Joe (1970)

Early in the movie Joe, Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), a respectable businessman, kills his daughter’s drug-dealer boyfriend in a fit of rage after she overdoses and almost dies. In shock over what he has done, he goes into a bar to have a drink. In the bar is Joe Curran (Peter Boyle), a man who hates blacks and hippies, and who is giving full vent to his spleen. In one sense, Joe’s rant is dated, couched in terms of the cultural changes of the late 1960s. But in another sense, his diatribe is a timeless expression of bigotry, one that it is just as fresh in the twenty-first century as it was back then.

Bill confesses to Joe that he just killed one of those hippies, because it eases his conscience to admit his crime to someone who “understands,” though he quickly says he was just kidding. Later, when Joe realizes that Bill actually did kill a hippie, something he has always wanted to do, but probably never would have on his own, he calls Bill up and says he wants to get together. The two of them form a deadly combination, resulting in a massacre of hippies. Inadvertently, Bill kills Melissa (Susan Sarandon), his own daughter, who happens to be among them.

The first time I saw the movie was in 1970, when it was first released. As the years passed, my memory was that Bill and Joe killed a bunch of harmless, peace-loving hippies. But having seen the movie recently, I realize that the hippies are not portrayed sympathetically. Early in the movie, when Melissa enters the room she shares with her boyfriend, he is taking a bath. She gets in the tub with him, and he immediately gets out. It is not clear whether he is merely indifferent to her romantic gesture, or whether he despises her, but either way, he treats her like dirt.

Speaking of dirt, that reminds me of their feet. Notwithstanding the bath, their feet are filthy. Back in those days, having dirty feet was de rigueur for hippies, because being unclean was a way of displaying contempt for the rules of society. And just to make sure we know they have the required dirt and grime, when they get in bed together, the camera films them from the end of the bed so that we get full view of the bottoms of four filthy feet.

Later, when Bill and Joe participate in an orgy of sorts, we get the spectacle of Joe’s naked beer gut coming down on top of some hippie chick as he prepares to have sex with her, after remarking that he doesn’t need any foreplay, which he seems to regard as proof of his manliness. While this allows us to see how crude Joe is, as if we were not already convinced, it also tells us something about the hippie chick on whom he descends, for a girl would have to be pretty much of a lowlife to take part in such a degrading act.

Furthermore, the hippies are thieves, for they rob Bill and Joe of their wallets, which angers them so much that they track the hippies down, at which point things get out of hand and the massacre ensues. In other words, the hippies are unlikable, dirty, and immoral. And while it would be going too far to say that they got what they deserved, their behavior does seem to vindicate much of what Joe was saying about them in the bar.

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