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  • 15
  • Drama
  • 1970
  • 102 mins




Peter Boyle plays the bigot Joe in this dramatic snapshot of post-1960s America. John G Avildsen (Rocky) directs


As wide-eyed New Yorker Melissa Compton (Susan Sarandon) walks from her parents' swanky apartment to the altogether less salubrious Greenwich Village abode of her drug dealing boyfriend Frank Russo (Patrick McDermott), a title sequence filters her journey through the red, white and blue of the US flag, all to the lyrics of a song that asks "Where are you going?"

Once you have got over the initial shock of seeing Sarandon as Melissa stripping naked and partaking of illicit substances within the first few minutes of her on-screen debut, you will quickly notice that Joe is a film of contrasts and confrontations designed to capture the state of the American nation at the close of the 1960s - when Nixon was in, Vietnam was on, and the Manson murders had turned the hippie dream into a nightmare. Between the film's wrap in February of 1970 and its theatrical release in July of the same year, America would bear witness to the Kent State and Jackson State shootings, as well as the Wall Street 'hard hat' riots, all of which took place in May 1970.

Evidently, with reactionary forces turning violently against the country's youth movements, the film's fictions were fast being overtaken by realities on the ground. The screenplay by Norman Wexler (who would go on to pen Serpico and Saturday Night Fever) was eerily prescient, tapping right into the tensions of its times with all of the downbeat ferocity - but none of the zombies - of Night Of The Living Dead (1969).

After Melissa ODs on speed and ends up in hospital, her father, advertising executive Bill (Dennis Patrick), goes to pick up her clothes and, in a rage, beats Frank to death. Horrified by what he has done, Bill retreats to the American Bar & Grill where he meets Joe Curran (Peter Boyle), a working-class veteran and patriot who also just happens to be a racist, sexist homophobe filled with hatred for anything and everything that has come out of the last decade. This 'ordinary Joe' is essentially Archie Bunker, the bigotted character from TV show 'All In The Family' which would first air the following year, except that he harbours murderous fantasies and keeps a mini arsenal in his den at home.

When Joe realises what Bill has done, a strange bond develops between these two men from different walks of life. They visit each other's drinking holes and even homes - much to the horror of Bill's wife Joan (Audrey Caire) - and exchange views about the world's ills. One long winter's night, however, as Joe helps Bill search the hippie hang-outs of the Village for any sign of the missing Melissa, events will escalate out of control, and Bill will be forced to realise how little real difference there is between his angry, bigoted companion and himself.

Joe takes its place alongside Taxi Driver (1976), Falling Down (1992) and Edmond (2005) as a film about an enraged and irrational man waging a destructive campaign against perceived enemies. Joan describes Joe as a 'powder keg' - and sure enough he will explode in the end - but she might equally be talking about Boyle's extraordinary performance, by turns pathetic, funny and terrifying. On the strength of this, the relative newcomer was offered the lead role in The French Connection, which he turned down because of his distress at the approval which the character of Joe was drawing from some quarters. Apparently he had hit a raw and very ugly nerve in post-1960s America.

Director John G Avildsen would later reduce conflict to its dumbest, most crowd-pleasing essentials in his Karate Kid trilogy, but in Joe, seemingly everything is a source of immense tension. Alongside the collision of the generations we see the clash of class, race, sex and politics, and while Joe himself may represent (with extreme prejudice) a particularly blunt-edged response to this complex range of problems, the film pulls no punches in also showing educated liberals and hippy youngsters acting with a similar viciousness, until ultimately the question of where Melissa, and America in general, are going will receive an answer as inevitable as it is tragic.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Marlene Warfield, Max Couper, K Callan, Gary Weber, Francine Middleton, Susan Sarandon, Patrick McDermott, Audrey Caire, Peter Boyle, Dennis Patrick, Claude Robert Simon, Patty Caton
  • Director: John G Avildsen
  • Writer: Norman Wexler
  • Producer: David Gil
  • Photographer: John G Avildsen, Henri Decaë
  • Composer: Bobby Scott

In a nutshell

Starting with a murder and ending with a massacre, this bleak portrait of America shows a dream turned sour and a country at odds with itself. In the lead role, Peter Boyle embodies the rotten state of the nation.

by Anton Bitel

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