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EARLY NICHOLSON DIRECTED BY HELLMAN 'BACK DOOR TO HELL'

year: 1964
Following the existential Western double-feature, THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, which, like this review, is director Monte Hellman approved, BACK DOOR TO HELL, an early Jack Nicholson low-budget war programmer, actually stars real life singer Jimmie Rodgers (the hero on the poster to the left) as one of three soldiers, including Nicholson’s radio operator Burnett...

Who, during one conversation with the square-jawed, old school militaristic type, Jersey, played by co-writer John Hackett (who sporadically worked with Nicholson till 1996), discusses Rodger's character, Lt. Craig... the man in charge of a strategic venture into the Philippines via WWII... and how he hesitated before firing his gun, which could jeopardize this important and dangerous secret mission.
One of two overseas projects directed by Monte Hellman and co-starring Nicholson including FLIGHT TO FURY, which will be reviewed here one day... Followed by, back in the States, the aforementioned 1966 Western double-feature THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, proving their true collaborative worth... In 1964's BACK DOOR, the creative auteur builds tension with the camera quick-shifting to the right or left, a sort of horizontal push-zoom gaining popularity during the latter '60s and throughout the Renaissance '70s, when Hellman remained a subliminal influence while his once struggling-actor partner Nicholson, as everyone knows, became a top-billed star and a three-time Oscar winning icon thereafter.
Jimmie, John & Jack
Despite Jack's intrepid gun-toting image headlining the film's artwork post-EASY RIDER, he's really the philosophizing brains of the trio, remaining a moral compass while preparing to intercept a radio transmission as Rodgers, working with scene-stealing Guerilla leader Paco (Conrad Maga), continues to move forward behind enemy lines while a gallant war score plays, peppered with frantic bongos...

A hybrid of '40s and '60s soundtracks underlined by anti-war sentiment that's never too preachy. As Paco gives Lt. Craig motivation, the passive American becomes tougher and braver on the field: concluding with an explosive stock reel of archive footage to ultimately seal the deal.

Jack Nicholson and FURY scriptwriter John Hackett
And because of the obvious attempt to be a legitimate war movie instead of a passion project indie... not bombastic enough to be genuine or artistic enough for a cult following... HELL remains an obscure, forgotten curio. But it's worth watching for the cast and direction.

RATING: ***
TRIVIA: This super low budget war film by director Monte Hellman and his often writing partner/stock actor Jack Nicholson, is a follow up to another war vehicle, FLIGHT TO FURY which, one day, will be reviewed on Cult Film Freak (perhaps a nice fan can mail a copy). Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson, an actor who became his iconic legacy in 1969's counter-culture classic EASY RIDER, playing a role originally intended for Rip Torn, shows, in these early performances, proof that the pre-fame Nicholson had ambitious talent beyond acting, and his younger performances were far often more subdued, not always a good thing but sometimes, quite refreshing.
Over thirty years later, Jack Nicholson and John Hackett (in a literal walk-on) in BLOOD & WINE 
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