Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape is a thriller unusually preoccupied with questions of scale and perspective, with what can and can’t be seen from certain angles and distances. Its thin plot—two escaped prisoners, MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) and Ansell (Malcolm McDowell), trying to outrun a helicopter crew in an unnamed enemy territory—provides a context in which not only are these notions of optics imbued with life-or-death importance, but one where all action must take into account a manipulation of these essential parameters of vision.
The efficacy of a hiding place, for instance, comes down to a consideration of the degree to which the terrain, seen aerially, obscures or exposes the presence of human bodies. Other times, the rare respite of a receding chopper is a can’t-miss opportunity to cover ground that would be more dangerous to traverse in an instance of not knowing its presence. Distance is comforting, closeness is an inherent threat, and lack of perspective is most dangerous of all.
Describing Losey’s film in this way makes it sound like an illustration of Darwinian codes of hunting and gathering in the animal kingdom, and in several ways it’s an entirely apt metaphor. Not only are there occasional Eisenstein-like cutaways to soaring hawks on the prowl, but there’s also a completely nonverbal language that develops between the opposing sides, one in which proximity becomes a form of intimidation, of wearing down the enemy or causing confusion. The helicopter pilots’ favorite tactic is to approach, hover, circle, and then depart, seemingly an indication that they’re having a grand old time just drubbing their prey with whirlwinds of desert dust. In calculated retaliation, the prisoners devise a similar method of disorientation whereby one’s fake surrender is wielded as a decoy to permit easy sniping for the other.
Figures in a Landscape is composed entirely of such small-scale strategic warfare, and Losey graciously perceives no crisis of entertainment value. Why bother injecting dramatic banalities when the visual dynamics of the story already produce their own tension? Political and geographical contexts go scrupulously unexplored, the identity of the oppressor is never clarified (all we see of the pilots are portions of their backs in over-the-shoulder shots framing their front window’s panoramic ground view), and the backstories of Shaw’s barking alpha and McDowell’s trembling beta are only vaguely and incrementally doled out. What remains is something at once meticulously tangible in its moment-to-moment action choreography and eerily abstract in its larger narrative design.
The goal of the prisoners is to evade their captors long enough for their allies to retrieve them, though a specific trajectory is never outlined. Instead, the landscape they scale—a forbiddingly vast and climatically varied topography that resembles the American West, but is actually the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain’s Andalucia region—is a seemingly boundless stage for Sisyphean trials: ascents and descents of rocky peaks, passages across flatlands meticulously plotted with greenery, a nocturnal stop-in at a small village to obtain new clothing and weaponry, a getaway on hands and knees from a burning cornfield.
Like the tactical approach of the airborne hunters, the film’s structural modus operandi is to exhaust its already harried protagonists until they’ve become so broken and delirious as to reach new existential quandaries. What is the point of conquering such circumstances if it entails enduring prolonged brutality? What’s preferable: death or imprisonment?
Losey stages MacConnachie and Ansell’s eventual burnt-out heart to heart—an exchange peppered with what seems like vaguely autobiographical intimations of personal trauma and romantic disappointment—in an unbroken medium shot with the men pressed up against a rock face, literally and figuratively backed into a wall, and again the question of scale and perspective is central. Without a landscape against which to visually define them, they’re returned to the essence of what they are—not ants on a map, not prisoners on the run, just men, bruised and tired.
At the film’s conclusion, when unwelcoming allies finally greet them at the top of a snow-strewn slope, Losey punches in for what become Figures in a Landscape’s first tight close-ups of its main characters. Suddenly, the physical toll of the journey is made visible, as we see blood, dirt, and incisions where skin’s been ripped from the forehead. Losey, it becomes clear, has delivered an entrancing exercise in the expressive and psychological components of cinematic scale.
The blistering buzz of chopper blades fuses with the high whine of Richard Rodney Bennett’s discordant string score to form the basis of Figures in a Landscape’s sonic atmospherics, and Kino Lorber makes sure to play enough with volume dynamics that these jarring noises carry an inherent shock. Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw’s voices, on the other hand, get somewhat lost in the mix, which could be an intentional product of the source given the fact that the physiological strain on the characters lends itself to jumbled wordings and frequent whispering. The rugged location photography, courtesy of French master Henri Alekan, also transfers to Blu-ray tremendously, though parts of the print Kino used are noticeably aged.
There are no extras on this Blu-ray release.
In digging out of relative obscurity Joseph Losey’s stark prisoners-on-the-loose thriller Figures in a Landscape and treating it to a sterling A/V presentation, Kino Lorber has managed an early curatorial highlight of 2016, though the disc’s dearth of extras leaves plenty to be desired.