Figures in a Landscape (Kino Lorber, NR)

Watching it is sort of like playing with the Magic 8-Ball.


Two figures run down a beach as the sun just begins to peep over the horizon. But this is no romantic comedy—the music is ominous, the cinematography emphasizes shadows, and both figures are running with their hands behind them. A helicopter appears in the distance and the land becomes arid and mountainous.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, we can see more, including the fact that both figures are men with their hands tied behind their backs. One (MacConnachie, played by Robert Shaw, who also adapted the script from a novel by Barry England) is older, grumpier, and attempts to dominate the other. The younger man (Ansell, played by Malcolm McDowell), seems less hardened, and yet is able to resist Macconnachie’s commands. One thing that is clear: they are fugitives of some kind (Ansell asks MacConnachie if he thinks they will be taken back alive) and are being pursued by the helicopter, which swoops very close but neither shoots at them nor tries to take them prisoner.

Who are these two men, and what are they running from? Eschewing conventional exposition, director Joseph Losey delays as long as possible the answering of any of those questions, making this film a sort of existential mystery clothed in an adventure tale. That approach may have accounted for its original box office failure in 1970, but today it makes the film more interesting.

Even without knowing their goal, it’s impossible not to get involved in the journey of these men as they traverse an unforgiving landscape (the film was shot in the Andalucia region of southern Spain). They acquire some useful goods, including food and a rifle, from the home of a peasant, whose screams alert the villager of their presence. They argue over whether to stay together or split up. They formulate a plan to destroy the helicopter, which continues to dog them. Throughout, they talk, frequently contentiously, without revealing much of significance relating to their current situation.

Figures in a Landscape is an unconventional film, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. The cinematography by Henri Alekan, Peter Suschitzky, and Guy Tabary, shows off the harsh beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and Shaw and MacDowell (this film is essentially a two-hander) deliver performances that allow them to suggest more than their characters say. However, the lack of a conventional storyline, and the director’s insistence on denying the audience most of the expected pleasures of an action-adventure movie will make this film 110 minutes of tedium for some viewers.

For all of that, I still enjoyed Figures in a Landscape. Watching it is sort of like playing with the Magic 8-Ball: so much about this film is ambiguous that it can support a variety of interpretations. As a former student of literature, making up interpretations is my favorite sport, so here are two takes (not necessarily mutually exclusive) on this enigmatic film. Take 1: Ansell and MacConnachie are two complementary halves of a single personality—one is tender and instinctive, the other practical and rational—that must be integrated for them to attain their goal. Take 2: The film is an allegory of the Vietnam War, with the mission (the pursuit of the two fugitives) of an external force bringing unwarranted death and destruction to the countryside where the mission is carried out.

It’s worth noting that Figures in a Landscape was produced at a time when the studios, having lost a lot of money on big-budget blockbusters, were willing to take a chance on anything that might connect with contemporary audiences. That’s how films like Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) got produced, and if you like those films, you might like this one as well. In addition, fans of Jaws will find many foreshadowings of Quint in Shaw’s portrayal of MacConnachie.

The Blu-ray is based on a newly remastered version of the film, and the image is sharp and clear. There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh


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