' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Cisco Pike (1972)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Cisco Pike (1972)

Although “Cisco Pike” was Kris Kristofferson’s first film role it doesn’t quite show. Yes, Kristofferson’s character, concocted by writer/director Bill L. Norton, is a singer-songwriter and, yes, Kristofferson’s songs fill the film’s soundtrack, suggesting a laziness in characterization, but all this adds definable texture that specifically gives this otherwise shaggy dog story something resembling a point. Cisco is kind of a California precursor to Rocky Balboa, a one-time music star who’s slowly seen that star fade. We catch up with him shortly after he’s been busted a second time for dealing drugs, the racket he apparently turned to when his time at the top of the charts concluded. He’s determined to go straight at the behest of the feisty woman (Karen Black) he loves, the woman who’s disappointingly given no inner life aside from standing by her man, though Black ragefully trembles with the best of ‘em. It’s a tough road to hoe, though. He visits a friend at a recording studio but doesn’t get asked to sit in on the sessions; he’s only asked if he’s got pot for sale. He’s a guy trying to figure out, to quote one of his tunes, “If the going up is worth the coming down” because that’s precisely where “Cisco Pike” finds Cisco Pike – in the midst of coming down.


His suspect situation worsens when Sgt. Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), the narcotics cop who’s busted Cisco twice goads him into helping unload god-only-knows how many kilos of top-grade ganja because Hollands need $10,000 in forty-eight hours or else. Or else what? Well, he never really says. He hints. He alludes. He says things like “fifty-four percent of the population dies of heart disease” as if it’s supposed to tie back to the bigger picture. The performance by Hackman, which only receives scant screen time, is coated in stressed out desperation, a delightful trove of tics, like crazy calisthenics that he suddenly busts out as if it’s the only thing that will keep his head screwed on straight. He’s not simply a loose cannon, he’s a glorious eccentric, the sort of supporting character with a whole movie of his own stashed off screen where I like to imagine him taking aerobics classics while still wearing his short-sleeve dress shirts and ties.

Cisco seems to have a choice as to whether or not he wants to go along with Holland’s scheme, and though he exercises that choice now and again, he mostly willingly lets himself get strung along, maybe because it’s easier than trying to write a hit song. It’s tough to know for certain. “Cisco Pike” has the bare minimum of psychological insight, favoring endless shots of Cisco stalking the streets, taking endless drags on cigarettes, his guitar case in hand like a “Desperado” dope dealer. Kristofferson, his windswept hair and his youthful face evoking Kurt Russell more than the formidable stone-faced growler he now emits in his twilight years, has a winning presence in the part, the perfect actor to hold down the center of the film that is all over the place. He gets worked up when things go wrong, but he never sweats. He doesn’t seem to know where he’s going or what he wants to be doing, and so Kristofferson makes it clear that the character is in no hurry.

That consistent lackadaisical vibe amidst what’s supposed to be such an urgent quest stands in stark contrast to a conclusion that just seems to drop in out of the air like the helicopter that shows up to start taking shots at an increasingly agitated Holland. If it doesn’t exactly fit in tone, it more than fits in narrative, a head-scratch, not so much a deus ex machine as a Throw Your Hands Up In The Air. “You do things and one day wonder why you’re doing things. Ya know?” Holland asks with an ambiguity that’s positively hilarious. Then he shrugs, “I don’t know.”

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