1964 – Back Door To Hell (Lippert Inc/Medallion Films Inc)
[distributed in the
Director Monte Hellman Story Richard A. Guttman Screenplay Richard A. Guttman, John Hackett Producer Fred Roos Executive Producer [uncredited] Robert L. Lippert Associate Producer Ronald Remy Music Mike Velarde Cinematography Mars Rasca Production Manager Nilo Saez Editors Fely Crisostomo, [uncredited] Monte Hellman Sound Juanito Clemente Makeup Nita Sol Cruz Camera Operator Ricardo Remias Production Assistant Walter Phelps
Cast Jimmie Rodgers (Lt. Craig), Jack Nicholson (Burnett), John Hackett (Jersey), Annabelle Huggins (Maria), Conrad Maga (Paco), Johnny Monteiro (Ramundo), Joe Sison (Japanese Captain), Henry Duval (Garde), Ben Perez, Vic Uematsu
By the time Jack Nicholson appeared in two movies shot back-to-back in the
Under the watchful eye of Lippert’s producer Fred Roos, Hellman shot both films starting with Back Door To Hell with, predictably, very little money, a back-breaking schedule and the inherent chaos of the
Back Door To Hell is a taut World War 2 drama with a similar look to the other b&w war films made in the
Hellman doesn’t even waste the credits, plunging straight into the action. Lieutenant Craig (Jimmie Rodgers) is a US Army Intelligence officer leading a small band of troops towards a Japanese radio tower. The mission: broadcast vital information to the invading forces about to recapture the
Did that little thought ever penetrate your thick skull?"
Burnett: "Yeah, once when I was a boy, but naturally I dismissed it as being too
The American guerrillas team up with Paco, an embittered Filipino resistance fighter whose survival insticts lead him to mistrust both sides; tired of sacrificing his men for his liberators, he's introduced as the man who has tortured Rodgers' contact to death, just in case... In fact, torture is Paco’s preferred modus operandi, as evidenced by his treatment of the captured Japanese Captain played by Joe Sison (a well-worn Filipino goon, also in Eddie Romero and George Montgomery exports). "Interrogating a prisoner is like cooking a goose..." says Paco, almost salivating at the prospect.
Stripped of most of its military hardware and pyrotechnics, the film is more a claustrophobic deconstruction of a war film, an exercise in rapid-fire montage filled with simple, cost-effective visuals and quiet flourishes such as an incredible 360 degree pan from the Japanese Captain's point of view, and a modest character study of men pushed to the brink. The tacked-on newsreel footage towards the end showing the liberation of
Surprisingly good in his role as Lieutenant Craig is Jimmie Rodgers, the easygoing folk-rock singer (and Back Door…’s co-financier) who had a mildly successful career until a drunken incident with a policeman in 1967 left him with a fractured skull and a legacy of brain-related complications. Hellman himself would eventually recover from his harrowing
Noel Vera's review from the Critic After Dark blog:
Noel Vera's review from the Critic After Dark blog:
Monty Hellman's Back Door to Hell (1964), about a group of soldiers making a secret landing on Bicolano soil to prepare for MacArthur's coming gives one a chance to compare the filmmaker's camerawork against Filipino masters like Gerardo de Leon when using the same or at least similar landscape; the differences are--well, I don't know. I'm not aware of exact numbers--Hellman's budget couldn't possibly be much larger than that of a standard Hollywood feature's-- but the crispness of sound, smoothness of camera movement and clarity of footage go way beyond even the most expensive all-Filipino production; one wonders if perhaps Hellman simply brought better equipment with him.
Both have their distinctive styles, with Hellman favoring low-angled cameras and carefully interlocking shots that show the soldiers' stealthy progress against the Japanese; de Leon often works with grand gestures, with tiny figures running up some tilted landscape, often as if they were working their way up a Sisyphean incline.
When the action breaks out, both use crisp, precise editing, and standard-issue music to ratchet up (however imperfectly) the tension. Hellman's characters talk in a hardboiled language, however, while de Leon betrays a less updated sensibility by having his characters speak florid dialogue in a stagy, often theatrical manner (though he does have a tendency to position his people the way a Japanese director might in a drama scene--both facing the camera, one standing in a far corner, the other up close and looming). A fascinating gem, an efficient genre piece--one that deals, however briefly, with the issue of death and killing and a man's evolving response to them--and easily the best of the titles mentioned here.
Dennis Schwartz’s review from the Ozus' World Movie Reviews website:
Renown cult director Monte Hellman ("Flight to Fury"/"The Shooting"/"Two Lane Blacktop"), in his first directing effort, does wonders with this wartime adventure story considering he was operating on a shoestring budget and didn't have the bread to shoot extensive battle scenes. The black-and-white film is based on a story by Richard A. Guttman and scripted by Guttman and John Hacket (he also has a leading role as a sergeant called
It's set in 1944 in
The film's main strength is the lively banter among the American soldiers. Nicholson ribs the cynical Hackett with the line "You're the kinda guy who'd call Mahatma Gandhi a rabble-rouser." In another exchange Hackett says to Nicholson in the battlefield "We're all gonna die anyway - tomorrow, next week, 30 years from now. Did that little thought ever penetrate your thick skull?" Nicholson replies "Yeah, once when I was a boy, but naturally I dismissed it as being too outrageous." The small film had that kind of big personality.