay), and Ansell (Malcolm McDowell) are two convicts on the run. Why they are prisoners, or what they are escaping is never explained and ultimately irrelevant. Although ill-matched, they bond when they recognize their real antagonist is the pilot of a helicopter chasing them across the landscape in a sadistic game of cat and mouse. We never see the pilot fully. He is obviously meant as a symbol of a literally faceless, impersonal oppression.
The film’s virtues nonetheless lie in execution, not abstraction. The title gives a good sense of what to expect. The few humanizing traits given to MacConnachie and Ansell feel like half-hearted attempts to make them sympathetic. The film is at its most expressive when they are photographed from a distance, dwarfed by the hills and valleys through which they flee. The landscapes are handsome, but mute, indifferent witnesses to the plentiful violent action. Anyone who associates Losey with slow crawls through cluttered decor will be surprised by the snap of his work here, but the landscapes are used just as distinctively as his most baroque interiors to dominate the characters with their looming presence.
In fact, in some ways, the most striking “character” is the helicopter. The early scenes make you hold your breath as it flies so closely to Shaw you recognize the slightest slip could be catastrophic. (The scenes were not faked, so the danger is very real.) They are nonetheless not as unnerving as shots taken from a distance, as the helicopter hovers over the convicts, posed against the sun, clouds and smoke billowing around it. Black and foreboding, it waits like a giant dragonfly, an ambiguously sinister evocation of barely contained threat.
It’s the most haunting image among many, but while the film’s tense mood is underlined by Richard Rodney Bennett’s atonal score, the story doesn’t quite convince as an allegory of victimization and oppression. The action in Figures is executed too well to serve simply as a prop in a diagram. The characters are not deep, but they have enough pep to make their roles as passive victims tough to accept. There is genuine suspense in their will to escape that works against the allegorical intentions and we root for their success despite the pair’s violence. Their failure provides a downbeat ending in keeping with the allegorical pretensions, but it feels rigged and unsatisfying. What gets you there is still memorable, however.