Thursday, August 07, 2008

Monte Hellman's Back Door to Hell

During my holiday I watched more films than has been usual for me during the past few years. (Kauto goes normally to sleep so late that I don't feel like watching television after that.) One of the more interesting films I've lately seen was Monte Hellman's Back Door To Hell, his third theatrical film, from 1964 (apparently released in the US in January, 1965). It has been released on DVD, but seemingly only in Scandinavia and in Finland, in a helplessly wrong format. The characters on screen appear deformed and prolonged, and I couldn't do anything about it. I was watching the film with a slight headache (and a bunch of noisy neighbours!) and it must've added to the overall feeling.

Nevertheless, the film is very interesting. At first, it appears to be a mediocre war film, with minimal cast (three American soldiers, a bunch of Philippine actors and some Japs) and no real sets at all. There's also shortage of weapons almost all the time and we don't see many vehicles. This is familiar for all those who've seen Hellman's later films, such as his magnificent absurdist Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind and especially the superb Two-Lane Blacktop (which should be out on DVD; I don't know about the Westerns).

The film is dramatically pretty flat, but I think that's intentional, since the similar tone is found in Hellman's other films, too. The action scenes are effective, even though it seems they are made only by cutting between two camera drives (some of which seem to be made by hand-held cameras). They are realistic and disjointed at the same time, which adds to the peculiar feel of the film.

However, it's the ending that is the most ambivalent element in the film. One of the American soldiers (who's played by the young Jack Nicholson, who played also in The Shooting and scripted Ride in the Whirlwind) is killed, as is the leader of the Philippine guerrillas in the final shoot-out with the Japanese. Just after the climax the producer (Lippert Pictures who'd also produced lots of B Westerns, for directors like Samuel Fuller and Richard Bartlett) cuts in a long piece of footage of Americans taking over the Japs - cannons blasting, aeroplanes flying over, bombs being dropped. It feels like the producer thought Hellman shoot too few scenes and thought adding the footage would make the film more worthwhile to the drive-in crowd. However, after the added footage, there's a strange scene:

A Philippino woman asks the remaining two American soldiers: "What do we do now?" The soldier, looks down warily and mumbles: "We'll think of something." And that's that. The end. (Even though there's a ridiculous scene with Nicholson's and the Philippino guerrilla's pictures imposed over the screen, with the text that says something like "Dedicated to those who fought etc. etc.")

This seems, to my mind, to be a perfect embodiment of the psychology (or ideology or world view) of Hellman's films. The apathetic attitude towards war is the same as in The Shooting or Two-Lane Blacktop - you just do what you do, you're driven to it by fate or some such, and there's no end to it. The war in Back Door to Hell seems exactly that: endless and aimless, just like driving around USA in Two-Lane Blacktop. And this is why Back Door to Hell, a mediocre war film directed at low market audience and drive-in crowds, is an interesting film.

It's interesting to note that one of the three soldiers is played someone called John Hackett. He performed in some TV shows in the fifties and sixties, but vanished from sight in the sixties. However, he's played bit parts in some more recent films that Jack Nicholson either directed or starred in or both: The Two Jakes, Hoffa and Blood and Wine. (He has also acted as a stand-in for Nicholson.) It's heart-warming to think that Nicholson has helped his old pal.

The lead character and the leader of the soldiers is the folksy rock and roll singer Jimmie Rodgers. Strange choice, but he looks handsome and delivers the fatalistic dialogue effectively, without facial expressions. The Wikipedia article on him says that he helped finance the film.

Back Door to Hell seems to be wholly available on YouTube. And the format seems to be right. Go ahead, take a look and let me know what you think. The film has Spanish subtitles. Here's the trailer. Sorry, haven't learned how to embed clips from YouTube here. And here's a very good and thorough essay on this film and another one Hellman made with Nicholson.


Anders E said...

I have a Scandinavian (Danish publisher, Swedish liner notes, Norwegian subtitles in addition to Danish and Swedish) DVD of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND.

I haven't seen THE SHOOTING for 25-30 years, but as I recall it was a lot weirder than WHIRLWIND, which I don't think really merits the tag "absurdist".

Juri said...

Yeah, I have that, too. And yeah, you may well be right about it not being "absurdist", but there's always something unexplainable about the plot and the whole thing.