Director: Bill Norton
Screenplay: Bill Norton
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Karen Black, Gene Hackman, Harry Dean Stanton, Viva, Joy Bang, Antonio Fargas, Doug Sahm
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
After the huge surprise success of Easy Rider in 1969, studios were keen to try to tap into the counterculture market. The rise of television and a general feeling of being out-of-touch were causing the industry to fall behind, so executives were desperate and threw money at young, up-and-coming directors to try to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Dennis Hopper’s groundbreaking classic. Though few titles, if any, managed to get the studios the revenue they were aiming for, the movement did lead to the production of a wave of some of the most interesting, daring and unconventional films to have come out of Hollywood.
One of the titles made to try to appeal to the hip youth of the early 70s was Bill Norton’s Cisko Pike. Like many others, it failed to make an impact on the box office, but it didn’t pick up the same level of critical acclaim as some of the better-known films of the early 70s either. So, whereas directors such as Scorcese, Coppola and Lucas were becoming household names and moving on to make bigger and ever more successful films, Norton fell off the scene and eventually drifted into TV, where he made a long career for himself.
Over the years though, as older films get reappraised, they get a second chance. Cisko Pike is still one of the lesser-known films of the New Hollywood era, but it has its followers. The folks at Indicator must like it as they’ve deemed it worthy of inclusion in their fine collection of often unfairly neglected classics given a new lease of life on Blu-ray.
Cisko Pike sees Kris Kristofferson play the titular character, a formerly popular musician who’s hit hard times after being busted twice on drug dealing charges. The film is set soon after his second arrest and he’s now keen on giving up his criminal past, focussing instead on his music. Unfortunately, no one seems interested in simple, honest songwriting and his drug-dealing past catches up to him regardless.
Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), a police officer who had busted Cisco previously, tracks him down and pressures him into selling a huge stash of marijuana for him. Cisco reluctantly agrees, but once he gets back into the world and catches Holland spying on him, making it all the more difficult and dangerous to sell the product, he quits. Holland won’t let him though, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t make $10,000 from it over the weekend.
So Cisco is forced to rush around L.A. trying to sell as much weed as he can to every contact he knows. This causes much distress for his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black), who was happy to see him going straight.
Like Easy Rider and several other of the early New Hollywood films, Cisco Pike is about the death or more accurately failure of the mid-late 60s counterculture. This is shown not only in the melancholic tone and hard-times our long-haired protagonist has fallen on but in how the drugs scene has spread through the country’s demographic. It’s not just ‘hippies’ smoking grass in a revolutionary statement of freedom, but everyone. Cisco sells to the rich and middle-class as well as the poor and bohemian. We see him meet clients in lavish mansions, seedy back alleys and top-level recording studios.
Also, the drugs aren’t making anyone feel good anymore here. The film never tries to hammer home a ‘drugs are bad’ message. It doesn’t even make a big deal out of drug use (at least not marijuana), it’s just a way of life for most people. However, Cisco clearly doesn’t want to be pushing it anymore. He’s stuck in a rut, with his ‘friends’ only interested in having him around to keep them loaded. We also see a few addicts that look dead behind the eyes, not the least Cisco’s former bandmate Jesse (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s badly messed up, taking everything he can to balance out the effects of whatever he’s taken so far. The ‘peace and love’ dream of the 60s has gone and reality is kicking in.
Other than this symbolic angle, the film is fairly straight forward. The plot is pretty slim and simple. It’s largely just an excuse to take its lead character on a journey around the city, to show L.A. for what it really was back then. Not just a place of glamour (some glitzy spots are shown) but also a place of decay and loneliness.
The story also allows for Kristofferson to meet a wide array of character actors in his character’s dealings. This was what I liked best about the film. The cast is great and the loose interactions between characters are a pleasure. Stanton and Hackman are the standouts, partly because their characters are a bit more extreme than the rest (Stanton spaced out and Hackman wound up far too tight) but also because they’re two of the finest actors of that generation. Kristofferson was the real revelation though. It was his first starring role, after a brief appearance in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, and he does a fantastic job, pulling off a nuanced performance that is genuinely touching at times. Granted, he’s playing a musician character much like himself, but he was never a dealer and it still takes talent to portray that naturally on screen.
Being a popular musician at the time, several of Kristofferson’s songs make up the bulk of the soundtrack. These are well-selected tracks from his latest album of the time, the excellent ‘The Silver Tongued Devil and I’, which match the tone and theme of the film perfectly.
The direction is a little flat perhaps, with none of the stylistic daring of Norton’s contemporaries. He does do a good job of capturing the atmosphere of the city though and gets most out of his cast.
It’s not one of the strongest films from the 70s, but it is a nicely performed character piece that examines the death of the swinging 60s counterculture. It’s fairly straight-forward in getting its message across but does it in enough of a low-key fashion to avoid feeling heavy-handed. Well worth a reappraisal then.
Cisco Pike is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Indicator. The picture quality is excellent, with a nice natural grain and incredible detail. One shot near the end is strangely soft, but I believe it’s a stylistic technique where the filmmaker has cropped in on the image. Audio is rock solid too, with the soundtrack coming through beautifully.
There are a handful of special features included in the package too:
– High Definition presentation
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with writer-director Bill L Norton and film historian Elijah Drenner (2020)
– Walking Contradictions – ‘Cisco Pike’: Then and Now (2020, 10 mins): documentary revisiting the film’s Los Angeles locations
– Ode to Joy (2020, 43 mins): film programmer and writer Kier-La Janisse explores the life and career of actor Joy Bang
– Image gallery: publicity and promotional photography
– Original theatrical trailer
– TV spot
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Christina Newland, the original soundtrack EP liner notes, an archival interview with Kris Kristofferson, Stephen Farber’s 1972 article on Cisco Pike, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
– World premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies
There aren’t a lot of features, but what is here is all decent. Norton’s commentary is particularly good. He has a great memory of the shoot and plenty to say. He’s a pleasant speaker too, providing warm recollections without any self-aggrandizing comments.
The ‘Walking Contradictions’ piece is short but better than similar location featurettes as it discusses the film and its aims in general, rather than simply showing us what the city looks like now.
‘Ode to Joy’ is an odd inclusion, giving a fairly lengthy history of the career of Joy Bang, an actress with only a minor part in the film. It’s interesting though and it’s nice to hear about such performers that never hit it big.
The booklet is a fascinating read too, as usual. So, a solid package all around.