Saturday, March 8, 2008

18th April 2008: Jack Nicholson in the Philippines double!

Flight To Fury

USA/Philippines 1964 b&w

aka Cordillera

Director Monte Hellman Story Monte Hellman, Fred Roos Screenplay Jack Nicholson

Cast Dewey Martin (Joe Gaines), Jack Nicholson (Jay Wickham), Fay Spain (Destiny Cooper), Vic Diaz (Lorgren), Joseph Estrada (Garuda)

Welcome to a return visit to the Philippines with your tour guide Jack Nicholson. Tonight’s Schlock Treatment features two movies shot back-to-back in 1964 with a very young Nicholson and maverick director Monte Hellman. Nicholson was already an aspiring writer, not to mention hungry actor, and had collaborated with Hellman a number of times, notably on the notorious Roger Corman quickie The Terror (1963) on which a total of five directors worked, with only Corman receiving credit. Executive Producer Robert Lippert watched The Terror and, stunned by its sheer economy but completely in the dark over which filmmaker did what, asked for either Francis Ford Coppola or Monte Hellman to make his next two pictures in South East Asia. Coppola was busy, so Hellman got the job; he took a slow boat to Manila alongside a busy Jack Nicholson who was hammering out the script for Flight To Fury, and John Hackett attempting to nail the second feature Back Door To Hell. Of course Coppola would end up in the Philippines recreating a small corner of hell with Apocalypse Now, but that’s another story altogether…

Under the watchful eye of Lippert’s producer Fred Roos, Hellman shot both films starting with Back Door To Hell with, predictably, very little money, a back-breaking schedule and the inherent chaos of the Philippines to contend with. Not surprisingly Hellman fell deathly ill with an unnamed tropical malady and was unable to supervise the first cut of Back Door… while almost dying daily on the set of Flight To Fury. As a result, Hellman has little to say about his low-rent Philippines adventures, but it does explain the grit, grime and purposeful nihilism in every frame. Add Nicholson’s memorable dialogue and a growing awareness of his strengths as an actor, and you have two perfect low-budget, almost no-budget, micro-masterpieces.

First tonight is Flight To Fury from a script by Nicholson, who wrote himself the role of antagonist. The film’s protagonist is Joe Gaines (Dewey Martin), a penniless American drifter in South East Asia cadging drinks off fellow American Jay Wickham (Nicholson), self-professed bad luck Jonah and card carrying nihilist. A chance meeting with the aloof beauty Lai Ling Forsythe leaves one dead body and Gaines on the next plane out of the country along with Wickham, slimy businessman Vincent Lorgrin (Vic Diaz), and blonde companion Destiny Cooper (Fay Spain).

Characters, secrets, murky motives and a subplot of missing diamonds are set up before the plane crashes wiping out several passengers and forces the survivors to make their way through the hostile environment battling the anonymous jungle, their own mistrust, and a group of bandidos led by the sleazy, lecherous Garuda, played by future Philippines president Joseph Estrada. The veteren of almost 200 Tagalog films, curiously this is his only English language film, as his small but utterly memorable role is the only one in the cast to match the greasiness of the venerable Vic Diaz.

Nicholson, of course, is the Creator of Flight To Fury’s paranoid microcosmos and, as such, gives himself the most intriguing character and the film's best lines ("Are you interested in death?"). In typical Filipino fashion, the film’s co-producer Eddie Romero and frequent collaborator Mike Parsons made a local version called Cordillera after the American cast left, using local actors and his own Tagalog script. In a country where 90% of their film history has not survived, this version has not surprisingly disappeared forever. But we are left with the Nicholson/Hellman version, perhaps the finest moment from their combined early careers: the 1964 Flight To Fury.

Back Door To Hell

USA/Philippines 1964 b&w

Director Monte Hellman Writers Richard A. Guttman, John Hackett

Cast Jimmie Rodgers (Lt. Craig), Jack Nicholson (Burnett), John Hackett (Jersey), Annabelle Huggins (Maria)

Now to our second film, Back Door To Hell, a taut World War 2 drama with a similar look to the other b&w war films made in the Philippines at the time by Eddie Romero and American B actor George Montgomery. Unlike those films, however, there’s no rousing gung-ho speeches here; it's made clear from the start these men, much like the director himself and Francis Ford Coppola after him, are slowly falling to pieces in the Filipino jungle. The Apocalypse starts now.

Hellman plunges straight into the action: Lietenant Craig (Jimmie Rodgers) is US Army Intelligence leading a small band of troops towards a Japanese radio tower to broadcast vital information to the invading forces about to recapture the Philippines. Compared to his forceful appearance in Flight To Fury, Jack Nicholson is sorely wasted here as Rodger's second banana playing the sardonic St Burnett, a foil for the relatively spoulless killing machine Sgt Jersey (co-writer John Hackett). Naturally they get the most meaningful exchanges…

Jersey: "We're all gonna die anyway - tomorrow, next week, 30 years from now. Did that little thought ever penetrate your thick skull?"

Burnett: "Yeah, once when I was a boy, but naturally I dismissed it as being too outrageous."

The American guerrillas team up with Paco, an embittered Filipino resistance fighter whose survival insticts lead him to mistrust both sides; tired of sacrificing his men for his liberators, he's introduced as the man who has tortured Rodgers' contact to death, just in case... In fact, torture is Paco’s preferred modus operandi, as evidenced by his treatment of captured Japanese Captain played by Joe Sison (Filipino goon, also in Eddie Romero and George Montgomery exports). "Interrogating a prisoner is like cooking a goose..." says Paco, almost salivating at the prospect.

Stripped of most of its military hardware and pyrotechnics, the film is more a claustrophobic deconstruction of a war film, an exercise in rapid-fire montage filled with simple, cost-effective visuals and quiet flourishes (an incredible 360 degree pan from the Japanese Captain's point of view) and a modest character study of men pushed to the brink. The tacked-on newsreel footage towards the end showing the liberation of Luzon, inserted against Hellman’s wishes by the distributor to make the film more “war-like”, is unwelcome and gratuitous.

Surprisingly good in his role as Lieutenant Craig is Jimmie Rodgers, the easygoing folk-rock singer who had a mildly successful career until a drunken incident with a policeman in 1967 left him with a fractured skull and a legacy of brain-related complications. Hellman would eventually recover from his harrowing Philippines experiences and collaborate with Nicholson once again on two westerns, Ride In The Whirlwind and The Shooting, which can only be described as "existential". Well, the same term can be applied here: the existential wartime action of Back Door To Hell.

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