Two men, their hands tied behind their backs, flee across a beach at dawn. MacConnachie (Robert Shaw), the older of the two men heads inland with murderous intent. Ansell (Malcolm McDowell), nervous and reluctant, trails behind him. In the skies, an anonymous helicopter searches for them.
Largely forgotten it seems, Joseph Losey’s on-the-run thriller Figures in a Landscape is an absolute gem begging for 21st century audiences to rediscover it. It presents an intimate story against a grand backdrop, and draws enormous, gripping thrills out of a very simple and elegant premise. In many ways it is a miracle the film was made at all, let alone be as creatively potent as it turned out to be. Over a prolonged four-month shoot the film lost both a director (Peter Medak, replaced by Joseph Losey) and a star (Peter O’Toole quitting and getting replaced by screenwriter Robert Shaw).
There is an immediacy to the film, simply because everything has been stripped back from the narrative. There is no significant back story – just hints and scraps related periodically during down periods – and this perversely makes both protagonists more widely identifiable to the audience. One is a gruff, relentlessly antagonistic bully. The other is more fearful and certainly less experienced, but his cautious nature makes him a more valuable asset to the escape. Anything else would unnecessarily complicate Shaw’s blunt, fast-paced story.
McDowell and Shaw both deliver strong and complementary performances, a necessity given how much of the film consists of them bickering as they sneak around a Southern European wilderness (the film was shot on location in Andalucia). Both develop interesting facets: when push comes to shove, Ansell (McDowell) has more grit than he gives himself credit for. Conversely there is a brittle personality buried underneath MacConnachie’s threats and bluster, and as events progress he begins to crack under the strain. Together they present an effective master class in acting, and bring the film to life.
The anonymous helicopter provides a third major character. We do not get the opportunity to really see its occupants, but it lurks and menaces with a visible sense of play. It expresses a self-satisfied kind of cruelty as it intimidates and stalks its human targets. It is a relentless and inhuman antagonist from beginning to end, returning just when the story needs it the most. Either side of the helicopter’s appearances MacConnachie and Ansell shift between running for their lives, fighting back against ground patrols, hiding from sight, and sneaking around the isolated villages in their way. There are few moments in the film that are not laced with tension.
To a large degree Figures in a Landscape can be seen as an experimental film, taking detail out and stripping back to the bare minimum of content. It lends the film a tremendous sense of purity: taking out trivia and detail and allowing the purer action and emotion to be better revealed. Its innovations have led it to date much less obviously that other 20th century thrillers of its type. Indeed, it feels unexpectedly contemporary, and viscerally engaging to watch.