In the 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Stanton and Kris Kristofferson reminisce about a film they worked together on in the early 70s. Watching the clips, it felt like I’d accessed footage from a parallel historical timeline. How could this film be so overlooked, featuring as it does such luminaries as Stanton, Kristofferson, Karen Black and Gene Hackman? How could I have missed this one? It seemed to me as though the New Hollywood canon was settled and complete, that every seam of that era had been mined to exhaustion. Cisco Pike is one of the most curious oversights of 70s cinema. While so many other noble failures and outré excursions from that time have found their place within the canon, Cisco Pike continues to languish in obscurity.
In 1972, the New Hollywood began to solidify into an identifiable sensibility. The Godfather dominated at the Oscars; the gritty aesthetic had seeped into the work of legends like John Huston (Fat City) and Sidney Lumet (The Offence). Even the brutality of Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway elided with the prevailing mood. Michael Ritchie made the supremely cynical Prime Cut and The Candidate; there was Douglas Trumbull’s elegiac eco-sci-fi parable Silent Running, and John Boorman’s Deliverance sent a shudder down metropolitan spines. The success of Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and Fritz the Cat also pointed towards the next frontier of cinematic freedom.
In such an epoch-shifting milieu, how did Cisco Pike fail to find its place on this timeline? Maybe its diminished status is due to its director’s failure to follow it up with anything more substantial than 1979’s More American Graffiti (Norton has worked extensively in television for 30 years.) In the age of the almighty auteur, Norton’s debut had nothing more substantial to which it could be tethered like The Rain People (1969), Duel (1971) and Boxcar Bertha (1972) had. The involvement of legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, albeit in an uncredited capacity, points to another possible point of entry, but Cisco Pike has been stubbornly resistant to any such revisionist attention
Cisco Pike (Kristofferson) is a “hotshot dealer” who has fallen out the bottom of the music industry. He has decided to go straight and rekindle his musical aspirations when a corrupt police sergeant, Leo Holland (Hackman), blackmails him back into dealing “one last time.” Holland has managed to score a monster haul of marijuana, and the narrative follows a race against time as Pike tries to offload the grass over the course of a weekend. Pike’s relationship with his girlfriend, Sue (Black), is put under considerable strain by his reneging on his promise to change his ways. The tension between them intensifies with the arrival in L.A. of Pike’s old musical acquaintance, Jesse Dupree (Stanton).
Cisco Pike presents a radically different side of L.A. The familiar landmarks are absent, the gaudy grandeur of Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine Street are seen in glimpses; but this version presents the city’s interstices — the liminal zones of parking lots, pawn shops and liquor stores. It is the kind of terrain which John Cassavetes explored a year earlier in Minnie and Moskowitz. For all its overzealous patterning of hippy archetypes, Cisco Pike is a work which did much to formulate the mutation of L.A. noir which reached its apotheosis in The Long Goodbye (1973), and resonates right through to Inherent Vice (2014). The sunshine assumes a threatening tint, casting striated patterns which signify the encroaching darkness at large. At the same time, it is equally in thrall to Medium Cool (1969), striving for documentary authenticity with its preponderance of long shots and abrupt zooms.
In his first substantial role, Kristofferson evinces the same easy charm as his music, which is featured prominently. A conscious conflation is made; the character is inextricable from the performer. Unlike so many other musicians who have ventured into acting, Kristofferson understood that the key to success was staying within the parameters of your persona. It was only when he strayed beyond those parameters — as with his uneasy turn in A Star Is Born (1976) — that the limitations of his unschooled charisma were exposed. In many ways, Kristofferson is a figure out of time, harking back to a generation which didn’t attempt onscreen transformation but strove to present an essential truth.
Kristofferson’s performance is all the more remarkable for what surrounds it. He stands on an equal footing with his high-calibre co-stars. Hackman plays a variation on the compromised authority figure which propelled him to fame in The French Connection (1971), but one beset by existential anxiety. Hackman is capable of conveying threat with the slightest gesture or cadence, but he is equally skilled at communicating vulnerability. Stanton is perfectly cast as the ghost from Pike’s past, sketching shades of bravado and despair. Dupree is a physical and spiritual wreck, a wraithlike presence whose arrival signals the transition from marijuana to heroin and the curdling of 60s optimism. Equally, Kristofferson’s scenes with Black show in microcosm the growing alienation of post-Manson Hollywood.
The film’s most cogent insight is found in its treatment of the counterculture’s capture by the forces of capital; there are vivid characterisations of the nascent hippie capitalists who would go on to rule the world. For the detritus of this dreamland, L.A. serves to level the distinction between teenage idol and drug dealer; it is a landscape where one’s identity is provisional, contingent on cultural license. Everyone is performing — as one character asks Pike: ‘That’s an interesting accent. How long did it take you to learn it?’ Pike and Dupree speak of ’66 like a different continent of possibility, a vista of authenticity enveloped by cloud.
Cisco Pike is a meditation on failure at all levels; defeat was in the air and no stratum of society was exempt. Relationships founder, institutions are corrupt, success is illusory. This defeat is symbolised most powerfully by Pike’s guitar case, which he now uses to transport the drugs. He maintains the veneer of an artist while pursuing the extirpation of his creative hopes. In the remnants of optimism is left the overleveraged self, the walking contradiction; forced to lead a dual existence, occupying a space where nobody is what they want to be, serving doubtful masters, their role changing according to the company they keep.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.