On May 8, 1970, the AFL-CIO mobilized some two hundred New York City construction workers and sicc’ed them on about a thousand high school and college-aged protestors who were calling out the government’s actions abroad (the invasion of Cambodia) and at home (the Kent State Massacre occurred days prior). The Hard Hat Riot, as it’s now known, resulted in overwhelmingly white, conservative, blue-collar union men executing a planned attack on the protestors and injuring over 70 people in less than two hours all over lower Manhattan. A contemporary NY Times article describes counter-protestors as chanting “All the way, U.S.A.” and “Love it or leave it,” before the fists started flying. Police did little to protect the victims; only six people were arrested. Two months later, Joe opened at the Embassy Theater in Brooklyn, just thirteen miles from the protest site where “Bloody Friday” went down. Directed by John G. Avildsen, Joe is a subversive trickle-down indictment of the American white man across culture, class, and generation.
Prior to their shoot ‘em up B-picture run of the 1980s, Cannon Films specialized in efficient productions on modest budgets; Joe is an early result in the Cannon catalogue. Described by The People vs. Larry Flynt screenwriter Larry Karaszewski as “a countercultural movie from the late 60s/early 70s told from the point of view of the squares,” Avildsen tells a story as beleaguered as his next effort Save the Tiger (1973) but devoid of the earnest humanism seen in Rocky (1976)— a story where no one is good and nothing will get better.
Joe is the story of two men: Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), a filthy rich ad exec who lives with his family on the Upper East Side of New York, and Joe Curran (Peter Boyle), a proto-Archie Bunker who builds resentment towards the changing world as he works in a factory day after day. After Bill finds that his hippie daughter has become a junkie, he finds and murders her drug dealer boyfriend; Joe learns of the killing and forms a volatile bond with the wealthy conservative. Right at the forefront of an unsentimental New Hollywood era of cinema, Avildsen’s grungy independent film casts its forceful eye upon the gulfs between class and generation, celebrating its 50th anniversary today with an exhausting relevance.
Penned by Norman Wexler of Serpico fame (Joe and Serpico were the only two screenplays for which he received an Oscar nomination), his on-brand streetwise tragedy taps into the same New York malaise found in Sidney Lumet’s police corruption masterpiece. In a stark contrast to the humid sweat-stained grime of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), snow-covered trash litters the frigid streets of NYC as Bill’s daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon, in her feature debut) navigates the concrete jungle in the opening sequence. Wexler himself was in his mid-40s when he wrote the script, and the narrative reflects a crisis in his own psyche as well as that of an aging Silent Majority amid a whirlwind era of social and economic change. The MPAA unveiled its new ratings system just two years prior, doing away with the antiquated Production Code that handicapped US cinema throughout the 1960s and opening the door for a bum rush of raw films within and about America, beginning with the squib-a-riffic Bonnie and Clyde in 1968.
Joe savors the newfound freedom the MPAA offered, hammering its audience with filthy but apt dialogue reflecting its titular character archetype and giving European art films a run for their money with nonchalant nudity and unforgiving (albeit ironic, in the end) ultraviolence. It’s all presented in shadowed dens and lowbrow wood-paneled hovels, thanks to subtle but effective set design. Melissa’s boyfriend Frank (Patrick McDermott) pokes himself with a dirty needle before a literal Flower Power backdrop; pink-petaled lilies and a large print of the couple in a nude embrace can only watch as the Woodstock generation ties on a tourniquet and cooks their disillusionment over a rusty spoon. The setting presents New York as Midnight Cowboy did a year prior, drawing back the curtain to a city of hard drugs and free love and leaving its lead characters to muse on how their world died.
As with so many landmark movies of the decade (Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Conversation), morality is relative and occluded; neither Joe, Bill, nor the counterculture they loathe are above depravity. Joe shows his disgust early on by quipping at the dinner table, “They’re all screwed up, so they’re screwing up the culture,” only to later encourage Bill to take a pull from a hookah at a bohemian orgy, wryly pressuring him to “join the Pepsi generation.” The hypocrisy displayed by the older men is heartily matched by naivete of the youth, personified largely by Sarandon’s Melissa. After Jerry Butler wails that “wisdom is wasted on the young” in the opening credits, Melissa clutches her doll as her boyfriend shoots heroin, both of them dreaming aloud of the wonderful projects they’ll pursue after he sells placebos to local kids. Eventually she shoots up too, overdoses and goes on a small destructive spree in a drugstore, a mere hour after saying that she wanted to stay off of the hard stuff. One could chalk that up to addiction, but her sober boyfriend has no qualms about selling drugs (real and fake alike) to minors.
Both generations have a misogyny streak; Melissa, her mother, and Mrs. Curran all receive the brunt of their respective mens’ wrath, both physically and emotionally. Women are objects to be manipulated, cast aside, and protected as pure property (not as people) for the men of Avildsen’s world. It’s Frank’s taunting revelation of Melissa’s daddy issues (“You’ve done a real groovy job on her, she’s got a real hang-up about you”) that prompts Bill to fly into a furious rage, beating Frank’s head against a wall until he stops moving. Realizing what he’s done, Bill flees the scene. The catalyst is rude in its nihilism; if Serpico dooms its city to ruin via structural infestation (the unjust justice system), then Joe extends that ruin via a socioeconomic one. In the end, salvation cannot be found in the regular Joes, either.
Following the murder, Bill wanders into a local hole-in-the-wall where the regular Joes wet their whistles; none are more “regular” than Joe, whose first words onscreen are a racial slur. Regurgitating right-wing myths about welfare queens, the intimacy of the medium close-up shot and subsequent profile view provides a sobering introduction to the working-class Catholic white man of the Nixon era. Boyle plays it with the slithering restraint of the racist uncle we all know, looking over his shoulder before spewing hatred and smirking as he reminds Bill that he feels the same as he does. Through him, Avildsen and Wexler sing less of John Cougar Mellencamp’s wistful “Ain’t that America, home of the free” and more of Bruce Springsteen’s proud but frustration-fierce “I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Over the course of several days, Joe is the ferryman to Bill’s voyage into a spiritual crisis. They forge an uneasy friendship over Frank’s murder, which Joe endorses as a civic duty. Conversely, Joe doesn’t ever quite figure out that his upper class “friend” regularly regards him with disgust, exchanging looks with his wife every time Joe makes a social faux pas at dinner and merely tolerating his lowbrow humor as a means to an end—Joe is a buffer to the dark sentiments that reside under Bill’s bourgeois haircut and designer suit. Bill’s revulsion is less towards Joe’s hoi-polloi mannerisms and more towards the dark sentiments of his that he sees reflected and intensified in the hard-hat goon beside him.
Boyle played his role so well that many took it seriously. He received both death threats from liberals and praise from conservatives. “I thought no one would see it, so I just did everything with complete abandon,” he told the Television Academy Foundation. Boyle and everyone else involved with the film were shocked when Joe became a critical and commercial darling, grossing a total of $26 million on its $106,000 budget. Boyle’s barely-contained resentment is jarring in its plausibility, then and now. Sadly, there’s no accounting for critical thinking, and Boyle was disappointed to find that many viewers unironically identified with Joe, cheering for him at screenings. The phenomenon continued with racists and abusers laughing with Archie Bunker in All in the Family, instead of at him, making earnest idolization of the Joker in Todd Phillips’ latest feature all the more depressingly believable. The spot-on casting and Boyle’s spectacular performance belies a potent social parable. On the film’s poster, underneath an armed, beaming Joe, the tagline asserts, “Keep America Beautiful,” a grinning precursor to Travis Bickle’s solemn insistence that a “real rain” will arrive to wash the scum off the streets, wondering when America will be great again for men like him.
Susan Sarandon, in full wide-eyed doe mode, is a substantial (despite her petite frame) counterweight to the xenophobia and elitism of her father and his new chum. Between Melissa and the hippies that preach peace while they drug and rob Bill and Joe, young people are just as contradictory as the older generation they want to break away from. The difference in hypocrisies is one of intensity: while Bill and Joe deem themselves superior to the counterculture and consider themselves exceptions to the rules of right and wrong, the jaded junkies of the counterculture are apathetic towards the old line between right and wrong entirely. Not that it matters; they are soon slaughtered by white men with guns. After the hippies ingratiate themselves with Joe and Bill and steal their wallets, Joe beats one of the women involved until she reveals their hideout. The pair arm themselves and show up at the squatter’s paradise, a two-story home upstate. Joe brings a pair of rifles out of his trunk, “just to scare ‘em.” When the junkies try to run, Joe fires, killing three as they flee the house. Upstairs, Bill and Joe find two more hippies and an internal showdown ensues. As Joe bears his teeth and growls, “There’s only one way out of this now—clean. That means everyone,” he confronts Bill with those same dark sentiments he holds, the “kicks” he got out of murdering Frank in the film’s beginning.
The subtext asks the audience where the line is drawn. For Bill, there is no longer a line. He shoots three hippies after Joe runs out of ammunition. As a fourth flees, he steps over the bodies and takes aim. The final bullet lands in the back of his own daughter, and it’s only as she turns in her fall to the ground that he realizes who he’s killed. Bickle’s wish has come true: a rain has washed the “scum” off the streets.
The powerhouse ending exposes the film’s nihilist core: the state of things is everyone’s fault, and nobody gets out alive. In a year when adults who want to Make America Great Again ignore science and expose their loved ones to death because they are sure they know better, a white man who unintentionally shoots his own (relatively) innocent daughter in the back doesn’t seem so melodramatic anymore. Through Wexler’s trademark realism, a phenomenal lead performance, and the cosmic indifference of Avildsen’s lens, Joe taps the devastatingly relevant keg of a still-emboldened wrinkle in the American public consciousness. The folksy opening credits song asks its young subject, “Will the peaceful songs you’ve sung help to change the world?” The answer from Avildsen and hart-hat Joe is a ruthless “no.”
Joe is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.