Horror on the Lens: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jakob, and Jack Nicholson)


(As some of you may have noticed, I shared this movie last year as well.  I figured I might as well post it again this year.  Plus, it’s Boris Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller!  Why not post it again?)

Have you ever woken up and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see a movie where a youngish Jack Nicholson played a French soldier who, while searching for a mysterious woman, comes across a castle that’s inhabited by both Dick Miller and Boris Karloff?”

Of course you have!  Who hasn’t?

Well, fortunately, it’s YouTube to the rescue.  In Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, Jack Nicholson is the least believable 19th century French soldier ever.  However, it’s still interesting to watch him before he became a cinematic icon.  (Judging from his performance here and in Cry Baby Killer, Jack was not a natural-born actor.)  Boris Karloff is, as usual, great and familiar Corman actor Dick Miller gets a much larger role than usual.  Pay attention to the actress playing the mysterious woman.  That’s Sandra Knight who, at the time of filming, was married to Jack Nicholson.

Reportedly, The Terror was one of those films that Corman made because he still had the sets from his much more acclaimed film version of The Raven.  The script was never finished, the story was made up as filming moved alone, and no less than five directors shot different parts of this 81 minute movie.  Among the directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Jack Nicholson himself!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the final film is a total mess but it does have some historical value.

(In typical Corman fashion, scenes from The Terror were later used in the 1968 film, Targets.)

Check out The Terror below!

 

Horror on the Lens: The Little Shop of Horrors (dir by Roger Corman)


(It’s tradition here at the Lens that, every October, we watch the original Little Shop of Horrors.  And always, I start things off by telling this story…)

Enter singing.

Little Shop…Little Shop of Horrors…Little Shop…Little Shop of Terrors…

Hi!  Good morning and Happy October the 2nd!  For today’s plunge into the world of public domain horror films, I’d like to present you with a true classic.  From 1960, it’s the original Little Shop of Horrors!

When I was 19 years old, I was in a community theater production of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  Though I think I would have made the perfect Audrey, everybody always snickered whenever I sang so I ended up as a part of “the ensemble.”  Being in the ensemble basically meant that I spent a lot of time dancing and showing off lots of cleavage.  And you know what?  The girl who did play Audrey was screechy, off-key, and annoying and after every show, all the old people in the audience always came back stage and ignored her and went straight over to me.  So there.

Anyway, during rehearsals, our director thought it would be so funny if we all watched the original film.  Now, I’m sorry to say, much like just about everyone else in the cast, this was my first exposure to the original and I even had to be told that the masochistic dentist patient was being played by Jack Nicholson.  However, I’m also very proud to say that — out of that entire cast — I’m the only one who understood that the zero-budget film I was watching was actually better than the big spectacle we were attempting to perform on stage.  Certainly, I understood the film better than that screechy little thing that was playing Audrey.

The first Little Shop of Horrors certainly isn’t scary and there’s nobody singing about somewhere that’s green (I always tear up when I hear that song, by the way).  However, it is a very, very funny film with the just the right amount of a dark streak to make it perfect Halloween viewing.

So, if you have 72 minutes to kill, check out the original and the best Little Shop of Horrors

Horror Scenes That I Love: The Drive to the Overlook from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining


As I’ve stated many times on this site, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of my favorite horror films and it’s also one of the few horror films that can still scare me even after I’ve seen it hundreds of time.  Those two little “Come and play with us” girls still freak me out and I still think about the blood pouring out of that elevator at least once a month.

That said, one of my favorite scenes from The Shining comes early on in the film.  It’s the scene where Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, of course) is driving his family to the Overlook Hotel for the first time.  He’s already visited for his job interview but this is the first time that his family is going to see their new home.  And, as you can tell in this scene, he already appears to be kind of sick of them.

Seriously, when someone is driving and has that expression on his face, don’t ask him about the Donner Party.

What I love about this scene is Nicholson’s obvious exasperation.  You can just tell that he’s thinking, “I’m going to be stuck in a hotel with these two for months.”  I especially love the way that he delivers the line about Danny learning about cannibalism from the television.  (Of course, I think one reason why Jack is upset is because Wendy’s the one who brought up the Donner Party, in the first place.  If you don’t want your child to know about cannibalism, don’t randomly start talking about a famous example of it.  That’s parenting 101, I’d think.)

Seriously, if I was a passenger in that car, that is exactly when I would say, “Pull over and let me out.  This is not going to end well.”

The Pledge (2001, directed by Sean Penn)


Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) is a detective who, on the verge of retirement, goes to one final crime scene.  The victim is a child named Ginny Larsen and when Ginny’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) demands that Jerry not only promise to find the murderer but that he pledge of his immortal soul that he’ll do it, it’s a pledge that Jerry takes seriously.  Jerry’s partner, Stan (Aaron Eckhart), manages to get a confession from a developmentally disabled man named Jay Wadenah (Benicio del Toro) but Jerry doesn’t believe that the confession is authentic.  When Wadenah commits suicide in his cell, the police are ready to close the case but Jerry remembers his pledge.  He remains determined to find the real killer.

Even though he’s retired, the case continues to obsess Jerry.  He becomes convinced that Ginny was the latest victim of a serial killer and he even buys a gas station because it’s located in the center of where most of the murders were committed.  Jerry befriend a local waitress named Lori (Robin Wright) and, when Lori tells him about her abusive ex, he invites Lori and her daughter to stay with him.  Lori’s daughter, Chrissy (Pauline Roberts), is around Ginny’s age and when she tells Jerry about a “wizard” who gives her toys, Jerry becomes convinced that she’s being targeted by the same man who killed Ginny.  Even as Jerry and Lori fall in love, the increasingly unhinged Jerry makes plans to use Chrissy as bait to bring the killer out of hiding.

The Pledge was Sean Penn’s third film as a director.  As with all of Penn’s directorial efforts, with the notable exception of Into The Wild, The Pledge is relentlessly grim.  Freed, by virtue of his celebrity, from worrying about whether or not anyone would actually want to sit through a depressing two-hour film about murdered children, Penn tells a story with no definite resolution and no real hope for the future.  The Pledge is a cop film without action and a mystery without a real solution and a character study of a man whose mind you don’t want to enter.  It’s well-made and it will keep you guess but it’s also slow-paced and not for the easily depressed.

The cast is made up of familiar character actors, most of whom probably took their roles as a favor to Penn.  Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Noonan, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Shephard, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Mickey Rourke have all got small roles and they all give good performances, even if it’s sometimes distracting to have even the smallest, most inconsequential of roles played by someone familiar.  Most importantly, The Pledge actually gives Jack Nicholson a real role to play.  Jerry Black is actually an interesting and complex human being and Nicholson dials back his usual shtick and instead actually makes the effort to explore what makes Jerry tick and what lays at the root of his obsession.

Though definitely not for everyone, The Pledge sticks with you and shows what Jack Nicholson, who now appears to be retired from acting, was capable of when given the right role.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #18: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (dir by Roger Corman)


On February 14th, 1929, seven men were murdered in a garage in Chicago, Illinois.  Five of the seven men were known to be associates of gangster George “Bugs” Moran.  The other two men were considered to be innocent bystanders, a mechanic and a dry cleaner who just happened to enjoy hanging out with gangsters.  Though no one was ever convicted of the crime, it was well-known that the murders were carried out on the orders of Al Capone.

In many ways, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a turning point in America’s relationship with organized crime.  Before the massacre, Capone had become a bit of a folk hero.  He knew how to talk to the press and he was viewed as merely breaking a law (in this case, prohibition) that most people opposed in the first place.  However, after the murders, public opinion soured on Capone.

Some of it was the brutality of the crime.  It’s been said that over five hundred bullets were fired in that garage, all to kill seven defenseless men who were lined up against a wall.  Grisly pictures of the victims were released to the press.  Perhaps if the seven men had been carrying weapons and had been involved in a shootout with their murderers, the public’s reaction would have been different.  But this was a cold-blooded execution.

Personally, I think the fact that the killers disguised themselves as cops also played a role in the public’s outrage.  It was a very calculated move on the part of the killers and it highlighted just how much planning went into the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  As well, it undoubtedly made people paranoid.  If a bunch of killer could dress up like cops, who knew who else they could dress up as?

Finally, I think that Capone’s biggest mistake was carrying out the crime on Valentine’s Day.  You don’t murder people on a holiday.  Anyone should know that.  If Capone had waited until February 20th, he probably could have gotten away with it.

The 1967 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, details the rivalry between Capone and Moran, starting with them fighting for control over the Chicago rackets and ending with the title event.  Moran is played by Ralph Meeker while Jason Robards plays Capone.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking.  Perennial WASP Jason Robards as Al Capone?  That may sound like odd casting and, let’s just be honest here, it is.  However, it actually kind of works.  Robards may not be convincingly Italian but he is convincingly ruthless.  Add to that, one of the major subplots of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is that, even as the head of the Chicago Outfit, Capone still feels like an outsider in the world of organized crime because, while he is Italian, he isn’t Sicilian.  Capone feels as if Lucky Luciano and all of the major New York crime bosses look down on him and one reason why he’s so ruthless about taking over Chicago is that wants to show Luciano that he can be just as effective a crime lord as any Sicilian.  Capone feeling out of place in the Mafia is reflected by Robards initially seeming to be out of place in a gangster film.  By the end of the movie, of course, Capone has proven himself and so has Jason Robards.

Robards isn’t the only familiar face to be found in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Though this film was released by 20th Century Fox, it was directed by Roger Corman and Corman fills the production with members of his stock company.  Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Jack Nicholson all have small roles as gunmen.  Bruce Dern plays the unlucky mechanic who enjoys hanging out with gangsters.  Buck Taylor, Leo Gordon, and Joe Turkel all have small roles.  John Agar plays Dion O’Bannon and is gunned down in his flower store.  Though not members of the Corman stock company, George Segal and David Canary plays brothers who work for Moran.  There’s a lot of characters wandering through this film but Corman makes sure that everyone gets a chance to make an impression.

It’s a good gangster film.  Though he was working with a larger budget than usual, Corman still brought his exploitation film aesthetic to the material and the end result is a violent, melodramatic gangster film that looks really impressive.  The film’s recreation of 1920s Chicago is a visual delight and looking at the well-dressed and stylish gangsters walking and driving down the vibrant city streets, you can understand why organized crime would have such a draw for some people.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a classic gangster film and a classic Corman film.  It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.

 

An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)


The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

Film Review: The Passenger (dir by Michelangelo Antonioni)


The 1975 film, The Passenger, tells the story of David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

Locke is a television news journalist.  From what we can gather, he’s respected from his colleagues, even though he doesn’t seem to be extremely close to anyone, including his wife (Jenny Runacre).  Everyone thinks that Locke is dead.  They believe that he was found dead in a hotel room in Africa, the victim of a heart attack.  What they don’t know is that Locke is actually alive.  He switched identities with Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), the man who actually was found dead in the hotel room.  After years of reporting on a world that appears to be going insane, Locke has decided that it’s time for a fresh start.  He no longer wants to deal with his marriage, his career, or anything else that used to define David Locke as a person.  He now just wants to be Robertson.

Of course, the problem with this plan is that Robertson had a life before Locke appropriated it.  Locke discovers that Robertson was not only a gun runner but he was also supplying weaponry to the same rebels that Locke, in his previous life, traveled to Africa to do a story on.  Since Locke has Robertson’s appointment book, he decides to keep all of Robertson’s meeting across Europe.

Meanwhile, Locke’s wife is curious to know about her husband’s final moments and, for that reason, she wants to speak with this mysterious Robertson, who was the last person to reportedly see her husband alive.  Locke’s friend, Martin (Ian Hendry) sets out to try to track down Robertson.  Locke, meanwhile, has met an architecture student (Maria Schneider), with whom he embarks on a passionate affair despite not ever learning her name.

The Passenger famously ends with a seven minute tracking shot, one that begins in a hotel room and then moves out into the hotel’s courtyard before then returning to the hotel room.  While the audience is watching the action unfold in the courtyard, something very important happens inside of that hotel room.  In fact, what happens in the hotel room is probably the most important moment of the entire film and yet director Michelangelo Antonioni only shows us the events leading up to the moment and the events immediately afterwards.  Antonioni leaves it up to the audience to determine exactly what happened inside of that hotel room.  It’s a bold move on his part and it’s also the perfect way to end this film.  The Passenger is a film about detachment and it only makes sense that the film would end with the ultimate statement of detachment, with the emphasis being less on what’s happening in the hotel room and more on the fact that life, in all of its random and confusing messiness, will continue regardless of how the story of David Locke turns out.

It’s definitely not a film for everyone.  Those who watch the film excepting a typically explosive Jack Nicholson performance will probably be surprised to discover that Jack plays a rather quiet character in The Passenger, one who is often so introverted that it’s a struggle to figure out what exactly is going on inside of his mind.  Locke thinks that, as a journalist, he understands the world but, when he becomes Robertson, he discovers that there’s a big difference between reporting a story and actually being a part of that story.  It’s an odd experience, watching Jack Nicholson play a character who is essentially in over his head.  And yet, this is is also one of Nicholson’s best performances.  Freed up from his usual tricks, Nicholson gives a vulnerable and ultimately rather sad performance as a man who realizes too late that he’s grown so detached from the world that he no longer really has an identity.

The Passenger‘s a difficult but intriguing film.  It’s a classic of the 70s and features Jack Nicholson at his best.

Film Review: Psych-Out (dir by Richard Rush)


There’s a scene in the 1968 film, Psych-Out, in which a group of hippies are talking to be a liberal-minded minister, asking him if a mysterious figure known as “The Seeker” has even come by his church.  The minister tells them that he has not seen the Seeker, though he has heard of him.  As the hippies politely leave the church, one of them accidentally brushes past a middle-aged woman.  Though the hippie politely apologizes, the woman is still obviously disgusted by his presence in the church.  She asks her companion how the minister can possibly allow people who “dress like that” into the church.

As the woman complains, the camera focuses in on the stained glass window directly over her shadow.  There’s Jesus and the disciples.  They’ve all got beards.  They all have long hair.  They’re all wearing simple clothing …. oh my God, they’re hippies!

That’s actually one of the more subtle moments to be found in Psych-Out, an entertainingly heavy-handed film about hippies and wanderers in California.  Psych-Out was made at the height of the counter culture.  It was filmed on location in the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury, where both the love and the clothes are free and no one is about judging anyone else’s thing.  Into this neighborhood comes Jenny Davis (Susan Strasberg), who has run away from home and who is looking for her brother, Steve (Bruce Dern).  Jenny may have been raised in a conservative household but she’s eager to embrace the counter-culture.  Jenny is also deaf but she can read lips.  She also has the police looking for her but fear not!  The residents of Haight-Ashbury look after one another!  They have to, considering that there are still cops and even a few rednecks hanging out around the neighborhood.

No sooner has Jenny arrived in San Francisco than she falls in with a 30-something hippie named Stoney (Jack Nicholson, with a pony tail).  Stoney is a member of a band, along with Elwood (Max Julien) and Ben (Adam Roarke).  Even though Stoney says that he doesn’t care about material goods, he’s still eager to become a rock star.  Stoney also says that he doesn’t want to get tied down by any commitments.  He wants to do his own thing.  He may sleep with Jenny but that doesn’t mean that either one belongs to the other.  Stoney may say that but he certainly gets jealous when he sees Jenny talking to the local guru, Dave (Dean Stockwell).  Dave calls Stoney for being a phony.  “You may be righteous but you’re not hip,” Dave tells him.   Can Stoney become both righteous and hip before the film ends?  Can Jenny find her brother?  Will the band get signed to a recording contract and will the menacing junkyard rednecks ever see the errors of their fascist ways?

Today, of course, Jack Nicholson is probably the main reason why most people would want to see Psych-Out.  Ironically, for a figure who is so identified with the counter-culture, Jack Nicholson did not make for a very convincing hippie.  A lot of that is because Nicholson’s trademark sarcasm (which is on full display in Psych-Out, as this is a far more typical Nicholson performance than the one that would make him a star a year later in Easy Rider) owed more to the beats than to the hippies.  Nicolson’s persona always had more in common with Jack Kerouac than Abbie Hoffman.  In Psych-Out, he comes across as being too much of a natural skeptic to fit in with the free-spirited hippies all around him.  Nicholson is fun to watch because he’s Jack Nicholson but you never buy him as someone who would really want to live in a commune where no one has any possessions and money is frowned upon.

Dean Stockwell, on the other hand, is a totally believable hippie guru though, to his credit, his still brings some welcome wit to his role.  The script may call for him to recite some fairly shallow platitudes but he does so with just enough of a smile to let use know that not even Dave takes himself that seriously.  As for the rest of the cast, Bruce Dern gets to do his spaced-out routine and Henry Jaglom, who would later become an insufferably self-important director, plays an artist with huge sideburns who tries to chop off his hand while having a bad trip.  Jenny is horrified but everyone tells her not to judge.  Susan Strasberg is sympathetic as Jenny and is convincing as a deaf character.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give her much to do other than walk around San Francisco with a dazed expression on her face and stare lovingly up at Jack Nicholson.

Psych-Out‘s greatest value is probably as a time capsule.  It was filmed on location and it features actual hippies.  Watching it is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and go back to San Francisco in 1968.  Of course, judging from this film, San Francisco in 1968 wasn’t that appealing of a place but still, Psych-Out remains an entertainingly silly historical document.  Just a year after the release of Psych-Out, Charles Manson and his followers would come out of the canyons and the Altamont Free Concert would end in murder and the 60s would come to an abrupt end.  Watching Psych-Out, it’s hard to believe all of that was right around the corner.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Jack Nicholson Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is Jack Nicholson’s 83rd birthday!

It’s been ten years since Jack Nicholson last appeared in a movie, the forgettable How Do You Know.  Rumor has it that he’s basically retired from acting, though it’s said that Nicholson himself has denied it.  However, whether he’s working or not, he remains a screen icon with a filmography that is a cinema lover’s dream.  He’s worked with everyone from Roger Corman to Stanley Kubrick to Milos Forman to Martin Scorsese and, along the way, he’s become a symbol of a very American-type of rebel.  Though often associated with the counter-culture, his style has always been too aggressive and idiosyncratic for him to be a believable hippie.  Instead, he’s one of the last of the beats, an outsider searching for meaning in Americana.

Over the course of his career, Nicholson has won three Oscars and been nominated for a total of 12.  He’s the only actor to have been nominated in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.  If he ever writes his autobiography, you know that we’ll all run out and buy a copy.  When the day comes that Jack Nicholson is no longer with us, it will truly be the end of an era.

Happy birthday, Jack Nicholson.  May you have many happy returns!

4 Shots From 4 Films

Psych-Out (1968, dir by Richard Rush)

Carnal Knowledge (1971, dir by Mike Nichols)

The Shining (1980, dir by Stanley Kubrick)

The Departed (2006, dir by Martin Scorsese)

Mardi Gras Film Review: Easy Rider (dir by Dennis Hopper)


If you are among those who wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras today but couldn’t make it down to New Orleans, fear not!  There is a solution to your problem.  You can always just watch 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider.

Easy Rider features one of the most famous Mardi Gras scenes of all time and adding to the scene’s authenticity is the fact that it was actually shot in New Orleans during the celebration.  If you watch the Mardi Gras sequence carefully, you’ll notice that several people on the streets of the French Quarter actually stop and stare directly at the camera.  It reminds you that you’re watching a movie but, at the same time, it also reminds you that you’re seeing something authentic.  Those weren’t just professional extras pretending to get drunk and glaring at Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.  Those were people who were actually in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and who just happened to end up getting included in one of the biggest cult films of all time.  If you want to know what Mardi Gras was like in the late 60s, this is the film to watch.

At the same time, after watching Easy Rider, you may be find yourself happy to not be in New Orleans today.  As with almost everything else in Easy Rider, Mardi Gras starts out as something exciting and full of promise but it ends as something dark and full of death.  One minute, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, and Toni Basil are walking down the streets of New Orleans and having what appears to be a good time.  The next thing you know, they’re in a cemetery and Peter Fonda’s sobbing and talking about his mother’s suicide while Toni Basil and Karen Black are freaking out.  Of the four of them, only Dennis Hopper appears to not be having a bad trip but then again, Hopper is so naturally spacey in Easy Rider that it’s kind of hard to tell.

The next morning, Fonda and Hopper leave New Orleans on their motorcycles and promptly get blown away by two shotgun-toting rednecks in a pickup truck.  It seems a fitting conclusion to a film that celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while, at the same time, suggesting that almost everyone who lives there is a complete and total prick.

Of course, the whole Mardi Gras sequence doesn’t occur until the very end of the film.  The majority of the film deals with the journey to New Orleans.  Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who have just made a small fortune off of selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Billy and Wyatt are heading to New Orleans to celebrate and visit a famous brothel.  Wyatt is cool and stoic and always seems to be thinking about something.  Billy is Dennis Hopper.  Easy Rider is often referred to as being a hippie film but neither Billy nor Wyatt is really a hippie.  They’re outsiders and they like to smoke weed but they’re also largely apolitical.  They just want to enjoy the open road.  If anything, they’re beatniks who were born a year or two too late.

As they ride from California to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt meet plenty of people along the way.  They stop off at a hippie commune and then later, they get harassed by a bunch of rednecks in a diner.  The rednecks are menacing while the hippies are annoying.  The rednecks throw Wyatt and Billy in jail for “parading without a permit.”  The hippies have a mime troupe.  The rednecks drive around with shotguns.  The hippies try to grow crops in the desert.  (I’m enough of a country girl to know that Billy’s right when he scornfully says that nothing that they’re planting is going to actually grow.)  The rednecks are ignorant.  The hippies are smug.  None of them really seem like people that you would want to spend too much time around.

Along the way, Wyatt and Billy temporarily travel with two others.  The hitchhiker is played by Luke Askew.  We never learn his name but he does play a key role in the film when he gives Wyatt the tab of acid that will eventually ruin Mardi Gras.  Meanwhile, George Hanson is an alcoholic lawyer and he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  At the time that the film was shot, Nicholson was on the verge of retiring from acting so he could concentrate on directing and writing.  He took the role and expected, as almost everyone did, that Easy Rider would just be another biker film.  Instead, Easy Rider became a hit and a cultural milestone that not only won Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination but also made him a star.

Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson is not really that good in Easy Rider.  His attempt at a Texas accent is terrible and you never believe him as someone who has never smoked weed before.  If anything, Luke Askew gives a far better performance than Nicholson and he actually has more screen time as well.  However, I think Nicholson benefited from the fact that George is probably the most likable character in the film.  (Depending on how you feel about Billy and Wyatt, you could argue that he’s the only likable character in the film.)  He’s not a smug hippie nor is he a murderous redneck.  Unlike Wyatt and Billy, he has a job that doesn’t involve selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Whereas Luke Askew’s Hitchhiker seems like the type of guy who would just love to lecture you about why Vietnam is all your fault, George comes across as being a gentle soul. George is a character that viewers can feel safe identifying with, even if Nicholson is never quite convincing as someone so naive that he fears he’ll freak out after taking one hit off of a joint.

Easy Rider‘s critical reputation tends to go up and down, depending on who you’re reading or talking to.  There’s a tendency, among many critics, to complain that Fonda acted too little while Hopper acted too much.  Personally, I think there’s a lot of hidden wit to be found in Hopper’s performance and I love how annoyed he gets when they’re at the hippie compound.  As for Peter Fonda, he may not have been the most expressive actor but he did capture a certain feeling of ennui.  For most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything actually going on in Wyatt’s head.  Then, we follow Wyatt and Billy to that cemetery in New Orleans and we discover that there’s actually quite a bit going on behind Wyatt’s wall of stoicism.  After watching Wyatt curse at a statue while sobbing, we understand why he keeps so much hidden.

When it was released in 1969, Easy Rider was a huge box office success and it inspired every major studio to try to duplicate it’s success with a counter culture film of its own.  (Hopper was given several million dollars and sent down to Peru to make a follow-up to Easy Rider.  The result was The Last Movie, a legendary disaster that temporarily ended Hopper’s career as a director.)  Seen today, Easy Rider is undeniably pretentious but always watchable.  The scenery is beautiful and the Mardi Gras sequence sets the standard by which all other bad trips should be judged.  Most importantly, the film works as a historical document.  Everything about it — from the music to the cultural attitudes to even Hopper’s attempts to imitate Jean-Luc Godard in his direction — makes this film into a time capsule.  Until they invent a time machine that works, Easy Rider is as close as some of us will ever get to experiencing the end of the 60s.

And finally, it’s the ultimate Mardi Gras film, even if it’s main message seems to be that everyone needs to stay the Hell away from Mardi Gras.  Or, at the very least, don’t accept LSD from a scruffy hitchhiker before rolling into New Orleans.  Seriously, the more you know….