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While just about nothing in it works, there is too much good in John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s novel The Day of the Locust to dismiss it out of hand. Made by several of the people responsible for Midnight Cowboy, it strives for a similarly distorted view of the American underbelly, but for all the talent and ambition, it never gels as more than a collection of lumpy, hysterical fragments.

At least one of the film’s major flaws lies in the choice of subject. To make sense, the film has to be seen as the perspective of Tod Hackett (William Atherton), a young staff artist at a movie studio who, between his job and bouts of frustrated lust for his neighbor Faye Greener (Karen Black), works on a mural built up from his sketches of the grotesque figures he sees on the streets of LA. Tod’s painting is obviously West’s novel, but while detached observers like Tod can work in print, they present problems for movies.

Tod is not in the action much of the time, and when he is, he does little but sweat heavily and get drunk. Perhaps in an exaggerated effort to overcome his indirect involvement, much of the action is heightened to the point of nightmare. 1930s Hollywood becomes a Weimar on the Pacific as emphasis shifts to Faye and secondary characters, particularly Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland). A tortured, inarticulate accountant who disastrously falls for Faye, Homer ends up being the critical character when he initiates the film’s infamous apocalyptic movie premiere riot. 

The sequence is infamous mainly because Schlesinger resorts to explicit Expressionism, turning the riot into something like Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” as masked members of the crowd glower at the camera. Until that transformation (which, if misguided, is easy enough to understand as Tod’s projection), the riot is frighteningly convincing and as such encapsulates the film’s unsteady wavering between an artist’s grotesque vision and strained, quasi-realism. Perhaps appropriately given Tod’s profession, the film’s most consistent achievements are visual as Schlesinger, cinematographer Conrad Hall and production designer Richard Macdonald render pre-war LA as a sleepy, sunny mixture of childish indulgence and thorough-going corruption.

Faye is that mix made flesh, but Black is tough to accept as the cause of so much tumescence. Twitching awkwardly through a catalog of dislocated, annoying mannerisms, she is more self-conscious tease than unconscious innocent. Atherton tries his best with his thankless part, but has little to do besides stew in his own juice. And while it is tempting to describe Sutherland’s performance as hopeless, it is hard to imagine any actor of his generation playing Homer—repression was not fashionable in ’70s cinema.

That is the key. Locust’s combination of stylization, raw realism, seamy material and thematic ambition staged on a big scale could have happened only in the 1970s. For better or worse, the results are wildly uneven, but distinctive.