Joseph Losey was a Hollywood director known for his American version of Fritz Lang’s M and the superb noir film, The Prowler (both 1951) before his career ran into trouble when he was mentioned during hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Like many other supposed “communist-sympathisers” in the entertainment industry, he fled the country to make films elsewhere. America’s loss was Europe’s gain as Losey teamed up with the English playwright Harold Pinter to create three wonderful films: The Servant (1963), and the Cannes Film Festival winners Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1970).
1970 also saw the release of one of his stranger films, Figures in a Landscape. Written by Robert Shaw and based on a recent, well-received novel of the same name by Barry England, it tells a very simple story of two recently escaped convicts, running for their lives across barren landscapes. They appear to have a set destination in mind, but all other details – including who they are, the reason for their initial arrest, and how they managed to escape – are delivered to the audience very sparingly, if at all.
There’s a 1945 painting by Francis Bacon called “Figure in a Landscape” that anyone familiar with the work won’t be able to help thinking about while watching this film. The painting is supposedly a man dozing on a park bench, but it’s so abstract that’s not what first comes to mind when I think about it. Instead, I picture the big, black ugly mass in the middle of the canvas, blue sky above, brown ground below.
Our protagonists in Figures in a Landscape also have a big, black ugly mass on their minds. No matter where they go, no matter how hard they hide, a black helicopter will periodically appear, swooping down upon them, teasing and taunting them while presumably alerting the authorities of their location before vanishing once more. Every encounter is terrifying for our men on the run. Perhaps if the helicopter made its intent more known or even opened fire upon them, at least they’d know where they stand. Instead, the torture continues, driving the men to the edge of sanity, while they fantasise about revenge.
We first see our two figures running along a beach. Their hands are tied behind their back and will remain that way for at least the first half hour of film. Robert Shaw plays MacConnachie, the older, more world-weary of the two convicts. He has plenty of survival techniques up his sleeve and has clearly been in more than a few “alone in the wilderness” situations. His companion is the much younger Ansell, played by an up-and-comer in only his second film, Malcolm McDowell. Ansell has to deal with much berating by the more experienced MacConnachie, but he knows it will all be worth it if they can survive until their destination.
The original novel gives a lot more information about where they are and why they were captured, but it’s to the film’s advantage that it forgoes most of these details. What remains is a character study of two people forced to help each other out in extreme circumstances. Ansell would surely perish if not for MacConnachie’s survival instincts, and the hot-tempered MacConnachie needs Ansell to help keep him in check, especially as his rage at their helicopter opponent grows.
As one might expect from what’s been described here, the film makes great use of its vast landscapes. Often when the helicopter appears, we get the view from inside the cockpit, looking out (obviously we don’t see the faces of the pilot and his spotter, as the black mass needs to remain inhuman). The countryside seems to stretch on forever, but its contents keep changing – our men trudge over fields, forests, mountainous rock, tussock, and even snow.
In between encounters with the helicopter and other locals (note: only Shaw and McDowell have any dialogue in the film), the two banter amongst themselves and predominantly talk about women. After Ansell talks about one of his escapades with a visiting Australian girl where he worked, he asks MacConnachie, “Got any daughters?” He quickly responds, “[I’ll] bloody well keep my daughters away from you!” We learn that MacConnachie met his wife when he was 16 and she was 21 and the story he tells about them getting together draws a good laugh.
Figures in a Landscape was unavailable on DVD until a few years ago and it deserves to be seen as an example of what can be achieved when creative constraints are placed on a film. Losey’s film is deliberately opaque and ambiguous, but it’s a great journey as a result with a perfect, unforgettable ending.