Helmer Sam Peckinpah once described his unsettling thriller “Straw Dogs” as “the story of a bad marriage,” which is a bit like explaining his ground-breaking 1969 western “The Wild Bunch” as the saga of a strained friendship. Deliberately provocative and astonishingly multi-layered, pic that prompted critic Pauline Kael to refer to its maker as “fascist” reps a pivotal step in the evolution of onscreen violence and ranks as one of the most misunderstood and undervalued works of the 1970s.
Having flopped with “The Ballad of C able Hogue” after 1969’s sensation “The Wild Bunch,” Peckinpah worked with scripter David Zelag Goodman (“Lovers and Other Strangers”) to bring an obscure novel to the bigscreen. It is the tale of a shy yet seething American mathematician (a startlingly young Dustin Hoffman) who returns to Cornwall with his alluring, native-born wife (Susan George), only to fight off hostile locals invading his remote farmhouse as his ill-fitting marriage crumbles around him. The violent, climactic slaughter and the infamous, masterfully ambiguous rape scene at pic’s halfway point (which was trimmed for American theatrical release but was subsequently restored on homevid) prompted no end of debate and misunderstanding in 1971. Seen today, these sequences and the pic as a whole benefit enormously from George’s visceral, multileveled perf and Peckinpah’s shrewd staging and editing.
The new Criterion Collection pressing sports a second disc stuffed with vintage and newly shot bonus material that places the controversy in the context of its time. Commentary track by Virginia Tech film prof Stephen Prince (author of 1995 tome “Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies”) is scholarly yet illuminating-revealing, among other nuggets, that thesp David Warner isn’t listed in the credits because a fresh leg injury rendered him uninsurable.
Criterion’s monoraul version (which replaces Anchor Bay’s 1999 DVD and VHS restoration) is visually rich and aurally crisp, showcasing John Coquillon’s atmospheric lensing and Jerry Fielding’s haunting, mournful score. For the multiregion-capable completist, there’s also a British 2 two-disc set — “Dogs” was banned in Blighty for 30 years — featuring a pair of commentary tracks with different participants, an outtake, script excerpts and other extras.