There must be more money!
Numerous high school students are probably all too familiar with the eerie D.H. Lawrence short story "The Rocking Horse Winner," a tragic tale about a son who's haunted by a house of expensive taste to provide for his mother's extravagance by picking the winners of horse races. He does this by riding a rocking horse with a driven purpose to be sure of the winners, but this fortune comes at a great cost. In 1949, British filmmaker Anthony Pelissier adapted the short story into a film, with dramatically frightening results thanks to a nearly Gothic cinematic style. Home Vision Entertainment has digitally remastered The Rocking Horse Winner and brought it to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Richard Grahame (Hugh Sinclair) is something of an unlucky man. He can't seem to keep a job, he loses at cards, and he's married to a horrible, money-grubbing, demanding shrew of a wife, Hester (Valerie Hobson). With Hester practicing deficit spending at home, money issues are becoming more and more prominent and their extravagant house becomes haunted in an odd sort of way, whispering into the ear of their son Paul (John Howard Davies) that, "There must be more money." Bent on helping his mother, who equates "luck" with "wealth," Paul gains an interest on betting on the horses. Fronted by the family gardener Bassett (John Mills), Paul begins to accumulate a healthy nest egg, but seems to become more and more obsessed with a toy rocking horse. With the help of his uncle Oscar (Ronald Squire), Paul secretly sets up a trust fund for his mother, who in turn begins to spend money more rapidly than before. The stakes then become higher for Paul as the pressure mounts to pick a winner for the Derby, never minding the fact that the pressure is taking a toll on his body and mind.
If Stephen King had been alive and had a writing career in the earlier part of this century, he might have written something not too dissimilar from D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner," only maybe with the rocking horse coming to life and having a powerful taste for human flesh, or something. The short story is thick with an impending doom as Hester's own materialism causes her to lose the one thing she treasures most without realizing it. It's a moral tale of caution that has as much relevance today as when it was written. It's lack of tedious description manages to add heavily to the mood, and it's this dark mood that Pelissier manages to bring to the film. With Citizen Kane leaving a mark on the film world eight years earlier, filmmakers were eager to experiment with varying techniques in cinematography and the use of lighting to heighten the mood of a film, and Pelissier exhibits a command of these techniques that few directors possessed at this time. The rocking horse, earlier seen as an object of childhood innocence when it's unwrapped as a Christmas present, is suddenly projected as a sinister symbol of materialism and death in the hands of Pelissier with the rider constantly striving to obtain material bliss but never arriving at any destination. (Okay, I'm flashing back too much to high school literature classes. I'll stop.) The camera angles, the motion of the horse itself, and the earnestness displayed by Paul all come together in scenes that, even by today's standards, carry a dark and foreboding feeling to them. These scenes are the absolute best that The Rocking Horse Winner has to offer, and they conjure up memories of recent efforts like The Others, especially when the repeated mantra of "there must be more money" can be heard in spooky whispers and then build into a crescendo towards the fateful climax. It probably didn't hurt that this is a British film, and England had just emerged from five years of having bombs dropped on their heads. That's surely enough to darken anyone's mood.
Another thing that The Rocking Horse Winner does perfectly is the strict adherence to the source material. Every line of dialogue uttered in the short story makes it faithfully into the film, and Pelissier did a solid job in reading between the lines of the action. The story seems to cover the better part of a year of time in only a few pages, and the gaps are filled out rather nicely. The horrific ending was thankfully not watered down so that everyone could live happily ever after. If this film had been made today, I can barely imagine the travesty that would occur simply because the ending didn't "test well" with audiences. Studio meddling has been seen far too many times in the past fifteen years, but it simply wasn't present back in England in 1948 when this film was shot, and the audience is much better off for it. The full impact of Lawrence's story is felt as Hester finally realizes what she's caused.
Technically speaking, Home Vision Entertainment has done a solid job at digitally remastering The Rocking Horse Winner and bringing it to DVD. The transfer is lacking digital artifacts, and the black levels are solid and deep throughout the presentation. There are plenty of flaws with the original film stock, but this is due to the age and care of said stock. The only truly notable, but mostly unremarkable, problem is the matting down to the full screen aspect ration. The Rocking Horse Winner was originally filmed in a 35mm Spherical process at a 1.37:1 ratio, so a slight amount of the picture was lost. This was only really noticeable when the credits are running at the beginning of the film, with some of the chirons being cut off at the frame. The sound is a flat monaural presentation, but I won't hold that against this film since the technology for surround was not available in the 1940s.
Home Vision Entertainment has done something relatively unique for the special features and provided a couple of alternate presentations of "The Rocking Horse Winner" on this DVD. First and foremost is the inclusion of the entire D.H. Lawrence short story in the DVD booklet, which is a terrific touch. It's a story I'd pretty much forgotten over the years and it was nice to revisit the source material. Next we have a 20 minute short version filmed by Michael Almeryda in Pixelvision (which uses a toy Fisher Price camera) and starring Eric Stoltz, which says everything and nothing all in three words. This version is heavily modernized with "hip" lingo and slang, which seems to heavily detract from the story. After that, there are three excerpts from a chamber opera based on "The Rocking Horse Winner," and a radio reading of the short story by John Shea.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, one of the problems with adapting a short story into a feature length film is the necessity to stretch and pad the story out. In this case, Pelissier has added a great deal of back story regarding Richard and Hester's debt, as well as Hester's attempts to come to grips with her extravagant life style. While these various scenes try to add to the story, this is where The Rocking Horse Winner stumbles and drunkenly ambles about. When Pelissier is following Lawrence's dialogue and story, the movie flows, but he didn't seem to have enough of an ear for dialogue to write his own. There is a very noticeable and distracting difference between the two writing styles that causes the film to unwind somewhat, which is unfortunate. On top of this, Pelissier did the unthinkable and tacked on a five-minute-long scene at the conclusion to try to bring a greater sense of closure to Lawrence's story, but Pelissier can't resist the urge to get a little overboard on the preachiness to hammer the film's theme home, in this case with a sledgehammer when a ballpeen would have done the job. It's my belief that the very end of the short story would have left an audience hanging over the edge and in awe of the events that unfolded, which would have been coupled with Lawrence's own words of warning.
I should also mention that the acting jobs done by the cast are fairly uneven, with Valerie Hobson's Shatner-like headjerks registering highly on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. On top of this, Ronald Squire manages to chew scenery as the semi-evil, semi-understanding Uncle Oscar who wants in on the betting action in a role that probably could have gone to someone like Gary Oldman had the film been cast fifty years later than it was. The rest of the cast manages a couple of good moments that are mostly overshadowed by a haggard-looking John Howard Davies when he's riding the horse.
I also feel the need to warn the reader that this DVD retails for just under forty dollars. And I'm not talking about those worthless Canadian dollars, either. I'm sure Home Vision put a lot of time and money into restoring The Rocking Horse Winner, but the content is rather on the short side of Criterion Collection DVDs that are priced lower than this. I just don't see this as any sort of bargain; this is for collectors only.
The Rocking Horse Winner is a fine adaptation of a frightening short story, and it might be worth a rental some evening so long as it's carried by your local Megabuster Video Rental Chain Outlet Source™. Sadly, I just can't recommend a purchase due to the overwhelming price point.
The Rocking Horse Winner is found not guilty due to the rather faithful adaptation of the source material, but it is found guilty of undo melodrama. HVE is found guilty of price gouging. Forty bucks? There must be less money!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Michael Almeryda's Short Film "The Rocking Horse Winner"
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