Joe (1970) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
In the history of storytelling, variations on vigilante tropes have largely begun as reactionary, right-wing fantasies. When crime rates rose steadily throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, animosity grew between communities, classes, and cultures, and Hollywood revisited these motifs; initially in order to exploit the conservative Americans that felt powerless against the rising tide that they feared would flood from the inner cities. The most popular early entry was Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), which cast Charles Bronson, one of the biggest action stars of the 1960s, as an average, upper-middle class Manhattanite who is spurred to shoot down street thugs after his wife is murdered and daughter is raped. It unabashedly advocated the notion of vigilantism (unlike Brian Garfield’s original 1972 novel). As ‘New Hollywood’ filmmakers gained momentum, however, they saw potential in the genre and began applying their politically-charged, cinéma vérité impulses to classic tropes. With directors like Winner and Sam Peckinpah setting the pace, others began painting similarly difficult moral conditions with the utmost grit and intensity. The watershed moment for this era of the anti-vigilante was probably Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), in which Robert De Niro portrays a lonely Vietnam vet who obsessively mistakes his frustration and prejudices for heroism.
But Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader weren’t the first to build a subversive story around a violent, xenophobic New Yorker. They were beaten to that punch by John G. Avildsen’s Joe, which was released in 1970, garnered a Best Screenplay nomination for writer Norman Wexler, and is still one of the most successful independent films of all time (in terms of profit margin).
The titular Joe, played by Peter Boyle, doesn’t show up until about the 30 minute mark. Before that, the central protagonist is Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive whose daughter, Melissa (Susan Sarandon), is dating a deadbeat drug-dealer (Patrick McDermott). When Melissa O.D.s on methamphetamines, Bill confronts the boyfriend and, in a fit of anger, accidentally murders him by beating his head bloody against a wall. Now, in a state of shock, Bill wanders into a bar and meets Joe, who is introduced complaining to the bartender about black people, welfare, hippies, and orgies (which he pronounces with a hard ‘G’). At the end of his impotent tirade (“42% of all liberals are queer – that’s a fact.”), Bill jokingly informs Joe that he killed a hippie earlier that day. The two part ways, but then the dealer’s death makes the news and Joe realizes Bill was telling the truth. Thinking that he has found a kindred spirit, Joe hunts his new friend down and the two realize they share a sense of cultural isolation, despite their broad social differences. Later, Melissa (who survived her O.D.) learns that her father has killed her boyfriend and she runs away. Joe joins Bill on a depraved journey into the counterculture underground, but they forget their mission when the hippies rob them, then head out to a commune in the country. During their vengeful shooting rampage, Bill loses control and mindlessly guns down his own daughter.
Avildsen’s movie is arguably less ambiguous than Scorsese’s, though both were still completely misread by a subset of movie-goers that didn’t get the joke. Joe’s audience had less of an excuse, however, because on May 8th of 1970 – about two months before the film’s July 15th release – a man named Arville Douglas Garland found his daughter and her three male teen friends (some of whom were black) sleeping in a commune around the corner from an anti-war group’s office. He promptly executed all four, then turned himself in to Michigan police, announcing that he had murdered his child and her “hippie” friends. Garland was sentenced for up to 40 years on four counts of manslaughter and second-degree murder, but he only served 10 and garnered considerable support from his conservative religious community. The Garland murders were so similar to Joe that Judge Joseph A. Gillis advised lawyers for the prosecution and defense to watch the film during pre-trial deliberations, even going as far as to forbid seated jurors from seeing or discussing it. Star Peter Boyle was reportedly so shocked when he saw the film and heard audience members cheering for the murders that he vowed to never perform in another violent film. The promise didn’t last very long, though, since he showed up in Taxi Driver only six years later. Perhaps his change of heart was based on the metatextual quality of his appearance as the only character in the Scorsese’s movie that recognizes anti-villain’s turmoil. In a central scene, Boyle’s “Wizard” awkwardly tries to offer Bickle help, as if Joe, himself, is trying to impart wisdom from his misadventures in vigilantism.
Joe is grotesquely relevant in this day and age of Neo-Nazis and other domestic terrorists who compare social justice reform to genocide, all while shouting oh-so-succinct and equally meaningless catch phrases, like “Make America Great Again” – a motto that is almost identical to Joe’s original, tongue-in-cheek tagline: “Keep America Beautiful.” Almost every sequence bears an eerie parallel to some modern day-to-day horror, which concedes the sad fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Joe might not have the brand-name recognition of some of its contemporaries, but both Avildsen and Wexler continued to offer their voices to the Hollywood machine. Avildsen followed up this, his third feature as director, with two Academy Award darlings. The first was another downbeat character study, Save the Tiger, starring Jack Lemmon (who won the Best Actor, 1973), and the second was a more upbeat portrait of a born loser called Rocky (1976). Rocky sort of set the tone for a career making underdog sports stories, including one Rocky sequel for Sylvester Stallone (Rocky V, 1990), three Karate Kid movies (1984, 1986, 1989), and bull-riding flop 8 Seconds (1994). Joe’s unromanticized depictions of drug use, sex, and violence aren’t at the center of this later work, but the film’s inglourious raw qualities certainly helped inform the pragmatism at the base of Rocky and even Karate Kid. Wexler (who was arrested for threatening to kill then-president Richard Nixon) would write Serpico for Sidney Lumet in 1973 (with Waldo Salt, based on Peter Maas’ biography of Frank Serpico), then, following two blaxploitation costume dramas (Mandingo, 1975, and Drum, 1976), he scored a huge hit with Saturday Night Fever (1977), and would also work with Stallone on Staying Alive (1983), before eventually becoming a sought-after script doctor.
Joe was released on DVD by rights owner MGM in 2002. The studio scanned a number of their catalogue releases in HD for the sake of future-proofing and many of those transfers appeared on the MGMHD channel over the years, and I assume (but do not know for certain) that Joe was among them. Olive’s 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray debut matches the expectations set by previous MGM high-definition transfers, specifically those that weren’t remastered later. It’s good, but not quite up to the standards of newer 2K/4K scans in terms of its overall detail levels. Avildsen, who acted as his own cinematographer, embraced a simple and naturalistic look, including neutral colors and natural lighting – except for the red/violet-baked sequences at the beginning of the third act. The bulk of the image is relatively consistent without lessening the impact of Avildsen’s off-the-cuff, gritty look. Lines, shapes, and grain levels are a bit softer, but only notably mushy during wide-angle shots. This soft and mushy quality occasionally causes chunky noise issues throughout, but there’s little else in the way of artifacts – print or digital compression-based.
Joe is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. It exhibits a dash of aural depth throughout its naturalistic, mostly recorded-on-set dialogue and incidental effects, but is not meant to be particularly dynamic. The bulk of the audio power is devoted to the musical soundtrack, including "You Don't Know What's Going On" by Exuma, "Hey Joe" by Dean Michaels' (not the Leaves/Jimi Hendrix song), and other original songs by Jerry Butler and composer Bobby Scott. While the music does follow the post-Easy Rider (1969) trend of telling a story via folky songs (sometimes ironically), the tonal quality of Scott’s score verges on pure horror as it grinds through the most disturbing scenes. There are some hissy moments, particularly where character screams and shrill horns are concerned, but the overall clarity is solid.
Like most of Olive’s releases, this disc is barebones.
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.