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Figures in a Landscape

Posted on the 23 June 2016 by Christopher Saunders

Figures in a Landscape

"I'd like to kick my bloody head right up into his Perspex!”

Joseph Losey never shied from experimentation, however alienating or misguided. Figures in a Landscape (1970) is an intellectual action film, lacking signposts for easy absorption. Whether it's absorbing or tedious depends on the viewer.
Two men flee a helicopter across a desolate landscape. MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) is a seasoned adventurer; Ansell (Malcolm McDowell), an educated neophyte. Both appear to be escaped prisoners. They kill and steal from bystanders while evading their pursuers. Their confrontations lead to a full-scale manhunt and endless argument.
Think North by Northwest's crop duster scene, expanded to feature length. Figures in a Landscape plunges directly into its narrative, sans context or even identifying its setting. Shaw's script (based on Brian England's novel) occasionally probes motivations, but provides only the barest plot. Are our heroes soldiers, mercenaries, criminals? We're left pondering details as Losey plows ahead.
Losey relishes long takes and wide shots of MacConnachie and Ansell clambering ant-like through the Spanish countryside, arid canyons pockmarked with scrubby trees or snowy mountain tops. Near-silent scenes (a nocturnal village raid, a chase through burning fields) alternate with swooping helicopter attacks, underlined by Richard Rodney Bennett's eerie, disorienting score. Action scenes swirl with dust, smoke and insistent, ambient sound.
Wisely, Figures avoids philosophizing: MacConnachie and Ansell argue over murdering a farmer, but it's more character clash than moral parable. MacConnachie grouses about his wife while Ansell merely hints at his background. But Losey's clinical approach isn't wholly satisfying, amounting to set pieces punctuated by argument. It feels like it should build into something more substantial.
Robert Shaw tackles his role with aplomb, relishing MacConnachie's bravado, violent pragmatism and terse self-justification. Shaw's outsized performance fits like a glove. Malcolm McDowell has a harder job, with a character defined mainly as Shaw's moral foil. Neither is especially likeable, yet we find ourselves cheering their adventures.
Anything as deliberately opaque as Figures in a Landscape isn't for all tastes. At least Losey's oddball artistry fits the story, which isn't always the case.

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