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Film Review: Figures in a Landscape (1970)

It might not be the most captivating title ever coined for a film, but Figures in a Landscape captures the simplicity of this 1970 Robert Shaw-inspired flick rather neatly.

A post-If pre-Clockwork Orange Malcolm McDowell is one of the two figures alluded to, the other being Shaw himself. Figures is just the right word to describe what are surely two of cinema’s most enigmatic ever characters. For McDowell and Shaw are always impressionistic, elusive. Figures sums them up rather aptly.

Landscape is another deceptively simple choice of terms. For this landscape is amorphous, part-jungle, part-dessert, part Star Wars, part-Zulu. We might be in Sergio Leone country or we could just as easily be in Lean’s Arabia. It all adds up to create a dystopian world, a world that for all its beauty is a place of foreboding.

McDowell and Shaw are running – from what we know not. One of the film’s more interesting gambits lies in revealing the minimum information about the two men. Who, what, why, where, how, if it’s exposition you are hoping for, forget it. As an audience we travel with the fugitives in real time, only knowing what is necessary.

Naturally, as an audience there are many things we yearn to know: Who are the men running from? What crime, if any, have they committed? Most interesting of all is the question of morality. How does an audience relate to the central characters? Are they truly the good guys? It’s an ambiguity that teases throughout the film’s entire 100 minute running time.

Through dialogue that is as sparse at it is terse, we gradually come to learn essential snippets about the two central characters. Don’t expect too much in the way of conversation though, for this is a film where the emphasis is very much on action. Desperate to escape their pursuers, McDowell and Shaw are forever on the move. Not sure what they weighed before filming started, but it’s fair to assume they weighted a lot less at the close of filming.

As the pair make their way through sleepy villages and swamps, we are never quite sure what the ultimate goal is: to survive, yes, but then what? It’s one of many questions that go unanswered in this most enigmatic of films. Is there an ultimate destination? Where and in what form does freedom reside? No neat answers in this film.

Thanks to some crisp direction the urgency and desperation becomes almost overwhelming. If the sinister helicopter is anything to go by and the following soldiers, a dreadful fate would seem to await the two men. McDowell and Shaw are wanted men, very wanted.

To the accompaniment of some very discordant bass piano notes, Figures in a Landscape certainly jars the nerves. Think the chase sequences in Planet of the Apes and you’ll be in the right territory. You just know the stakes couldn’t be higher.

When the two men ransack a house in mourning this film just gets downright spooky. And all the while the uneasy, teetering on fractious relationship between McDowell and Shaw is laid bare. Together through nothing more binding then expediency, a fascinating power struggle develops between the older, possibly unhinged Shaw and the younger, more needful McDowell.

In order to comprehend the stunning cinematography, this is a film that just begs to be viewed on the big screen - the bigger the better. Much as I love the small screen there are times when only the cinema will do. Ending with a suitably strange confrontation on a desolate mountain side involving ubiquitous helicopter plus some remarkably indolent banana republic soldiers.

Figures in a Landscape ought really to come with a disclaimer: Disorientation is a common reaction to watching this movie. It will pass, eventually...