Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (dir by Milos Forman)


Technically, the 1975 film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is not a horror film.

Though it may take place in a creepy mental hospital, there are no ghosts or zombies.  There’s no masked killer wandering the halls.  The shadows do not leap off the walls and there are no ghostly voice in the night, unless you count the rarely heard voice of Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden.

Admittedly, the cast is full of horror and paranormal veterans.  Michael Berryman, of the original Hills Have Eyes, plays a patient.  Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for playing the role of Nurse Ratched, went on to play intimidating matriarchs in any number of low-budget horror movies.  Vincent Schiavelli, a patient in this film, played the angry subway ghost in Ghost.  Another patient, Sidney Lassick, played Carrie’s condescending English teacher in Carrie.  Brad Dourif, who received an Oscar nomination for playing the meek Billy Bibbit, has become a horror mainstay.  Will Sampson appeared in the Poltergeist sequel.  Both Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson would go on to appear in The Shining.

Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a career criminal who, hoping to get out of prison early, pretends to be mentally ill.  He ends up getting sent to an Oregon mental institution, where his rebellious ways upset the administrators while, at the same time, inspiring the patients to actually try to take some control over their lives.  The film is, in many ways, a celebration of personal freedom and rebellion.  The only catch here is that, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, being a little bit too rebellious can lead to not only electroshock treatment but also a lobotomy.  Those in charge have a way of making you permanently compliant.

And really, to me, that’s what makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a horror film.  It’s about the horror of conformity and bureaucracy.  The film may start out as something of a comedy and Nicholson brings a devil-may-care attitude to the role of McMurphy but then, eventually, you reach the scene where McMurphy is tied down and given electrical shocks to make him compliant.  You reach the scene where Ratched coldly informs Billy Bibbit that she will be telling his mother that Billy lost his virginity to a prostitute and Billy reacts by slicing open his wrists.  Finally, you reach the scene where McMurphy returns to the ward having had a bit of his brain removed.  In those scenes, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest becomes a horror movie.  The monster is not a ghost or a demon or a serial killer.  Instead, it’s a system that is determined to squash out any bit of rebellion or free thought.

What makes Nurse Ratched such a great villain is the fact that, as opposed to being some sort of a maniacal force of evil, she’s really just someone doing her job and refusing to question her methods.  She’s the ultimate symbol of bland authoritarianism.  Her job is to keep the patients from getting out of control and, if that means lobotomizing them and driving one of them to suicide …. well, that’s what she’s going to do.  For all the time that Ratched spends talking about therapy, her concern is not “curing” the patients or even helping them reach a point where they can leave the hospital and go one with their lives.  Ratched’s concern is keeping everyone in their place.  As played by Fletcher, Ratched epitomizes the banality of evil.  (That’s one reason why it was so silly for Ryan Murphy to devote his most recent Netflix series to giving her an over-the-top origin story.  Ratched is a great villain because she doesn’t have any complex motivations.  She’s just doing whatever she has to do to keep control of the people are on her ward.  Part of keeping control is not to allow anyone to question her methods.  Everyone has had to deal with a Nurse Ratched at some point in the life.  With the elections coming up, we’re about to be introduced to whole new collection of Nurse Ratcheds.)

I like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, even though it’s an undeniably dated film.  That said, it’s not as dated as the novel on which it’s based, nor is it as appallingly misogynistic.  Jack Nicholson’s rough but charismatic performance holds up wonderfully well.  (I don’t know if an actor has ever matched a character as perfectly as Nicholson does with McMurphy.)  Louise Fletcher brings a steely resolve to the role of Nurse Ratched.  Fans of spotting character actors in early roles will probably get a kick out of spotting both Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as patients.  The movie skillfully combines drama with comedy and the ending manages to be both melancholy and hopeful.

When it comes to the 1975 Oscar race …. well, I don’t know if I would argue that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win Best Picture over Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, or Barry Lyndon or Jaws.  Dog Day Afternoon and Nashville feel as if they were ahead of their time, with their examination of the media and politics.  Jaws set the template for almost every blockbuster that would follow and it’s certainly one of the most influential horror films ever made.  Barry Lyndon is a stunning technical achievement.  Compared to those films, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest seems rather simplistic.  Watching it today, you’re very much aware of how much of the film’s power is due to Jack Nicholson’s magnetic screen presence.  Nicholson definitely deserved his Oscar but it’s debatable whether or not the same can be said of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a whole.

So no, I wouldn’t necessary say that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the best of the films nominated that year.  Still, it’s an entertaining film and a helluva ride.  It’s a great film to watch whenever you’re sick of faceless bureaucrats trying to tell you what to do.  And, in its own odd way, it’s a great film for Halloween season.

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)