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, hippies, and commies. He gives 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. I thought about quoting some of it, but I gave up on that idea, in part because a few snippets could never do it justice, and in part because I would have to use way too many asterisks.
When Bill first walks into the bar, Joe is mainly complaining about the blacks, the way they burn down cities and get welfare, but little by little he gets around to the hippies, doing drugs and having orgies. He says he’d like to kill one of them. Bill tells Joe that he just did, 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 again 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.
After Melissa recovers from the drug overdose, she runs away from the hospital and returns home, only to overhear her father admitting to killing her boyfriend, and so she runs away from home too. With Joe’s help, Bill starts looking for her. In the process, they meet some hippies from hope they hope to get some information about Melissa. In the process, Bill and Joe end up participating in an orgy of sorts, and 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, but not before remarking that he doesn’t need any foreplay, which he regards as proof of his manliness. While this allows us to see how crude Joe is, as if we were not already convinced, it also illustrates some of that pot-smoking hippie-promiscuity he was grumbling about earlier.
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. Earlier, we saw Joe’s gun collection, and he has a couple of rifles in the trunk, which he says they will use to scare them. But 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.
I saw the movie at the drive-in, so I was unaware of any audience response. But a friend of mine said that she saw the movie in a theater, and she was horrified at the way the audience cheered at the end, because, as she characterized it, “They got rid of a bunch of dirty hippies.” I have since read that this audience reaction was quite common. I was surprised at the time, but now I realize the movie encouraged that response. And so, what I once took as being a criticism of bigotry, I now have to wonder if there might have been a little subliminal justification of such, with an exculpatory tragic ending tacked on at the end to disguise the movie’s right-wing sympathies.