Embracing Ambiguity: Figures In A Landscape (1970)

[Warning! Spoilers on the road ahead.]

The first thing that you see in Joseph Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970) is the big black helicopter. It lingers in the sky like a giant buzzing insect or an angry bird of prey. For the next two hours it will pursue the film’s two protagonists (Robert Shaw and Malcolm McDowell) in a relentless game of cat and mouse over various terrains of uncompromising beauty. You will never find out who is pursuing them. You will not discover what they are running from. You will never know when these events took place or where. And last but not least, you will never know why they happen. If clarity, easy answers and conventional storytelling techniques are something you demand from cinema you’ll probably find FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE a frustrating viewing experience. But if you relish unexpected pleasures and are willing to embrace ambiguity the film might capture your imagination as forcefully as it does mine.

FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was my introduction to Joseph Losey. A mistake I made while trying to operate my family’s first VCR led me to accidentally record the film while it was playing on late night television in the early ‘80s. I knew absolutely nothing about the movie but I was persuaded to watch it when I saw Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw’s names in the opening credits. I was familiar with their work and fond of them both so I stayed glued to my television as FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE unfurled before me. The film was an unusual combination of prison break dramas like THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) and PAPILLON (1973) mixed with adventurous pursuits such as THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and THE NAKED PREY (1966). These types of films absolutely enthralled me when I was growing up. Like a lot of kids I often felt prosecuted by the adults in my life as well as my peers and I was eager to escape the small-town where I was living. My own desire for adventure made these films seem particularly powerful but over the years they’ve lost none of their appeal. Today films like THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) speak to an entire generation and I can appreciate its allure. FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was my HUNGER GAMES.

The film follows a middle-aged man named MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) and his youthful companion Ansell (Malcolm McDowell) through rocky terrains, over tree-lined hills and up snow-covered mountains as they run from that big black helicopter in the sky. We know they’ve escaped from some prison, detention center or penal colony because their hands are tied behind their backs and they’ll remain that way for the film’s first 25 minutes. Their limited conversation consists of brief stories, anecdotes and shared barbs aimed at one another. MacConnachie is obviously familiar with outdoor survival, unafraid of conflict and enjoys discussing his wife and daughters. But he seems to represent the past. His life is behind him and he bemoans the modern world. He’s bothered by Ansell’s lack of physical strength and inability to fend for himself. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ansell. Ansell’s life seems to stretch out before him and MacConnachie’s brute strength and macho posturing repel him. Ansell openly expresses mental anguish whenever they’re forced to kill for their survival. He also enjoys reminiscing about his numerous romantic conquests and when Ansell boasts of his sexual freedom, MacConnachie responds with a disgusted growl; “They should have never invented that bloody pill!” This kind of symbolic culture clash was typical of ‘60s cinema but in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE it takes on new meaning as these two lonely figures try to find shared shelter together in an unaccommodating world. Both men are desperate and bound by their nameless, faceless pursuers and a desire for freedom but what that means to them both is never made clear. In the end we’re left wondering if freedom is ever a possibility for them or us.

Both Shaw and McDowell are talented actors and they’re at their best here, playing two opposing forces that must find common ground and work together in an effort to escape the menacing helicopter that randomly appears to torment them. Rumor has it that Shaw and McDowell didn’t get along very well during filming but that’s to the audience’s advantage. There’s an uncomfortable tension in their back and forth exchanges that adds to the film’s intriguing premise and lends their budding friendship some weight. Besides the rich and rewarding performances of the film’s two stars, one of the movie’s most notable qualities is the unforgettable score by composer Richard Rodney Bennett (BILLY LIAR, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, THE NANNY, EQUUS, etc.). The discordant soundscapes weave in and out of each frame and reverberate in your skull long after the closing credits roll.

The Kafkaesque twists and turns, threadbare plot and dystopian world depicted in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE is at odds with the film’s spectacular natural beauty. Instead of being repelled by what we see we’re drawn to it, intrigued by the film’s mysteries and in awe of its lush scenery. David Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (DEAD RINGERS, CRASH, EASTERN PROMISES, etc.) worked on the film but Losey credited most of the photography to Oscar nominated cinematographer Henri Alekan (ROMAN HOLIDAY, MAYERLING, WINGS OF DESIRE, etc.). Their camerawork is extraordinary here and is elevated by Losey’s skilled direction. Action films were not Losey’s forte but you wouldn’t know that from watching FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE. He handles the dangerous helicopter chase scenes, gunfights and explosions like an old pro, which makes me wish he had explored similar territory more often.

Helicopters appeared in some of Losey’s other films such as THESE ARE THE DAMNED (1963) and MODESTY BLAISE (1966) so they must have fascinated the director. In FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE the helicopter becomes its own character. Its godlike presence is constantly threatening even when it’s unseen and unheard. Black helicopters are obviously associated with the military and often suggest political unrest or top-secret operations. But fans of THE PRISONER (1967-1968) series starring Patrick McGoohan might be reminded of the perplexing Rover, a large white floating ball that would corral the citizens of The Village and make sure they didn’t escape.

FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE is often considered one of Joseph Losey’s lesser films but I think it’s one of his most challenging and involving pictures. The film developed from a creative partnership between Losey and the film’s star and scriptwriter, Robert Shaw. It was originally based on Barry England’s novel of the same name, which was a powerful allegory for the Vietnam War that focused on two POWs being pursued by an opposing military force. Losey and Shaw were longtime friends and eager to work together but they disliked the book’s original treatment and overt violence. Shaw suggested that he would re-write the script and Losey agreed to work with him on the project. Together they managed to transform what could have become a rather ordinary escape thriller into a powerful statement about the very nature of freedom and persecution, which Losey was all too familiar with.

In the 1950s the American born director fled the US after his name was mentioned during the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. Although Losey was never officially blacklisted, he had trouble getting films made in the US and decided to pursue work in England until his death in 1984. Like the tormented characters in FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE who vainly search for freedom, Losey didn’t exactly find life easy after leaving the US. Many of the problems he experienced in Hollywood during the McCarthy-Era continued to plague him overseas. Losey’s name was removed from projects he worked on and some actors refused to work with him. This kind of persecution must have seemed like a constant threat to his livelihood. Losey’s confronted these experiences in many of his best films including FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE, which is a wonderful example of his creative prowess.

The film is currently available on PAL DVD if you own an all-region DVD player but for reasons unknown to me it’s never been made available on DVD in the US. Bootleg copies of questionable quality are routinely sold online but I can’t recommend them. FIGURES IN THE LANDSCAPE is a beautiful film and it should be seen in a theater or on widescreen DVD so viewers can appreciate it’s incredible depth and scope.

Further Reading:
- Conversations with Losey by Michael Ciment
- Joseph Losey by Colin Gardner

23 Responses Embracing Ambiguity: Figures In A Landscape (1970)
Posted By Peter Nellhaus : June 21, 2012 7:49 pm

I was fortunate enough to catch this theatrically in NYC. The film was already a couple of years old, and was booked in a small, out of the way theater. I still have a vague memory of the opening shot of McDowell and Shaw on the run. A “lesser Losey” is still far better than what a lot of contemporary filmmakers could muster.

Posted By Peter Nellhaus : June 21, 2012 7:49 pm

I was fortunate enough to catch this theatrically in NYC. The film was already a couple of years old, and was booked in a small, out of the way theater. I still have a vague memory of the opening shot of McDowell and Shaw on the run. A “lesser Losey” is still far better than what a lot of contemporary filmmakers could muster.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 21, 2012 8:25 pm

A “lesser Losey” is still far better than what a lot of contemporary filmmakers could muster.

Couldn’t agree with you more, Peter although I’m always weary of critics who dismiss Losey’s late ’60s/early ’70s output.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 21, 2012 8:25 pm

A “lesser Losey” is still far better than what a lot of contemporary filmmakers could muster.

Couldn’t agree with you more, Peter although I’m always weary of critics who dismiss Losey’s late ’60s/early ’70s output.

Posted By waitforme77 : June 22, 2012 5:06 am

Excellent piece. I have yet to see the film but the title but the films evocative title, existential premise and the talented personnel involved have always fascinated me somewhat. I will have to hunt it down for a viewing now after reading your illuminating thoughts on its merits.

Posted By waitforme77 : June 22, 2012 5:06 am

Excellent piece. I have yet to see the film but the title but the films evocative title, existential premise and the talented personnel involved have always fascinated me somewhat. I will have to hunt it down for a viewing now after reading your illuminating thoughts on its merits.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 11:27 am

I’ve seen the film on Losey’s filmography, but didn’t know much about it until now. The title suggests some sort of existential drama a la Antonioni or Resnais, but knowing more about it now makes me eager to see it. Amazon.co.uk sells it as a Dutch import (oddly enough, a Paramount Home Video release) that I’m putting on my wish list. I can watch Robert Shaw in anything, and wish he hadn’t left us so early, his presence is missed in movies.

Love those ’70s posters, the half-sheet at the top reminds me of one for Badlands for some reason. I wish poster art was more creative these days (although I did enjoy the new one-sheets for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom).

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 11:27 am

I’ve seen the film on Losey’s filmography, but didn’t know much about it until now. The title suggests some sort of existential drama a la Antonioni or Resnais, but knowing more about it now makes me eager to see it. Amazon.co.uk sells it as a Dutch import (oddly enough, a Paramount Home Video release) that I’m putting on my wish list. I can watch Robert Shaw in anything, and wish he hadn’t left us so early, his presence is missed in movies.

Love those ’70s posters, the half-sheet at the top reminds me of one for Badlands for some reason. I wish poster art was more creative these days (although I did enjoy the new one-sheets for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom).

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 11:36 am

Oops, forgot to comment on the reference to the white balloons in The Prisoner, one of my favourite TV devices of all time. It’s fairly common knowledge that originally, “Rover” was supposed to be a mechanical device but the prop kept breaking down so they came up with the much more mysterious weather balloons instead. Didn’t know any pictures of the original Rover existed until I came across this one online (scroll down):
http://www.rickmcgrath.com/the_prisoner.html

Also Losey-related: there’s an excellent eight-movie set available in the UK that includes The Big Night, Sleeping Tiger, The Criminal, Eva, Accident, The Servant, The Go-Between and Mr. Klein, a great way to get into his filmography in one easy step.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 11:36 am

Oops, forgot to comment on the reference to the white balloons in The Prisoner, one of my favourite TV devices of all time. It’s fairly common knowledge that originally, “Rover” was supposed to be a mechanical device but the prop kept breaking down so they came up with the much more mysterious weather balloons instead. Didn’t know any pictures of the original Rover existed until I came across this one online (scroll down):
http://www.rickmcgrath.com/the_prisoner.html

Also Losey-related: there’s an excellent eight-movie set available in the UK that includes The Big Night, Sleeping Tiger, The Criminal, Eva, Accident, The Servant, The Go-Between and Mr. Klein, a great way to get into his filmography in one easy step.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 22, 2012 2:07 pm

waitforme77 – Thank you and I hope you enjoy the film if you get a chance to see to it!

swac – I suspect from other conversations we’ve had that you’d really appreciate FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE if you get the opportunity to see it. Shaw is particularly wonderful in this and seems to be relishing the role and the opportunity to work with Losey. As for the DVD, I have no idea why Paramount hasn’t made the film more widely available. I should pick up that UK DVD set you mentioned because I haven’t seen one or two of the films in it.

Also agree with you about the poster art. I really dislike most promotional materials for modern movies. They’re so dull and uncreative. And lastly, I didn’t know about the changes that were made to Rover for THE PRISONER. I’ve always been terrified of that big white balloon for reasons I can’t really explain.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 22, 2012 2:07 pm

waitforme77 – Thank you and I hope you enjoy the film if you get a chance to see to it!

swac – I suspect from other conversations we’ve had that you’d really appreciate FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE if you get the opportunity to see it. Shaw is particularly wonderful in this and seems to be relishing the role and the opportunity to work with Losey. As for the DVD, I have no idea why Paramount hasn’t made the film more widely available. I should pick up that UK DVD set you mentioned because I haven’t seen one or two of the films in it.

Also agree with you about the poster art. I really dislike most promotional materials for modern movies. They’re so dull and uncreative. And lastly, I didn’t know about the changes that were made to Rover for THE PRISONER. I’ve always been terrified of that big white balloon for reasons I can’t really explain.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 2:52 pm

You are costing me a lot of money Kimberly, first it was that UK Looking Glass War DVD, and now this! The 8-film Losey set is 25 pounds, but we actually pay a bit less with the VAT removed, so it’s even more of a bargain (roughly 5 or 6 dollars per title).

Switching from a complicated device to the purer, fan-blown balloon for Rover is a masterstroke, a perfect example of simpler being better, I guess there’s just something elemental about the pulsating white globe that’s more disturbing, especially when combined with the lava lamp imagery of its creation and the image of “suffocation” of its captives. Way creepier.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 2:52 pm

You are costing me a lot of money Kimberly, first it was that UK Looking Glass War DVD, and now this! The 8-film Losey set is 25 pounds, but we actually pay a bit less with the VAT removed, so it’s even more of a bargain (roughly 5 or 6 dollars per title).

Switching from a complicated device to the purer, fan-blown balloon for Rover is a masterstroke, a perfect example of simpler being better, I guess there’s just something elemental about the pulsating white globe that’s more disturbing, especially when combined with the lava lamp imagery of its creation and the image of “suffocation” of its captives. Way creepier.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 22, 2012 3:16 pm

Sorry about that! Unfortunately this film hobby can get costly. I’m going to keep an eye out for that Losey set on ebay in the hopes that I can get it a little cheaper than Amazon’s asking price, which is about $60. It’s not a bad price for all the films but I’m a bargain hunter by nature.

And who knew that a giant white balloon could be so creepy?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : June 22, 2012 3:16 pm

Sorry about that! Unfortunately this film hobby can get costly. I’m going to keep an eye out for that Losey set on ebay in the hopes that I can get it a little cheaper than Amazon’s asking price, which is about $60. It’s not a bad price for all the films but I’m a bargain hunter by nature.

And who knew that a giant white balloon could be so creepy?

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 4:06 pm

There’s a copy of that Losey set on eBay right now for around $40, but I just went through the amazon.co.uk checkout, and the set came to £20.39 (they remove the VAT for out-of-country orders) plus £3.08 shipping, for a total of £23.47, which is around $37 US (and a shade more here in Canada). That’s less than $5 per film.

That Amazon.co.uk wish list is going to be the death of me. I see a Portugese copy of his version of Lang’s M too, but it ain’t cheap. Better get The Prowler first.

Posted By swac44 : June 22, 2012 4:06 pm

There’s a copy of that Losey set on eBay right now for around $40, but I just went through the amazon.co.uk checkout, and the set came to £20.39 (they remove the VAT for out-of-country orders) plus £3.08 shipping, for a total of £23.47, which is around $37 US (and a shade more here in Canada). That’s less than $5 per film.

That Amazon.co.uk wish list is going to be the death of me. I see a Portugese copy of his version of Lang’s M too, but it ain’t cheap. Better get The Prowler first.

Posted By Mike Perry : June 22, 2012 5:21 pm

For those looking for the film, I just purchased on ebay from a Korean seller that I have bought 7 or 8 flicks from. No complaints whatsoever and in widescreen. Cost me about 12 dollars.

Funny on the timing as this was about a month ago.It’s not bootleg either. Just not available in North America.

Anytime I think of Shaw, I think how we as film lovers got cheated due to his early death. As for Malcolm, any chance to see him is usually worth it although not all his films are, this one is well done.

Mike

Recommended.

Posted By Mike Perry : June 22, 2012 5:21 pm

For those looking for the film, I just purchased on ebay from a Korean seller that I have bought 7 or 8 flicks from. No complaints whatsoever and in widescreen. Cost me about 12 dollars.

Funny on the timing as this was about a month ago.It’s not bootleg either. Just not available in North America.

Anytime I think of Shaw, I think how we as film lovers got cheated due to his early death. As for Malcolm, any chance to see him is usually worth it although not all his films are, this one is well done.

Mike

Recommended.

Posted By Ben : June 25, 2012 9:06 am

Great post, thanks for writing it.I was lucky enough to see ‘Figures in a Landscape’ as part of the BFI’s Losey retrospective a few years ago, and, having read assorted comments to the effect of it being ‘flawed, ‘lesser’ etc., I was blown away by it – an incredible and much under-appreciated movie IMHO, and I’ve been trying to pwersuade people to check it out ever since (with mixed results, it must be said).

Posted By Ben : June 25, 2012 9:06 am

Great post, thanks for writing it.I was lucky enough to see ‘Figures in a Landscape’ as part of the BFI’s Losey retrospective a few years ago, and, having read assorted comments to the effect of it being ‘flawed, ‘lesser’ etc., I was blown away by it – an incredible and much under-appreciated movie IMHO, and I’ve been trying to pwersuade people to check it out ever since (with mixed results, it must be said).

Posted By Edward Sullivan : January 8, 2016 1:59 am

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