The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Back Door to Hell

Early in his career before he was a bankable star, Jack Nicholson was like a lot of young actors. He was just looking to make a name for himself. He even wrote a screenplay, 1963's Thunder Island, that impressed producers and studios, one giving him a $400,000 budget to film two (obviously pretty cheap) movies, filmed back-to-back in the Philippines. Let's start with 1964's Back Door to Hell.

It's just days away from the Allied invasion of the Philippines in 1944, and a three-man commando team headed by Lt. Craig (Jimmie Rodgers) slips onto the islands with a timely, dangerous mission. Along with radio man Burnett (Nicholson) and veteran sergeant Jersey (John Hackett), Craig must find the location of a key Japanese communications center and knock it out. The center though is far behind enemy lines inland, but the location is far from definite. With time working against them, the commandos seek the help of a local Filipino guerrilla unit led by an American-hating fighter, Paco (Conrad Maga), who resents the Americans for taking so long to return. Working together, the commandos and the guerrillas move away from the coast, but there's issues. The Japanese have discovered the commandos have landed and are on their trail. Can they get to the communications center before the Japanese catch them?

It's clear from the start this flick was made on a shoestring budget. The film quality is less than impressive, we never see more than a handful of Japanese soldiers, the already thin story is fleshed out with lots of "walking shots" as our commandos walk across the Philippines, so on and so forth. It only clocks in at a sparse 75 minutes, not wasting time with any real background or bigger picture. It's a thinly decorated men-on-a-mission movie with no spare parts. The music from composer Mike Velarde gets to be a little aggressive, heavy during the action scenes, little too Spanish/jazz guitar in the quieter moments.

Obviously almost 50 years later, there's got to be a reason this one is remembered at all. It isn't the straightforward story. It's the acting of a young Jack Nicholson -- just 27 years old at the time -- that makes it even slightly memorable. His Burnett, the team's expert radioman, is friends with Hackett's Jersey, the two regular army soldiers showing off a good chemistry. While the script does no favor to anyone involved, Nicholson is solid in a part that doesn't give him much to do. Hackett too is solid, the sergeant who knows Lt. Craig's real background. As for Craig, played by pop singer Jimmie Rogers, it just isn't good. Rogers looks like he's reading his lines, glances off screen as if he's forgetting, only then looking back to finish his thoughts/lines. It's just a bad part, one that's supposed to be charismatic and interesting.

Nicholson is by far the biggest name here, the rest of the cast filled out with relative to literal unknowns. I thought Maga was the movie's strongest part as Paco, leader of the Filipino guerrillas. His resentment toward the Americans taking their sweet time returning to the Philippines adds a solid, dark dimension to an otherwise pretty straightforward war story. Annabelle Huggins plays Maria, a female guerrilla fighter, who is the female equivalent of Rogers. The scene between Maria and Lt. Craig is mind-numbing in its badness. Also look for Johnny Monteiro as Ramundo, a bandit posing as a guerrilla fighter, and Joe Sison as the Japanese officer leading the hunt for the commandos.

An early effort from director Monte Hellman, 'Hell' isn't that bad or that good. It's generally pretty harmless. It does benefit from the on-location shooting in the Philippines, especially a small-scale battle between the commandos and their Japanese pursuers in a tiny Filipino village. The location shooting is authentic, it looks it, and it gives a nice touch of reality to a generally familiar war story. Not too much to analyze here, a B-movie that is decently entertaining enough, especially for Nicholson fans.

Back Door to Hell (1964): **/****

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