“I saw a fella sellin’ junk to children
He gets nervous every time I pass
Cause he knows that if I catch him I’m gonna bust his head and kick his fat ass
Hey Joe, don’t it make you want to go to war, once more?
Hey Joe, why the devil did we go to war, before?
What the hell for?”
Joe Curran is a simple man, a factory worker who’s sick of the way the world is heading. He’s also MAGA a half-century before we knew what that meant, an older white man seemingly past by the rest of the world. Peter Boyle, the actor who played him, was so upset by the idea that audiences cheered on his violence that he publically said he’d never do another violent film, turning down the role of “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection (although he is in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and played Joe Gallo in Crazy Joe, which isn’t a sequel to this).
Just imagine if Joe had been played by the original choice, Lawrence Tierney, who was supposedly fired two days before shooting began. Yet again, he was arrested for attacking a bartender who refused to keep serving him.
Joe’s rants in the film were so loved that they even released an album, Joe Speaks, which collects the dialogue and the theme song. I can’t even imagine anyone listening to this, but I also totally can.
One night while Joe holds court at a bar, he meets a businessman with the name of Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick). Hours ago, Bill killed the man who hooked his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon in her film debut) on heroin. He tells Joe that he’s just done exactly that; Joe’s excited and happy to be his friend.
Joe: I’d love to kill a hippie.
Bill: I just did.
What’s intriguing here is that 99%er Joe and 1%er Bill bond over their mutual hatred of hippies, so if you wondered, “How did the Republican party begin attracting the marginalized that their politics do the most damage to?” the answer is hate, racism and the need to feel as if the America where WASP men ran the world, their wives always had their slippers and newspapers ready and other races, creeds and politics knew their place.
But it wasn’t always that way. This movie was originally called The Gap and it was all about the chasm between Bill and his daughter. Yet Boyle was so good in his small role that the movie ended up being re-edited around him.
Unbeknownst to many, director John G. Avildsen — who was removed from both Serpico (also written by Norman Wexler, the same man who was behind Joe)and Saturday Night Fever — was fired from this film as well. William Sachs, who was an assistant editor at Cannon, renamed the movie, made Joe the lead and still turned down a co-directing credit, as he felt that the position of post-production supervisor was a better way of describing what he did. He’s fixed so many movies in the same way, including Leprechaun, Exterminator 2, Servants of Twilight and Cannon’s South of Hell Mountain.
Of Joe, he told Hidden Films, “No one would sit through a screening. It was overdramatic and John Avildsen was demanding to be the editor. They didn’t want him to keep cutting it because it was awful, so they fired him. The first thing I wanted to do was start in reel five and throw away the first four reels, because it was boring. (Susan Sarandon’s character) was with her parents the whole time and Peter Boyle wasn’t even in it yet. It now starts fifty minutes into what was the movie. I didn’t have money for shooting, but I brought Peter Boyle back, and every time he was off camera I gave him lines. I basically made Joe the main character; he was a minor character before. And I changed the ending. It went on for ten minutes, with everyone discussing what happened.”
Sachs would go on to direct plenty of his own wild movies, like There Is No No. 13, The Force Beyond, The Incredible Melting Man, Van Nuys Blvd., Galaxina and Cannon’s Hot Chili.
Back to Joe.
After an awkward dinner with the men and their wives, Melissa comes home from the hospital and hears her father say that he killed her boyfriend. She coldly says, “What are you gonna do, kill me too?” and runs away.
Bill and Joe follow her and end up indulging in forbidden fruit, trying the two things hippies were known for: drugs and free love. The gorgeous women they both ball and have disparate experiences, with Bill marveling at the outrageous lovemaking he just shared with a much younger woman — as young as his daughter — while Joe’s unsatisfied girl says, “You just broke the land speed record.”
That moment of post-coital bliss ends when Joe realizes his wallet has been stolen. Attacking the woman he was just inside, he beats out of her where the boyfriends who stole the money are. Heading to a commune upstate, Joe brings some guns — “I got what you might call a well-balanced gun collection, see?” — just to scare the hippies into giving up the money they took. As they hand over the empty wallets, Joe goes wild, opening fire on everyone, even the innocent. He runs out of bullets and as more hippies arrive, he convinces Bill to be part of the murder, which he quickly falls into lockstep, blowing away flower children left and right, including shooting a girl in the back who runs away.
A girl named Melissa.
“What are you gonna do, kill me too?”
Cannon tried to make a sequel to Joe after Golan and Globus took over. After all, they were able to take another right wing fantasy — Death Wish — and turn it into a franchise.
The proposed second part of the story, Citizen Joe, would have Joe released from a decade in prison to deal with his liberal children. The tagline? “The man has changed but the times have not…He’s back.”
Joe is the kind of movie that reminds me of past culture that people post about on social media, saying “They couldn’t make this today.” To be fair, Joe is forgotten despite how popular it was. But the truth is so many of those elements of culture — like Archie Bunker, which had to have been inspired by Joe — were actually created to hold a mirror up to society and show it how far it had fallen. Instead, society looked at that twisted reflection, embraced it and said, “Finally, someone is telling it like it is.”
Never underestimate the intelligence of the American public.