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Jack Nicholson: Director

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With The Shining back in cinemas, isn't it about time someone paid tribute to its star's sizeable body of work behind the camera?

The best thing about having The Shining back on the big screen this November is the opportunity it provides to see The Greatest Actor of His Generation™ throwing his most ferocious heavyweight punches. There’s one hell of a post-film pub chat to be had scanning through Jack Nicholson’s list of credits, arguing a case for his single greatest contribution to cinema.

Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may be strong (if obvious) contenders. As would Chinatown or The King of Marvin Gardens. But what of Nicholson’s sizeable body of work behind the camera as a writer/director? Isn’t it about time that entered the conversation?

The Early Years

Until recently, it’s been nigh-on impossible to give Nicholson’s directorial projects the attention they deserve, given their severely limited availability on any home video format. That’s now changed to a degree, but if you plan on starting right at the beginning, good luck tracking down a copy of Nicholson’s 1963 writing debut Thunder Island. Never released on any format, there’s as little information available on the film (aside from a perfunctory two sentence plot summary on IMDb) as there is on its producer/director Jack Leewood, a forgotten journeyman in the annals of '50s sci-fi B-moviedom, who nevertheless made more than 25 features.

Corman’s World

Things pick up a little when we move into Jack’s time at American International Pictures under the wing of Roger Corman, for whom he wrote three pictures and made contact with director Monte Hellman. Hellman was associate producer on Corman’s 1960 film, The Wild Ride, in which Nicholson was starring, and the pair formed a writing partnership that soon resulted in Epitaph, a hard-hitting abortion drama. Sadly, Corman lost faith in the project so it never got made. However, he clearly saw something in the pair; sending them off to the Philippines in 1964 to write and shoot Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell in quick succession. Both serve as short, sharp exercises in B-movie thrills, each with their own neatly executed set pieces. But it’s Flight to Fury that best hints at Nicholson’s strengths as a performer; his Jay Wickham being a lupine predator of psychopathic volatility.

Reap the Whirlwind

While both are available on DVD in the UK as part of the Jack Nicholson: The Early Years collection, the transfers are in desperate need of attention. They’re not nearly as deserving, however, as a duo of Monte Hellman westerns: Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, from 1965 and 1966 respectively. Nicholson produced both, taking over Fred Astaire's old office to write the former alongside Hellman. If any films in Nicholson’s oeuvre can lay claim to the term 'forgotten masterpiece', it’s these two. Subverting and re-writing western movie archetypes, The Shooting is as committed to its magnificent, quasi-Beckettian stylisation as Whirlwind is to its harsh realism. Both cry out for the kind of treatment usually reserved for the likes of the Criterion or Masters of Cinema imprints.

Head movies

It’s thanks to Criterion’s outstanding 2010 release of the Blu-ray collection, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, that we have access for the first time to Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut, Drive, He Said, as well as his first collaboration (this time as a writer) with director Bob Rafelson, on the pseudo-Brechtian mindfuck, Head (1968). Nicholson demonstrated an interesting directorial vision when shooting Drive, He Said, more so than in his two later efforts (Goin’ South and Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes). And yet it’s a film that ultimately lacks cohesion between its disparate narrative strands. All this despite some stunning on-court basketball footage courtesy of director of photography, Bill Butler.

Head proves the real find amid the established classics in the collection; a freeassociative tumble down the rabbit hole that exceeds even an early screenplay written for Corman, The Trip. Playing like a kind of visual suicide note for manufactured pop-sensations The Monkees, the integration of footage like the Nguyen Van Lem execution ensures the film is fully removed from any expected similarities to Richard Lester’s Beatles collaborations. A dark, melancholic burst of meta-reflexive expressionism, it’s a film that smashes through the door of commercial pop culture with all the force of Jack Torrance’s axe.

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