Melissa Compton (Susan Sarandon) lives in New York with her boyfriend Frank (Patrick McDermott). They live hand to mouth and do drugs as Frank struggles to make his name as an artist. One day, Melissa is found out of her head on speed and is returned to her well-heeled parents Bill (Dennis Patrick) and Joan (Audrey Caire). Going to Frank and Melissa's apartment to recover her belongings, Bill confronts Frank and in the following altercation accidentally kills him. In a bar, he confesses as such to local loudmouth and bigot Joe Curran (Peter Boyle). Factory worker Joe and executive Bill find themselves to be kindred spirits...
John G. Avildsen will almost certainly go down in history as the director of Rocky (the first and fifth) and the first three Karate Kid films. However, much earlier in his career, Avildsen made some much edgier work. There's the culty X-rated private-eye spoof Cry Uncle! made for Troma, and Save the Tiger, which won jack Lemmon an Oscar. Then there's Joe, made for Cannon Films (in its pre-Golan-and-Globus incarnation), which became a sleeper hit and established Peter Boyle (whose real-life politics were far to the left of his character's) as an actor.
Despite the film's title, Joe does not appear until twenty-five minutes in and ultimately the film is not about him – Boyle's pitch-perfect performance of a working-stiff right-wing bigot unbalances the film. The real protagonist is Bill, and the story is of his corruption, of which Joe is the agent.. If the killing of Frank can be accused as being in the heat of the moment, by the end of the film he has committed murder. Joe stands in a line of working-class white men – whose spoken opinions are often far to the right – making a stand against the way they see society has declined. In a different way, so does Taxi Driver (though Joe does not have Schrader and Scorsese's artistry) and the films that it influenced, such as Seul contre tous and, with bigger stars and budget, Falling Down.
Well, in theory anyway. Joe is a confused film, and you could spend ages working out quite where it stands. It seems to hold every character in just about equal contempt. Joe is a bigot and a hypocrite – quite why the title card gives his name the colours of the American flag is hard to work out. He and Bill both cheat on their wives. (Joe might disparage hippies, but he doesn't turn down free love when it's offered. Though quite why two young women would be willing to shag two such unattractive older men is a mystery, put down to male scriptwriter fantasy perhaps. In a telling detail, Joe can't pronounce “orgy” correctly.) Both their wives are dumb and clueless. Yet the film is hardly sympathetic to the counterculture either. Frank is a selfish user and (you suspect) not much of an artist either. And the women are all nymphomaniacs. The only character I had any sympathy with was Melissa and that's because Sarandon (in her film debut) puts more nuance into her character than is in the script. Even so, her character is a plot device more than anything: once Bill has met Joe, the film loses interest in her almost completely, except to set up a viciously ironic twist at the end.
Norman Wexler was the screenwriter: a man with an interesting if short film career, with a predeliction for urban grit and/or a disregard for the more sensitive in the audience. His CV includes Serpico and Saturday Night Fever as well as Mandingo and its sequel Drum. Given the low budget, many of the scenes were shot in real places, so the film is a time capsule of 70s New York and its counterculture. Avildsen, acting as his own cinematographer, does a competent job of directing, with a few gimmicky touches – slow and step motion at key points, not to mention playing one scene audio-only over the end of the previous one.
Even if doesn't hold up too well today, Joe does hold your interest: it's best seen nowadays as a showcase for Peter Boyle's acting talents – and to a lesser extent Susan Sarandon's. Boyle wrote a script for a sequel, which Cannon announced as being in development in the mid-80s, but it was never made.
Joe is released on DVD by Optimum on a single-layer disc encoded for Region 2 only. This is the first time the film has been available in the UK in its uncut form. The BBFC cut Joe for cinema release in 1971 (presumably the early scene showing Frank shooting up) and a 1986 video release was a shortened version. There has been no British television showing that I can trace.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1, and anamorphically enhanced. I hadn't seen the film before, but Joe seems to have a look combining heightened late-60s colour (fleshtones tend towards salmon-pink) with a little of the grit and grain that would become more prevalent in the 70s. Even so, the transfer tends to overemphasise reds.
The soundtrack is mono, as it was originally. No real issues here, apart from Optimum's regrettable no-subtitle policy for their English-language releases.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer (3:02), presented in 4:3. It's a fairly quote-heavy effort, with a batch from the American press then a second batch from the British. “Now all over Britain they're raving about Joe”, while another critic says the film rivals Bonnie and Clyde in impact. The Sun thought it was the best film of the year so far. I wonder if they think the same now?
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