One of the great joys in watching most anything produced by The Cannon Group is recognizing and appreciating how delightfully antiquated these films appear. The disproportionate action, the garish costuming and colors, the chintzy special effects, the music: it’s all part of a distinct, paradoxically overblown and unpretentious charm that defines the best of Cannon’s immodest output. But then there’s a film like Joe, one of the earliest Cannon releases. Directed by John G. Avildsen in 1970 (between some early soft porn work and the Oscar-winning Rocky ), here is a film that is grim and intense, darkly humorous and brutally honest. What’s more, in a way that can’t be ascribed to most Cannon fare, it’s also a controversial social parable, with a striking, repulsive, and all-too-tragic relevancy.
Joe was the first screenplay by Norman Wexler, for which he would receive his first Academy Award nomination (a second was shared with Waldo Salt for 1973’s Serpico), and unlike the left-leaning counterculture seen in such prior films as 1969’s trendsetting Easy Rider, this potent, prescient feature goes all in with a central character who is extreme right-wing to his bitter core. Before meeting the eponymous Joe, however, there is Frank (Patrick McDermott), a low-rent drug dealer shacked up with his addled girlfriend, Melissa Compton (Susan Sarandon, in her impressive big screen debut). It might just be the drugs talking, but Frank espouses his own peculiar code of ethics, promoting the virtues of keeping one’s word and maintaining one’s reputation. His is a semi-skewed philosophy, true, generally glossed over in the film, but it comes back in hindsight when hippie culture is roundly condemned for its apparent lack of moral fortitude. Regarding Melissa, though, he is simply a callous bastard.
Melissa comes from the world of Upper East Side affluence, so there is a sense the young girl is slumming it a bit, caught up in the allure of a life on the margins. But Sarandon sells her genuinely frail, childlike vulnerability, with the faraway eyes of someone impaired by drug use or hopelessly in love (in her case, the two aren’t so very different). Things take a tragic turn when Melissa has a public freak-out and ends up in the hospital. Her father, Bill, a wealthy, WASPy advertising executive played by Dennis Patrick, ends up confronting Frank and delegates to him — rightly or wrongly — the responsibility for Melissa’s condition. The accusation escalates to Frank’s fatal detriment and soon thereafter, reeling from the spontaneous homicide, Bill saunters into the appropriately named American Bar & Grill, where Peter Boyle sits as Joe Curran, currently engaged of one of his emphatically prejudiced rants.
Joe spews forth a litany of offensive observations, taking to task minorities, liberals, and homosexuals as causes for his social distress (as the film progresses, he will likewise sound off on student protests, sexual liberation, communism, and so on and so on…). His toxic rhetoric is mostly tolerated by an exhausted bartender, but when his spiel inexplicably prompts Bill to admit his recent act, Joe stops dead in his tracks. Bill downplays the apparently unintentional admission, but Joe is hooked, believing he has found a kindred spirit, another white male fed up with modern times; that is, one who is hampered by a latent, deep-seated fear of change and a profound disenchantment with his own life. Subsequent scenes point toward Joe’s ominous bearing, as when Boyle’s vacant eyes glaze over in the dark and he stares at an off-screen television set (the soundtrack of TV gunfire strengthening his simmering frenzy), or when Avildsen holds on Boyle as he vigorously — too vigorously — crumples a box of Ritz crackers.
What gets Bill into trouble is his perverse curiosity. The insipid businessman admires Joe, in a sense, intrigued and a little confused by his candor and his unfiltered bombast. For his part, Joe is in awe of Bill, whom he believes to be a fellow crusader for an abnormally distorted value system. Bill refers to his own class as “my kind of animal” and he mocks their shallow banalities. He and Joe make crude jokes at a urinal and share an insidious disillusionment. Bill finds Joe refreshing and “different” — “That’s for sure,” says Bill’s skeptical wife, Joan (Audrey Caire), who more adamantly derides Joe’s lowbrow ilk but also acknowledges the benefit in staying on his good side, since he knows the truth behind Frank’s death. Not a whole lot happens during Joe’s midsection, so Avildsen and Wexler utilize the ostensible downtime to develop and delve into the capricious nature of this unlikely friendship. Bill gets it right when he suggests his deed is like a twisted host for Joe’s vicarious, parasitic aggression.
It’s rather disturbing how Joe’s lack of immediate action evokes an anxious impatience, as one senses the rage boiling within Joe, rising to the surface, and anticipates the inevitable release. Like Bill, we are unreasonably involved with this character. It’s like driving on the freeway and watching a car careen erratically out of control; we might not want to see the impending crash, but we know it’s bound to happen and so approach cautiously curious, wishing that if it’s going to happen, it happens sooner than later so we can let our guard down. Part of the reluctant draw is certainly how Avildsen and Wexler craft the film, balancing the aversion with the fascination, but the primary association is tendered by Boyle’s significant performance. Looking less like a movie star and more like someone’s disgruntled uncle, Boyle aptly expresses Joe’s complexities and contradictions, which are usually objectionable yet nonetheless surprising. He’s a blue-collar veteran, a working-class stiff, but he’s also an Archie Bunker-esque buffoon and an ignorant reactionary who embeds his bigotry within the guise of a poisonous patriotism. And still, he’s somehow married. He and his earnest wife, Mary Lou (K Callan), even invite the Comptons to a doomed dinner party at their humble Queens home. Joe’s domestic situation thus brings to mind a quote from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006): “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead: lets people know you’re not a homo; married guy seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least somebody can stand the son of a bitch….” So yes, for all that he is, and he is a son of a bitch, Joe is still loved. Later, when he and Bill journey to Greenwich Village, where they hope to track down runaway Melissa, Joe conveys an interested disdain for the bohemian crowd, what with their “screwin’ and groovin’” and their eating of food “in accordance with the order of the universe.” At the same time, he and Bill barely hesitate when asked to a local party (Joe can’t pronounce “orgy”), where they arrive with a trunk full of Frank’s drugs and awkwardly partake in the psychedelic festivities, a sequence that exposes their hypocritical underpinning.
Boyle was apparently appalled by Joe and swore off such characters in the future. The closest he came is arguably his portrayal of seasoned cabbie Wizard in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although in that film he is the voice of reason to Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro’s intolerant psychotic who similarly complains about the supposed deterioration of American culture and its composition not fitting his prescribed view. To be sure, Joe begins with an unflinching depiction of drug use, a gritty and coarse and admittedly a less-than-glamorous lifestyle. In general, like Taxi Driver, this is a pretty bleak picture of the American condition with no middle ground. On one hand, it checks off most every feral hippie cliché in the book, but it also goes the other way as well, with Joe. Avildsen, who served as his own cinematographer, presents a visual containment of his problematic protagonist that is at once impassive (merely taking it all in) and manipulative (only seeing precisely what he wants us to see). This is illustrated in the film’s canny production design, especially in Joe’s basement man cave where one glimpses all the timeworn hallmarks: the ubiquitous American flag, the deer head mounted on a wall, the gun cabinet, the cans of beer, etc. Joe even gets a theme song of sorts, Dean Michaels’ “Hey Joe” (not the Hendrix track), which further underscores his violent, woeful temperament. There can, undoubtedly, be a fine line between authenticity and outright parody, but as Joe demonstrates on both sides of its ideological division, the picture rings true either way, just because it is often, in fact, so accurate.
Not the most thoughtful film ever made, Joe nevertheless reaches a deeper truth behind its surface exploitation, transcending what and how it exploits and touching on humanity’s baser instincts and impulses, from revenge and substance abuse to unabashed bigotry. It’s surely contrived in its aim, and some of its superficial aspects have dated, but its rancorous presentation of a generational divide (which would have been more prominent with the film’s original title, “The Gap”) remains topical. Joe was also a surprise hit at the box office, to the point contemporary viewers cheered the film’s massacre finale. Not surprisingly, as a result, the Cannon team entertained off and on sequel pitches through the 1980s. But Joe ultimately stands alone, as something relatively unique in American cinema and, as a toned-down, credible production, in the Cannon canon. Like other, more typical Cannon features, however, like the testosterone-fueled flamboyance of their 1980s action bonanzas, it is highly characteristic of its era, nourishing the appetite of the period’s moviegoing populace and tapping into their desires and their social consciousness. With those later movies, though — and this is where Joe distinguishes itself — it was always easy to assume an amused detachment from the obviously fictionalized embellishment, a stance even more appreciable as audiences grew decades removed from the respective film’s outmoded form and content. Not so with Joe, a film that even now strikes an unnerving chord. Perhaps it too would align with these other Cannon productions if we weren’t still today confronted with such rancor, in real life and on a daily basis.