Straight To Hell (1987)
Director Alex Cox
Themes Bank Robbery/Crime Gone Awry
Produced by Commies from Mars/Initial Pictures/Island Pictures/J & M Entertainment
Sy Richardson Norwood
Joe Strummer Simms
Dick Rude Willy
Courtney Love Velma
Dennis Hopper I.G. Farben
Elvis Costello Hives, The Butler
Grace Jones Sonya
Jim Jarmusch Mr Amos Dade
Kathy Burke Sabrina
The Pogues The MacMahons
Edward Tudor-Pole Rusty Zimmerman
Legend has it that this bizarre movie came about when a proposed tour of Nicaragua, in support of the Sandanistas’, failed to raise enough funds to make it a reality. As a result, director Alex Cox dreamt up the idea for ‘Straight To Hell’ so the artists involved on the aborted tour (Joe Strummer, The Pogues and Elvis Costello) could make use of the raised money and their newly acquired down time. The resulting spaghetti western/noir was made in a hurry (3-4 weeks) on location in Almeria, Spain and could be described as something of a punk rock holiday. The shoot was said to be immensely pleasurable, with members of The Pogues regularly waking up in gutters from the night before to undertake a days shooting, and an experience that every member of cast and crew would gladly repeat if given the opportunity once more.
When viewing the film as part of ‘The Clash’ edition of trakMarx it struck me how similar in style and character ‘Straight To Hell’ is with Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’. As a consequence I set about providing a new take on this overlooked forerunner to some of cinemas finest moments. In terms of narrative ‘Straight To Hell’ could be described as fairly quirky, to say the least, blending elements of the spaghetti western with a heist movie to create a ‘hybrid’. Now this might not appear too radical in today’s climate but in 1987 this film could be argued to be significantly ahead of its time, signally a change in the way movies are constructed. Aware of Tarantino’s celebrated movie knowledge and predilection for intertextuality it would be no surprise if he hadn’t, at some time, seen ‘Straight To Hell’ and made some mental notes.
When you consider the way the principal actors Joe Strummer (Simms) and Sy Richardson (Norwood) are dressed, and behave, it’s easy to see how very similar they are to Tarantino’s hitmen, ‘Jules and Vincent’ from ‘Pulp Fiction’. The ‘be suited’ duo also resemble Tarantinos’ characters in many other ways throughout the film; Strummers’ character even possesses a ‘flicknife’ that’s wielded about like a crazed ‘Mr Blonde’. Whereas Sy Richardson (Norwood) navigates the film like a ‘supercool’ Samuel L. Jackson prototype. Could it be that Tarantino saw the potential in these characters and assembled his gang of hitmen who decide to rob a bank as somewhat of homage? It may be a bit of a stretch to assume that this is precisely the case but it’s fun to think that Strummer in some way paved the way for Travolta and Madsen’s cinematic milestones, isn’t it?
But it’s not only the appearance of the characters that could be said to be strikingly similar, it’s the look of the film as well. The colours, the framing and the lighting are also extremely reminiscent of the Tarantino style and only exaggerated my renewed interpretation of this ‘cult’ classic. Perhaps then there is even more to compare to Cox’s work than the frequently mentioned ‘Repo Man’ trunk scene having been a major influence for the ‘Pulp Fiction’ suitcase.
At the start of the film, when the robbery goes badly, the hitmen (Strummer/Richardson) together with Willy (Dick Rude) and Velma (Courtney Love) head out of the city with the money. It may not exactly be ‘Dogs’ but it sure as hell is evocative. Later in a small town they encounter the MacMahon's (The Pogues) a family of caffeine-addicted gunslingers who control the bizarre population of drunks, femme-fatales and psychos with a tight rein. At one point a pair of MacMahons even take time out from a gunfight to down a few cups of coffee, reminding me somewhat of the cool way Mr Wolf deals with the headless Marvin scenario in ‘Pulp Fiction’. However, it’s an earlier scene when Simms (Strummer) lusts after the wife at the towns’ hardware store that really got me thinking. Her name is Fabienne (ring any bells?) and it’s the moment when, knife in hand, Simms pins his lust interest up against wall bearing a poster of Elvis Presley (almost a Tarantino trademark).
This was just too much, the suits, the crime, the look, the characters, the coffee and now Elvis! Surely Alex Cox must realise the part he has played in Tarantino’s rise to fame. But so too could Joe Strummer receive some credit, for not only taking a major role onboard, as a non-actor no less, but also for laying the foundations for what has now become de rigueur of cinematic cool.
Of course Dennis Hoppers’ appearance was welcomed, if not a little brief, and should not be overlooked in further supporting my interpretation, providing even more evidence for the Tarantino connection. Needless to say I could now guess what would happen in the remainder of the film. Sure enough Simms did not survive and Norwood, sort of, walked off into the sunset, just as Jules would later re-enact in ‘Pulp Fiction’. But, honestly, what really should encourage you to re-view this forgotten ‘cult’ classic is the friendship and camaraderie that shines through in every frame and that can clearly be seen in some truly memorable sequences when the entire cast are seated at a long table for a series of ‘sing-a-longs’. Seeing it now, it could surely be taken as a sort of ‘Last Supper’ for the punk generation and a fitting testament for one of its founding fathers.
Elvis Costello - Hives the butler
Preacher McMahon (Xander Berkeley)
Joe Strummer, some guy from Repo Man and someone else
The outlaw McMahon gang - a wierd Mexican Pogues tribute band
Sonya (Grace Jones) and Farben (Dennis Hopper) are welcomed
by Angel Eyes (Spider Stacy) and Biff (Frank Murray)
Joe without his contact lenses
Tyler Durden tMx 17 10/04