Apr 21, 2008

The Third Floor Drive-In: Season Four, Episode Two

The April 20 edition of The Third Floor Drive-In was the adventure film Flight to Fury, preceded by the trailer for the infamous Mexican film, Survive!

I did not realize this, but the next day after screening this film, Jack Nicholson turned 71. And as such, this little gem is a perfect way to honour his birthday, as it features Jack Nicholson during his salad days, when he was still trying to make it as an actor, and was also writing screenplays. As such, The Trip and Head give proof that perhaps the greatest actor of his generation also was an entirely unique writer. One can only imagine what the results would be if he continued writing after his Easy Rider fame.

In the mid-1960's, Nicholson collaborated with the quirky genius director Monte Hellman on a pair of existential westerns, Ride the Whirlwind (which Jack also wrote), and The Shooting. Prior to that, they had also teamed up on a back-to-back pair of lesser-known, gritty adventure films shot in the Philippines: Back Door to Hell and tonight's film, the superior Flight to Fury.

While third-billed (after the bland leading man Dewey Martin, and actress Fay Spain), Jack obviously wrote the best role for himself, as the adventurer Jay Wickham, a con man and killer that detours this matinee picture by way of Albert Camus. (His way of chatting up a woman on a plane is: "Man sends millions, perhaps billions of dollars a year on women, booze and drugs, just to hide the fact of his ultimate demise.")

Any new misfortune is simply a new experience for Wickham to appreciate. His character blurs through the vague narrative, which at best circulates around the McGuffin plot of a bunch of disparate characters who want the diamonds being carried by a passenger pilot. The plane crashes, and the survivors are attacked by unnamed guerrillas, yet these emerge as secondary inconveniences to their lust for loot.

At a brisk 74 minutes, this little gem is still tremendous fun, and remains one of my favourite Monte Hellman pictures. The dialogue is snappy, and there are several interesting characters thrown into this oddball adventure. Vic Diaz, a supporting character in countless Filipino-lensed exploitation films of the 70's, is great fun as the Sydney Greenstreet-esque hood Lorgren who also wants the diamonds: while charismatic and good-natured, his character would still betray someone on a whim.

While I've always been a fan of this picture, it has an even more special place in my heart after having viewed it at the Third Floor Drive-In. Seeing these characters in their mysteriously unsoiled white polyester suits in the Filipino jungle while I'm hovering at the screen with a coffee and a blanket wondering how they keep cool, made for an interesting juxtaposition.

While at heart this is a 1940's matinee film, updated with 1960's edginess, and further made surreal by the locations and tinny old-fashioned music score, it appears as a movie with its own time and space. Seeing this outdoors as the cold wind wreaked havoc, further added to this Zen-like experience.

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