Cisco Pike (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blackmailed into dealing drugs.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a down-on-his-luck singer who once was playing to sell-out crowds, but finds his popularity declining and resorting to selling drugs to maintain a living, but under pressure from his girlfriend Sue (Karen Black) has stopped. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman) is a police detective looking to retire and needing enough money to do so. He steals a sizeable quantity of high-grade marijuana from a gang leader and then tells Cisco he must sell it within 59 hours while giving Leo $10,000 of the profits and Cisco can keep anything that he makes beyond that. At first Cisco resists knowing it will interfere with his relationship with Sue, but eventually gives in when Leo threatens to kill him unless he complies.

While this film has achieved a cult status in recent years critics at the time of its release were not kind. Many felt it promoted drug use just as the nation was starting its war on drugs, which caused the film to get a limited release and eventually bombed at the box office. Personally I found it to be a riveting look at the drug dealing culture and a fabulous directorial/screenwriting debut for Bill L. Norton the son of William W. Norton who was also a successful screenwriter.

What I liked most was the cinema vertite style that made it seem almost like a documentary. I enjoyed the camera following Cisco around in a non-stagy way and revealing the variety of people that he sold to with not all of them being hippies either, but also middle-aged suburbanites and even business executives. The film nicely shows how some of the encounters would be non-eventful while others could ended up being a trap and eventual police chase. The unpredictable quality of the transactions replicated the anxiety the dealers would face and how hyper observant they needed to be to the immediate environment around them.

Many films try to recreate things that the filmmakers themselves haven’t gone through, but here I got the feeling that the director and much of the cast had experienced the same situations as the characters which in-turn makes the viewer feel, when it’s over, that they’ve lived it too. The dialogue is excellent as well with a conversational style that doesn’t overexplain things and allows the viewer to read in a bit to what the characters are saying.

Kristofferson, who had been a singer up to that point, makes an outstanding acting debut and all the more impressive when you realize that he had no acting training before he was given the part. Many of his friends advised him not to take the role fearing his lack of experience would hurt the movie and cause him not to be given any more roles, but after reading the script he felt he could relate to the character by simply being honest with his emotions, which he does splendidly and it’s nice too seeing him in a rare appearance without any beard or mustache.

Hackman is excellent as well playing a character that was not in the original treatment, but added in later by Robert Towne when he wrote the revision. It’s unusual seeing him in such a relatively small part with large chunks of time, especially during the second act, where he’s not seen at all, but when he is onscreen he’s effective. It was fortunate that this was filmed just before he won the Academy Award for The French Connection as that turned him into leading man material and it’s unlikely that he would’ve accepted this part had it been produced any later.

Black is interesting, she usually always is, despite, like with Hackman, not having all that much screen time, but she makes the most of what she has particularly her physical reactions to Hackman when he invites himself into her apartment late at night and begins rambling on about his heart condition. Honorable mention too needs to go to Joy Bang, an attractive supporting actress during the early 70’s who later retired from show business to get into nursing. Her toothy smile always looks sexy, at least to me, and I loved when she gives her female companion, played by Viva, an open-mouth kiss while riding in a car and then turns around and gives Kristofferson, who is sitting on her other side, the same treatment.

Harry Dean Stanton, as an aging musician, doesn’t appear until near the end, but has some of the movie’s most profound moments particularly his exchange with Kristofferson were he laments about no longer being sexy enough for the stage while Kristofferson reminds him that it’s not his body that the music business wants, but his soul instead.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: November 2, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bill L. Norton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD

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