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“An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered

…it’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge.

- Franz Kafka

If we were to make a list of films by established directors that do not seek to engage the audience by means of noble or even acceptable sentiments, films that use grotesque imagery and situations, tend to abrasive and violent scenes, deal in paradox and extreme satire, and evince a philosophical concern with evil, the list would not be long. Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), and John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975) are three well known films that fit this description, but they are so different from one another that we cannot characterize them as belonging to any particular school of thought or tradition. All we can say is that none of these films gives us an easy, or easily classifiable, viewing experience, yet each has proven to be of lasting interest. Schlesinger’s film—my subject here—is taught in film schools today.

The following pages attempt to do justice to the vexing moral demands Locust makes on the viewer. Up to the present, the most common approach to the film has been to point out where it fails to please the audience, rather than to consider that audience pleasure is precisely what Schlesinger has in mind to expose—which is to say, deconstruct. Locust continually confronts the viewer with images that are both grotesque and elegant and with characters that are as abhorrent as they are touching. It is not a conventionally “viewer-friendly” film, any more than the work of fiction upon which it is based—Nathanial West’s acclaimed novel of 1933—is a conventionally “reader-friendly” novel. Schlesinger read the novel in 1967, two years before coming to Los Angeles for work on Midnight Cowboy, and greatly admired the writing. Then, after moving to Hollywood himself, he was struck by the enduring truth of West’s vision. He devoted six years to bringing the film to the screen and did not expect it to appeal to audiences. “I knew it was going to be controversial, but I was very proud of it—and still am, incidentally,” he said in an interview in 1978, “I felt that we had…[an] extraordinary film which by no means was going to be popular” (Riley 113). What makes Locust “extraordinary” is that it scrutinizes the phenomenon of spectatorship and the destructive impact of the Hollywood movie industry (stardom, fandom, glamour) without undercutting the medium of film. Schlesinger embraced an acid, multi-perspectival modernist aesthetic to accomplish this feat, and the result is a film that is at once dazzling to look at and disturbing to contemplate. So unsettling an experience for the viewer was bound to make the film unpopular, as Schlesinger predicted, and he had no regrets.

Set in the golden days of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust tells the stories not  of the stars and successes of the movie industry, but of the ordinary people living in and around L.A. whose desires are never satisfied: Faye Greener (Karen Black), a movie extra and part-time call girl; her father Harry (Burgess Meredith), an aging vaudevillian who now makes a minimal living as a door-to-door salesman; and Homer Simpson (Donald Sutherland), a drab accountant who has retired to Hollywood and is in love with Faye. The main viewpoint of the film is that of Tod Hackett (William Atherton), an aspiring artist employed by the art department of a major studio who is also taken with Faye. While developing the different and highly intricate relationships among these characters and among the dubious and sometimes grotesque individuals with whom they have dealings, the film tracks the story of a monumental Hollywood production of “The Battle of Waterloo” and concludes with the premiere of a Cecil B. DeMille film of 1938.  As crowds gather at the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater to watch the stars arrive, Homer is viciously taunted by a child named Adore (Jackie Earle Haley), who has been provoking and deriding him for months. As though under a spell, he brutally tramples the child to death, a riot ensues, and he himself is carried away and presumably torn to pieces by the mob. Although, in the novel, Tod is driven from the scene in a police car as he insanely imitates the sound of the siren, in the film he is last seen in the midst of the debacle injured but aware. During the riot, the surreal vision of L.A. that Tod had been developing in a painting, The Burning of Los Angeles, attains its fulfillment in his imagination. Ghostly figures flash across the screen as images of pandemonium follow one upon the other. With the world careening toward war (as numerous references in the scene suggest), the film’s apocalyptic vision is tied to a specific moment in history. The vicious child whom Homer silences functions as a synecdoche—a sign of evil intention in the culture as a whole. We do not learn what happens to Tod after the riot, but in a brief epilogue Faye returns to his apartment and gazes silently upon its empty spaces.

Faithful to the ambition of West’s novel, Locust targets the American dream as conceived by Hollywood, its primary distributor since the first half of the twentieth century. It shows how the Hollywood definition of the happy, successful, or good life, can destroy the lives of those who embrace it. In this respect, Locust has in common with Schlesinger’s best films a driving interest to examine the all-too-human need to fantasize, to imagine something different from what we have or experience, and to do so in the context of a given time and place, be it Northern England in the early sixties (Billy Liar, 1963), Texas and New York in the late sixties (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), or Hollywood in the 1930s. But Locust takes this examination much further than the earlier films, both of which had already identified popular film as a primary stimulus of fantasy in the minds of the main characters. By means of its dissonant visual style, the use of films-within-the-film, and persistent allusions to earlier art forms and to Tod’s wall painting, all of which I will discuss in these pages, it examines the dream factory itself. Unlike Billy Liar, which had treated Billy’s cinematic fantasies playfully, or Midnight Cowboy, which had allowed Joe Buck to finally outgrow his disastrous identification with the heroes of Westerns, Locust aggressively turns the classic Hollywood film back on itself, calling into question the conventions upon which the genre depended.

Schlesinger opened himself to a good deal of criticism when he chose to do this.1 “How can Schlesinger shit where he eats?” the director Sidney Lumet was reported to have asked (though he later apologized) (Mann 416). The view of America in Midnight Cowboy, with its abject poverty, social fragmentation and decadence, had been hard enough for some critics to swallow, but to satirize America’s dream factory was to undermine the psychology by which popular national consciousness was daily being shaped. A huge amount of money was at stake in preserving this psychology, as Lumet’s question makes clear. If directors were making big money in Hollywood, why criticize it?

As Lumet surely knew, there is nothing unusual in an artist using a genre to critique it. Shakespeare’s love sonnet 130, which famously parodies the idealizations of the Petrarchan love sonnet, is only one example taken from a genre with conventions sufficiently well established to invite strong satire. Art forms with much shorter histories than poetry, like film, offer many examples of critical and self-reflexive interrogation. In the classic silent film Sherlock Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton plays a humble projectionist who dreams of entering the movie he is showing. Four years later, Robert Florey’s satiric avant-garde film, The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra appeared to critical acclaim. Every decade of film history produces comparable exercises in self-consciousness. Despite the fact the 1970s saw a resurgence of traditional modes of expression such as Rocky (which was released in 1976, the year of the country’s celebratory bicentennial)—several films of the decade by Hollywood directors “challenged the return to normalcy by actively (and self-reflexively) interrogating the content and form of the Hollywood genre picture,” writes Frank P. Tomasulo (159).  Tomasulo gives as examples Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Arthur Penn’s Missouri Breaks, and Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon, the latter being relevant to Locust, as will be shown, in that it too focuses on the 1930s movie industry in order to comment on the nature of moviemaking. None of these films satirizes the experience of the spectator as severely as Schlesinger’s film, and none offended critics and audiences to the degree Locust did.

The seventies also witnessed the appearance of theoretical critiques of the classic Hollywood film relating to the idea of spectatorship that would become highly influential. For example, Laura Mulvey’s widely cited “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” appeared the same year as Locust, making the intentionally provocative argument that the cinematic apparatus of the classic Hollywood film inevitably places the spectator in the male subject position whereby the woman on screen becomes the object of the male gaze. Of the various challenges to Mulvey’s generalizations, including her own later essay “Afterthoughts,” one of the most important is Gaylyn Studlar’s In the Realm of Pleasure (1993), which brought together essays Studlar published in the 1980s. Studlar argued that the audience’s visual pleasure came less from the voyeuristic and fetishistic male gaze described by Mulvey than from a passive and masochistic perspective, in which being powerless and overwhelmed by the cinematic image is the true source of the viewer’s pleasure.  In Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1993), Miriam Hanson draws on Mulvey, Studlar, and a wide range of other critics and theorists of film in her development of a historical analysis of early film, arguing that the emergence of cinema spectatorship from the 1890s to the end of the 1920s “is profoundly intertwined with the transformation of the public sphere” (Hansen 2). To Hansen, the concept of the spectator is essential to understanding Hollywood’s strategies to integrate heterogeneous audiences in a consumer culture.  

Of these differing theories of the audience’s experience of classic film, Studlar’s comes closest to the vision of Hollywood in Locust, but the film is well aware of the problems addressed by all three theorists.  The voyeuristic and fetishistic perspective of Tod is interrupted, satirized, and ultimately shattered in Locust, and one could argue that audience sado-masochism is one of the main subjects of the film, as it is of the novel. In the final uproar at Grauman’s Theater, the fans join together in a public demonstration of violence that alludes to riots in Nazi Germany. Like the fans of Rudolph Valentino that Hansen writes about, the mob in Locust quite literally forms an alternative public sphere to express their desires, albeit it one that is far from embracing the “redemptive possibilities” of cinema’s role that Hansen emphasizes (Hansen 19). Mulvey, Studlar, and Hansen are all writing decades after the parameters of the classic Hollywood film had been established, and their aim is to describe and analyze its naturalistic conventions, psychologically, historically, and politically. Schlesinger is looking back too, but from within the creative center of the genre itself, which means he is also looking forward.2 His more visceral understanding of Hollywood film takes the form of satire.

Satire comes in many flavors and may appear in any art—a cartoon, for example. West’s use of grotesque situations and characters, his tendency to scenes of depravity and disorder, and his deep pessimism establish the novel as a work of Juvenalian satire. In The Cankered Muse, Alvin Kernan’s influential work on the subject, Kernan cites Tod’s painting as the paradigmatic “satiric scene,” which is always a place where vice, stupidity, and disorder reign, making shambles of all decency and civilized life, whether in Juvenal’s Rome, Ben Jonson’s London, or West’s LA (Kernan 9). Schlesinger’s own satiric impulses are evident from Billy Liar forward, and in his adaptation of West’s novel he does as much justice to the abrasive, disintegrative force of satire as to the realism of the novel’s situations and characters.3 

A surprising number of reviewers and critics have missed the satiric aspect of Locust. In their complaints that the film did not satisfy their desire for a more unified and balanced approach to its subject, they are not only overlooking the modernist aesthetic of the film (to which I will return later); they are overlooking the nature of satire. When Pauline Kael complains that Locust “disintegrates at the very point where it needs to fuse” (Darned 110), she is only pointing to the film’s strengths as a satire. The technique of satire is “the technique of disintegration” and the “riotous chaos” embraced by the greatest of satirists is characteristic of satire at its best, insists Northrop Frye in his classic work on literary archetypes, Anatomy of Criticism.  “When we have finished with their weirdly logical fantasies of debauch, dream, and delirium we wake up wondering if Paracelsus’ suggestion is right that things seen in delirium are really there, like stars in daytime, and invisible for the same reason” (Frye 234-35).  It would be difficult to find a better description of what it feels like to watch the epilogue of Locust—do we wake or sleep? When Faye enters Tod’s apartment, the ethereal lighting gives her the effect of an apparition.

Cinematic Satire

Not surprisingly, Schlesinger’s tendency to satire was viewed with distaste throughout his career.4 Beginning with Pauline Kael’s initial dismissal of Midnight Cowboy’s satire as “offensively inhumane” (Kael, Review 127), we can track a set of complaints against Schlesinger’s so-called tendency to satiric “exaggeration” through Leo Braudy’s influential book of 1976, The World in a Frame (reissued in 2002), to Joanna E. Rapf’s “’Human Need’ in The Day of the Locust: Problems of Adaptation,” published in LFQ in 1981. Just as Braudy built on Kael, Rapf built on Braudy in her concluding judgment when she writes that the film “allows satire to overshadow compassion” so that “human feeling…is lost” (29-30). And, despite appreciative readings of Schlesinger arising from Gay Studies and Queer Theory published over the last twenty years,5 general evaluations of his career in influential dictionaries like that of David Thomson have followed suit. In the sixth edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2014), Thomson’s description of Schlesinger’s adaptation of West’s novel as “shrill” harks back to Kael’s critique of the director’s stridency (934).6

Rapf’s criticism of Locust is especially relevant here because in offering an extended close analysis of the film it most clearly exhibits the fundamental misconception informing this line of thought in Schlesinger criticism.7 For if, in viewing a satire, we do not feel that “human feeling” is entirely suspect, if the satire does not undermine conventional ideas of compassion, it cannot be doing its work. The most famous satire in the English language, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” is an unsentimental attack on the banality of philanthropic compassion. Human feeling is not “lost” in reading Swift’s proposal, which pretends to argue in favor of Irish children being sold as food to stimulate the economy. Human feeling is defiled.  If, when we come away from reading or viewing a satire, we don’t feel to some degree humbled, the satire has failed.

The question that does not seem to have occurred to critics of Schlesinger is whether a thinking director, especially one with strong literary roots, might not have had good reasons for wanting to use satire to chill the viewer’s emotions, and in the case of Locust above all. Film is a famously “hot” medium, as Marshall McLuhan put it; its power lies in its ability to draw the viewer close, transfixing us with its twenty-four frames per second. But what if the director’s aim is to distance the movie-goer from the fantasies that have arisen from film itself, and not only from the Hollywood dream factory of the thirties but from the glamorous view of life that so many star-studded films after all promote, however serious their claim to moral or political realism appears to be? To waken us from those dreams and to purge the emotions that cling to them, even while relying on the film medium to stimulate our senses? Under these conditions the director might choose to set the miserable, gritty lives of the characters against the visual elegance of the film. In fact, both cinematographer Conrad Hall and Schlesinger consciously intended this effect, and it’s one reason the film is unsettling to watch. In an interview in 1975, Hall said that his aim was to recreate the golden world the characters themselves so desperately desired, to capture “what they were after as a style, rather than what they were actually about.”  The film’s visual aesthetic reflects the “starry-eyed view of the way things ought to be” while the banal or ugly reality of their lives is depicted in the performances. “We wanted to produce as much glamor as possible in a non-glamorous situation with non-glamorous people who were doing non-glamorous things—people who were walking around in bathrobes, while all over the place there were pictures of movie stars” (Hall, Photographing 656) Locust focuses on “the losers of Hollywood,” Hall emphasized, “the people who, like moths, are throwing themselves against the flame of fortune and beauty and romance” (Hall, Photographing 655-656).

The fantasies of success generated by Hollywood in particular are shown to   be lethal—far more so than the daydreaming of Billy Liar or the macho illusions of Joe Buck—because they entail lifelong, time-wasting efforts that for most people end in nothing; ”maybe only ten percent make it and the other ninety percent try,” Hall observed. Often recurring to the image of the flame, Hall goes on to suggest that the “elusive dream of making it and being on top is the same story as the moth being drawn to the flame. The flame and its attractiveness is something you’ll never eliminate. Some will learn to live in that environment and others will burn in it” (Hall, Conrad 166-67).  Through contrasting an elegant visual style with realistic performances by actors, Hall and Schlesinger recreated the strange atmosphere of yearning that the Hollywood dream generates. A “sheeny but not glossy” camerawork was the goal, said Schlesinger, whose collaboration with Hall on the film was one of the high points of his career (Mann 407).8 The Stimmung [atmosphere] of Locust, one of its greatest achievements, arises from a kind of “lust of body and soul,” as Lotte Eisner defined the term. Stimmung “hovers around objects as well as people” in the film, creating a vague feeling of longing (Eisner 199).

 Thus, as Hall used nets, silks, diffused lighting, and a golden palette to communicate the fantasy quality of Hollywood and to show how the characters “’thought of themselves, rather than how they really were,’” Schlesinger directed the actors to counterpoint the fantasy (Hall, Photographing 656). The viewer is constantly challenged to question what he or she is seeing, beginning with the opening sequence of a grand Hollywood set filled with extras, many in glamorous, romantic costumes of the Napoleonic era designed by Ann Roth, each one offset with “something wrong or perverse,” to suggest the duplicity of the Hollywood dream (Gussow, qtd. in Brooker 106).  In an extended tracking shot reminiscent of Max Ophuls, the camera ranges over a vast, incongruous array of performers. Faye appears in a gorgeously lit silk evening gown, crudely chomping a piece of bubble gum and blowing bubbles with the self-absorption of an adolescent. Impeccably attired soldiers and clergy of Napoleon’s court slouch on the set, waiting for their call. Far more unsettling than the details of this scene is the cockfight featured later in the film, in the course of which a dwarf tenderly licks his rooster’s bloody beak before throwing it back into the ring to be killed, all of this taking place in a visually lavish scene intercut with images of Faye dressing—a feast of color, texture, and composition that is further elaborated in the party scene to follow. “There is nothing sane about the worship of beauty,” wrote Oscar Wilde(393). 

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
An extra on the set of the film-within-the-film, "Waterloo"

The films-within-the-film together represent three main stages in film production: the shoot (“The Battle of Waterloo”), the finished project (a silent

film9, newsreel, and stag film), and the public premiere (the opening of “The Buccaneers” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater). The studio production of an epic battle of the early nineteenth century suggests not an engagement with the past (as in Tod’s thoughtful examination of art prints and Homer’s trunk of photos, for example), but the superficial reenactment of a military event in period costume. In a similar vein, the stag film, shown at the mansion of a madam (in actuality, the former home of Gypsy Rose Lee), serves as a parody of Hollywood’s habitual manipulation and postponement of gratification, since the film is interrupted just before the climactic scene because of a mechanical failure. Lastly, the Cecil B. DeMille premiere ends in mass violence, with the scene thus overturning the commonplace that Depression-era films provided an innocent diversion from care.

The films-within-the-film together represent three main stages in film production: the shoot (“The Battle of Waterloo”), the finished project (a silent film9, newsreel, and stag film), and the public premiere (the opening of “The Buccaneers” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater). The studio production of an epic battle of the early nineteenth century suggests not an engagement with the past (as in Tod’s thoughtful examination of art prints and Homer’s trunk of photos, for example), but the superficial reenactment of a military event in period costume. In a similar vein, the stag film, shown at the mansion of a madam (in actuality, the former home of Gypsy Rose Lee), serves as a parody of Hollywood’s habitual manipulation and postponement of gratification, since the film is interrupted just before the climactic scene because of a mechanical failure. Lastly, the Cecil B. DeMille premiere ends in mass violence, with the scene thus overturning the commonplace that Depression-era films provided an innocent diversion from care.

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
The set of "Waterloo" as it collapses.

Against these portraits of film as a mind-numbing and potentially destructive form of entertainment, we see Tod’s persistent meditation on past works of art—etchings by Daumier and a reproduction of Goya’s “The Burial of the Sardine”—to inspire him for the painting he is slowly creating on the wall of his apartment. (Near the end of his life, the possessed Goya painted the so-called “Black Paintings” on the walls of his house.) The film’s signature artistic allusion, “The Burial of the Sardine,” features the culminating event of a carnival in Madrid: a mock funeral at which people jest at the expense of Death behind the shelter of their disguise. Schlesinger’s return to the still image of the Goya painting, in particular, counterpoints the commotion of the Waterloo set, which similarly features costumed extras jesting at the expense of their own demise. When the studio set for the film collapses on the extras, turning their simulated violence into a horrifying reality, the parallel with the meaningless deaths of Napoleon’s infantry during his final desperate engagement at Waterloo is made clear. (Superimposing the present on the past, Tod uses Faye and her friend Mary as models for his Waterloo sketches.) If these historic losses can be redeemed, it is only by artists like the artists Tod scours for authentic images, who can communicate their tragic significance, just as the sad, desperate lives of the characters in Locust can only be redeemed—if at all—through Tod’s painting.

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
Tod's bulletin board with his reproduction of the Goya painting.

In a lecture given in Edinburgh ten years after the release of the film, Schlesinger commented on how difficult simply observing life was becoming: “I think a lot of people now…are not so much experiencing what they observe, but using their reference points of what they see on television or what they see in old movies. And they don’t go out and look at life at all it seems to me. I regret the passing of that” (Schlesinger, MacTaggert). Aware of how easy it had become to retreat from the experience of what we observe and reside in fantasy, Schlesinger undertook a highly original, eccentric form of realism in his choice of visual style in   Locust, for the film documents what happens when fantasy becomes sufficiently present to enter into a dialectic with everyday reality. In a scene in Homer’s house, the proud owner brings Faye a breakfast tray that he has carefully arranged to duplicate an image he has seen in a magazine. Faye herself borrows her gestures and expressions from the movies and becomes enraged when her performances are questioned. Her father (Burgess Meredith) habitually mimics emotions he is feeling, and at one point expresses his contempt for his enemies by maliciously drawing on the vaudeville stereotype of the Jewish miser in his bodily gestures. In the scene when Tod joins Faye and Homer at a cabaret featuring a transvestite singer (Paul Jabara), the real and the artificial become interchangeable on more than one level: the female impersonator’s revelation of his gender concludes a performance that itself reincarnates Marlene Dietrich’s rendition of “Hot Voodoo” in Blond Venus (1932). In each of these scenes, Schlesinger creates morally complex characters and emotionally concrete exchanges between them. Harry’s viciously anti-Semitic gesture is preceded by a tender recollection of the wife who cheated him, all of this observed by Tod, who cares for and is appalled by the aging vaudevillian. The viewer cannot dismiss Harry as a caricature anymore than he can dismiss Homer, whose immense brutality is linked to an equally immense need for connection with others.  

Schlesinger’s education—at home in London in a cultivated family, at a traditional boarding school, and at Oxford reading English—exposed him early on to English literary tradition’s engagement with a reality/dream dialectic, from the plot of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to images of dreaming and waking in Keats’s odes, to Samuel Johnson’s dark view of “that hunger of human imagination that preys incessantly on life” (Johnson 2703). Literary tradition no doubt deepened Schlesinger’s critical understanding of the truth of West’s book. When asked about the mixed reception of the film, the director said of the novel that while he considered it “one of the best pieces of writing about Hollywood, it wasn’t popular as a book. It didn’t have an enormous circulation….I think there’s an uncomfortable truth about it, which we succeeded in bringing out” (Buruma 129-30).

Known for his gift for working with actors, Schlesinger was especially adept at bringing out uncomfortable truths in performances. Almost all of the characters in Locust are like guns about to go off. At a gathering in the Hollywood hills, drunk on Tequila, Tod, the most civilized character in the film, tries to rape Faye. Harry Greener brings on a heart attack as he dances frantically up a steep flight of stairs trying to hawk his goods. Faye tries to coerce Homer to make love to her. The film “deals with people who can’t get a piece of what everybody is after or who can’t get close enough to the action to make their lives pay off,” wrote Hall. “This becomes a seething, undulating thing in a crowd that can erupt at the slightest excuse” (Hall, Photographing 731). In the final, visionary scene in Locust, to which Hall alludes, L.A. fully reveals itself as a Baudelairean “swarming city, city full of dreams, where ghosts accost the passers-by in broad daylight!” (Baudelaire 177).   While spectral images sway and move across the screen, the actors “played it absolutely real,” said William Atherton, “[Schlesinger] had us play it as if it was really happening, because you can’t play a figment” (Mann 413).

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
Ghostly figures at a bus stop.

Pawns of their environment, the characters in Locust are at once incidental to all that is going on around them and expressive of their historical uniqueness, as screenwriter Waldo Salt’s use of thirties’ idiom and Ann Roth’s meticulous costumes serve to suggest. Only one character, Homer, inadvertently plays a pivotal role by unintentionally instigating the riot. Up to that point, all of the characters are merely pieces of a larger game, living a script that has been written by someone or something else: by the movie industry itself, perhaps, as it presses forward with its monumental productions and gala premieres. The characters are themselves like extras, waiting to be called. As Schlesinger recognized, the film disappointed audiences because “there was no one in the film that they could root for” and mass audiences tend to need that identification (qtd. in Phillips 106). Although the point of view is most often that of Tod, many scenes in Locust take place in which he is not present.The points of view of Homer, Harry, and Faye are each adopted for extended moments or scenes. (In this respect, the film is reminiscent of Renoir’s Rules of the Game, a film Schlesinger greatly admired.) Locust is multi-perspectival, culminating in a phantasmagoria that belongs as much to Tod as to the city and its inhabitants.10

The Modernist Aesthetic of Locust

Locust is an aesthetic composite in which motif, texture, and color play as large a role as linear narrative. The golden look of the film and the repetition of images of breakage and collapse tell the story of Faye, Homer, and Tod as much as the action. So, too, does the strong motif of staring. The characters in Locust are often seen intently gazing: out of a window onto an empty street, across a fence into another’s yard, through a window into the private lives of others, into traffic from a bench at a bus top, at a screen in a movie theater, at an evangelist preacher in a revival meeting, and at a female impersonator in a nightclub—all of these indirectly reflecting the plain fact that we the audience are staring at the movie screen (a fact which the film itself is conscious of). After all this staring, something must ripen or burst. Of this we feel certain because of the sense of unease generated by prolonged attention to the human gaze, paradoxical as such a reflection is. The main characters in Locust are all waiting for something to happen: success, love, salvation. After these wishes fail to materialize, violence erupts.

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
Homer spies on his own party

In the final scene, when Tod’s imaginative vision gains the ascendancy over character and the riot on Hollywood Boulevard turns surreal and Tod’s Munch-like drawings come to life, the unifying principal of Locust—the painter’s eye—is made clear (Rhodes 37).11 The masks used in the scene “evolved from a need to have something half human and half drawn,” said Schlesinger, and refer back to images the viewer has already seen, like other details in Tod’s vision (Mann 412). The splitting open of the studio door at the beginning of Locust, the cockfight, and the collapse of the Waterloo set all prefigure the final mayhem.12 Locust has the coherence of a modernist poem, as if T.S. Eliot’s Unreal City had come to life on screen.

Schlesinger has made this painterly apocalypse palatable by earlier developing the audience’s critical distance. The satiric elements already mentioned—visual dissonances, films-within-the-film, and repeated returns to Tod’s collection of reproductions of earlier art and to his own art—work together to unsettle the film’s mimetic realism and prepare for the final visionary sequence. Periodically, throughout Locust, Schlesinger returns to images of Tod’s studious, intelligent expression as he concentrates on his work, images that contrast the blank, dumb stares of the characters referred to above. Adopting Tod’s point of view, the viewer envisions the debacle before it happens. When Homer comes to Todd’s apartment to invite him to the cabaret he stands in front of Tod’s wall painting, surrounded by images of mass hysteria. Thus, when Tod himself momentarily loses his reason and grimaces with horror at the end of the film, we the audience experience the full realization of his vision.

Even more than Midnight Cowboy, Locust is full of crippled, alienated, and deranged characters—sinners, madmen, destitutes, liars, and thieves—achieving a consistency of type that also contributes to our sense of a fractured but unified vision. True to the satiric distortions of West’s novel, Schlesinger did not sentimentalize these characters, but, like Stroheim in Greed, a film he much admired, he allows us to see them as the blighted human beings they are. The scene in which Faye tries to dance with the clumsy Homer and place his hand on her breast is not in the novel and is sadder and more disturbing than any scene between the two characters in West’s work. The dwarf, who is introduced at the beginning of the film and reappears throughout as a symbol of deformation, is believably human, as loving of his pet rooster as he is sadistic. I would argue that Schlesinger brought to West’s novel a greater humanity, a humanity it did not possess.13 “I think West regarded his characters with a certain amount of dislike,” said Schlesinger, “I liked the characters. They fascinated me” (Mann 397).  To Schlesinger they were not to be seen only as casualties of the Hollywood dream factory but as “the funny, touching losers and dreamers who live on the fringe of any big city” (qtd. in Phillips 93). From the time Schlesinger first read the book he saw their plight as “completely comprehensible and immensely moving” (95).

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
The dwarf about to lick his rooster during the cockfight scene

Commenting on what it is like to see The Day of the Locust decades after its release, the writer Ian Buruma makes an observation that I suspect will be increasingly true of viewer response over time: “Looking at the film again recently I found the Donald Sutherland character much more moving than I’d remembered” (Buruma, 127).14 Perhaps the suggestion that Hollywood’s habitual depictions of the golden life may be destroying the souls of those who believed in them was too bitter a pill for audiences to swallow in the decade of the country’s bicentennial celebrations.15 Homer is the primary vehicle of this message, and he is painful to watch. All eyes and mouth and hands, he is a contortionist of human longing. Life presents itself to him as a piece of ripened fruit beyond his grasp. He loves Faye but cannot bring himself to touch her. Then, after being driven mad by the merciless taunting of Adore, he tramples his persecutor to death. In the midst of the riot Homer’s body is lifted up by the crowd and carried in a stylized image of the crucifixion, his bloody hands flopping, in what is arguably the most disturbing image in all of Schlesinger’s films. For the violence we’re seeing on screen is not the usual forgettable, sensationalist climax of a horror film or thriller but an image of the sacrifice endemic to a process, to a system of entertainment all too familiar to us. All of the forces at work in the Hollywood of Locust make it happen: the mass audience, the producers, directors, technicians, and actors. In the end, Schlesinger provides the audience with what it always wants—a climax—turning the convention against itself with a vengeance. Locust is “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”—to borrow Kafka’s famous phrase. In his 1904 letter to a fellow writer, he describes what a “book must be” in words that exemplify the aesthetic demands at issue in Locust:

…it’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge. I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading for?   So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us (Kafka 16).

An Uncomfortable Truth”: The Day of the Locust Reconsidered
Julia Prewitt Brown Literature/Film Quarterly
Homer being carried by the mob


So disturbing a view of Hollywood entertainment was unlikely to please audiences that, one year earlier, had delighted in That’s Entertainment!, M-G-M’s nostalgic celebration of the Hollywood musical. A year after Locust appeared, Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon was released, another film giving a much rosier portrait of Hollywood filmmaking than we see in Locust. The Last Tycoon is an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last unfinished novel about a powerful studio head of the thirties named Monroe Stahr (Robert DeNiro), whom Fitzgerald based on the legendary M-G-M producer Irving Thalberg. In the film, Stahr comes across as someone with a deep commitment to film quality and a genius for judging it, whose pursuit of the artistic ideal is symbolized by his fascination with a lovely, elusive woman. He is hardly the man who we now know was capable of overseeing the destruction of the original eight-hour version of Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed, an act that the producers featured in Locust would have had no hesitation to perform if it served   their financial interests. Kazan effectively sentimentalizes a famously hardnosed producer in a way Schlesinger, with his ruthlessly objective, unsentimental view of life, never does.

On the set of Locust, Schlesinger was reported to have said, “This is my Greed” (Mann 393). Reduced by their environment to the state of bêtes humaines, the characters in Locust, are reminiscent of the characters in Stroheim’s film. While directing Karen Black, Schlesinger is reported to have compared her to Greed’s star, ZaSu Pitts (Mann 403). Grotesque characters appear in both films and bold imagery—animal and Christian—is used to underscore themes. The main character in Greed tenderly kisses the beak of a bird; in Locust, as mentioned above, a dwarf licks the bloody beak of a rooster before returning it to a cockfight to be killed. Like Greed, Locust was criticized for its supposed uncouthness and failure to “entertain” when it first appeared. Reviewers refused to recognize that pleasure in entertainment is what the cockfight is satirizing. “That scene isn’t about a cockfight at all,” said Schlesinger, “It’s about that little man wanting to be treated as a normal sized human being” (Riley 111). The dwarf’s sacrifice of his most precious possession, his beloved rooster, epitomizes the sacrifice of soul that the characters   in the film make in order to become part of the dream factory.

In making the comparison with Stroheim’s film, Schlesinger may have been alluding to the outsized ambition of Locust and to its possible place in the pantheon of Hollywood films about the Promised Land. For the narcissistic image of Karen Black gazing longingly at an image of herself on screen is the natural sequel to that of ZaSu Pitts fondling gold coins as she lies in bed. The all-consuming desire for money in McTeague (the Zola-inspired novel by Frank Norris, set in late nineteenth century California, upon which Greed is based) is succeeded by the soul-hunger of the Hollywood dream factory of the thirties.  West, a Jew who reportedly changed his name from Weinstein in ironic deference to the invitation to “Go West, young man,” understood the historical connection—and Schlesinger understood West.


1 Extreme reviews “defined the reception of Locust,” writes William Mann, Schlesinger’s biographer (417). Pauline Kael and others were highly critical, but Judith Crist gave it high praise. It did not do well financially. Since then, positive evaluations have been published and even essays whose final judgment is negative (like those of Jones and Rapf) acknowledge the film’s strengths. In 1993, writer, director, and actor Richard E. Grant published a thoughtful reminiscence in Sight and Sound about his first experience seeing Locust when he was growing up in Swaziland.  “Conrad Hall’s pitch-black screen that splits as the vast studio door rumbles open to reveal the studio innards—a Pandora’s box image that hovers still in my consciousness. And then the hubris of fame shatters in the expressionist premiere at which the dream is destroyed by its dreamers.” Grant, who would go on to attend his own premiere at Grauman’s theatre, considers his place in the dream factory when Carrie Fisher tells him that “You’re no longer a tourist, you’re one of the attractions” (33). 

2 At the end of “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” Mulvey calls for a new cinema that would run counter to traditional film form (one that she admits is already undertaken by radical film-makers). Such cinema would encourage, rather than prevent, a “distancing awareness in the audience,” thereby shattering the fetishistic conventions of traditional film (18). As will be shown, Schlesinger and Conrad Hall adopted techniques specifically aimed at distancing the spectator from the image.

3 The mixing of forms, the use of digression, the tendency to what is repulsive and obscene—all qualities satire is known for—are central to Locust. For discussion of the general traits of satire, see Frye, 223-39.

4 See my essay on Schlesinger’s raucous comedy, Honky Tonk Freeway (1981),for a discussion of critical reaction against satire of the United States in Schlesinger’s films. It is instructive to compare the reception of Locust to that of Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby, which appeared a year before Schlesinger’s film. Like Locust, Clayton’s film was based on a novel with an embittered view of America, but the film was not satirical, especially in the way it showcased its stars and the material wealth of Fitzgerald’s characters. The Great Gatsby received more positive reviews and was a far greater financial success than Locust

5 See works by Floyd, Lang, and Le Coney and Trodd.

6 Kael’s negative review of Locust characterizes it as “Schlesinger’s primal scream” (Darned 114). She describes her dislike of the novel and faults Salt and Schlesinger for wholly trusting West’s “sensibility,” but she also finds the director’s sensibility to be lacking: “Having no emotional center, the film leaves little impression—only a chill,” (110).

7 Rapf focuses on the problems of adapting a novel with so many intractable elements for the filmmaker: the novel’s lack of an action-oriented and outer-directed story; its focus on an idea rather than a central character; the fact that the idea is centered around the bad influence of film and therefore undercuts the very medium the director uses; and the inherent cynicism of West’s narrative. For Rapf, the quality of Schlesinger’s film is compromised by its struggle to deal with these problems, although she is deeply appreciative of the director’s visual subtlety. At the end of the essay she draws on Braudy’s judgment of Schlesinger to conclude that in Locust compassion for the characters is undercut by satire. (See Braudy 58-59.) In answer to Rapf, I suggest above that many of the characteristics she identifies as drawbacks should be considered in light of Schlesinger’s highly original, trenchant use of satire. The director saw the challenges before him in adapting the novel and he had a vision of how to overcome them, even though he knew the end result   would not be popular with audiences.

8 The glossiness of the cinematography of The Great Gatsby (1974) might be compared to the almost dream-like, “sheeny” cinematic effects of Locust.

9 A scene from “The Thief of Bagdad” is anachronistically presented in a scene in which Faye, her cowboy friend Earle, and Tod go to see a movie in which Faye had performed as an extra. “The Thief of Bagdad” was in fact filmed in 1924, fourteen years before the story is set.

10 In resisting the privileging of the individual and instead attending to structures of intersubjectivity, Locust is consistent with some aspects of affect theory. Theorists such as Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth praise “critical discourses…that have progressively left behind the interiorized self or subjectivity…to unfold regimes of expressivity that are tied much more to resonant worldlings and diffusions of feeling/passions – often including atmospheres of sociality, crowd behaviors, contagions of feeling, matters of belonging…that question the privilege and stability of individualized actants possessing self-derived agency and solely private emotions within a scene or environment” (Gregg and Seigworth 8).

11 Gerald Lochlin makes the argument that “The major structural principle of the novel is the emanation of a point of view from ‘the painter’s eye,’ the eye of Tod Hackett’s imagination” (qtd. in Rhodes, 37).

12 In an early scene, after watching a newsreel about Hitler, Faye, her cowboy friend Earle, and Tod vandalize a display window at the movie theater. The scene foreshadows an image in the final sequence, in which the smashing of windows alludes to Kristallnacht—one of several moments in Locust that link Hollywood to Nazi Germany. The art director (John Lloyd), writer (Waldo Salt), and cameraman (Conrad Hall) worked closely with Schlesinger to create the elaborate visionary sequence. The director’s “favorite images in the whole thing” would later prove to be the “silhouette figures streaking across the searchlight…” (Mann 412).

13 In a discussion of Black’s Faye Greener, Meredith’s Harry Greener, and other characters, Jones points out that Schlesinger and Salt sometimes invest West’s characters “with more humanity or more pathos at least than West apparently desired” (227).

14 The acclaimed writer Ian Buruma is Schlesinger’s nephew and author of Conversations with John Schlesinger

15 This was especially true of people connected to the movie industry. Like Sydney Lumet, whose reaction to the film I have already mentioned, the producer Bob Evans was another “Hollywood man,” as Schlesinger called him, who “just didn’t like what the film stood for. People in the industry didn’t like the story; they didn’t like the rather downbeat, critical attitude of West’s novel” (Buruma 122).

Works Cited

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