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To describe Sydney Pollack’s film of Horace McCoy’s novel The Shoot Horses, Don’t They? as a clammily convincing portrayal of a Depression-era dance marathon suggests both its achievements and limits. Exhausting and relentless as the marathon itself, it is almost too successful in making us feel the hopelessness of the characters and the era, as if the filmmakers want to emphasize that the “Depression” was as much a psychological as an economic state.

In a famous performance, Jane Fonda stars as Gloria, a bitter participant in the marathon who has nothing good to say about anything. Her partner on the dance floor, Robert (Michael Sarazin), is an innocent Joe Average who gets paired with her by a fluke. Gig Young is Rocky, the MC who keeps the show rolling, while a supporting cast including Bruce Dern, Red Buttons and Susannah York, struggles to remain vertical for 1200 hours plus. All are competing for the not overly generous prize of $1500 which, in fact, is a bit of a cheat since winners will have the expenses of maintaining them during the competition deducted from the prize money. That all of the characters recognize the futility of their efforts and how few alternatives they have deepens the gloom.

There are several strong characterizations, particularly Young’s combination of cynicism, showmanship and occasional, quiet sympathy. Fonda’s fiercely angry Gloria deserves its reputation as one of her greatest performances, but taut and incisive as she is, her very skill exposes the contradiction in McCoy’s schema. Gloria expects nothing from life better than the scraps left behind by others. She alienates everyone and even Robert tolerates her only because of his basic decency. Her incendiary disgust nonetheless burns with a white heat that keeps her going while everyone else caves in exhaustion.

As the title warns us, Gloria’s despondency eventually reaches the point where she begs Robert to shoot her. (Flashes forward to him in jail prime us to expect the worst.) That horrific moment is handled well, but with all the coiled grit Gloria has demonstrated, her final disintegration just does not ring true, particularly compared to some of the other characters’ fates. For example, York’s aspiring actress Alice’s breakdown, or Red Buttons’s death by heart attack are much more affecting. 

The milieu is so convincing that Gloria’s collapse seems less tragic than the only ending that doesn’t seem to pander to escapist fantasy. In a late moment, Rocky suggests to Gloria and Robert that they get married as part of the show, hinting that the filmmakers are aware how easily they could cop out. Rocky says that’s what the marathon audience wants, and maybe we do too. For better or worse, Pollack and company literally stick to their guns, so it is therefore all the more bitterly ironic that the story’s deterministic murder/suicide feels at least as contrived as the rosiest happy ending.