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Cisco Pike (1972)

November 30th, 2007 · 4 Comments

Cisco Pike 1972 poster.jpg   Cisco Pike DVD cover.jpg

Synopsis
Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) ventures down the canals of Venice, California with a guitar case. He visits a music store, where he reports to an old friend (Roscoe Lee Browne) that he “ain’t dealing no more”. Cisco is trying to get back into the music business and is looking for cash, but his friend refuses to take his guitar. He returns home to his yoga practicing girlfriend (Karen Black), where another record company has rejected his demo tape.

A cop named Leo Holland (Gene Hackman) visits the ex-dealer and demands he take a ride with him. Cisco has been busted twice; a third arrest means five years in prison. He’s understandably wary when the narc takes him to a garage and reveals 100 keys of first-rate weed. Holland needs $10,000 by the end of the weekend, and offers Cisco whatever’s left over if he can sell the dope in 59 hours.

Getting back in touch with his clientele – mostly musicians – Cisco discovers plenty of heads who want to buy dope from him, but no one who wants to hear about his musical comeback. Cisco’s beloved collaborator Jesse Dupre (Harry Dean Stanton) returns to L.A. hopped up on speed and looking “twenty years older”. He’s also looking to get back into music, and accompanies Cisco around town as he attempts to sell off the cop’s dope.

Cisco Pike 1972 Harry Dean Stanton Kris Kristofferson pic 1.jpg

Production history 
Bill L. Norton – son of politically progressive writer William W. Norton – ended up at UCLA Film School in the late ’60s. Inspired by La dolce vita, Norton wrote a script called Dealer, using the music and drugs scene of Los Angeles as a backdrop. Norton pitched the story to an executive at Columbia Pictures named Gerald Ayres, who ultimately left the studio, and set the project up with Norton making his directorial debut.

Ayres was friends with screenwriter Robert Towne. As a favor, Towne tuned up the script, creating the narc character, and rewriting much of the character of Cisco’s girlfriend. Casting underwent last minute changes as well, with Seymour Cassel being replaced in the title role by Kris Kristofferson. The 34-year-old Kristofferson was already a noted songwriter and performer – best known for writing”Me and Bobby McGee” for Janis Joplin – but had never appeared in a movie.

With a budget of $800,000, filming commenced in late 1970 around Los Angeles. Gene Hackman was soon cast in The French Connection, which was shot, released and earned Hackman an Academy Award for Best Actor while Cisco Pike languished. It finally surfaced in early 1972, when the film was dumped into one theater in L.A. It played for a couple of weeks, then disappeared for more than thirty years.

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L.A. based cable network Z Channel petitioned Columbia to license the broadcast rights to the cult film in the early ’80s. The studio refused. They never released it on VHS either. The film existed only in revival theaters or on bootleg tapes until 2006, when it received a quiet release on DVD. If anyone who knows why Columbia kept Cisco Pike out of sight for decades, I’d love to know why. Legal wrangling over music clearances is the only reason I can think of.

Opinion 
The legend of Cisco Pike is probably more endearing than anything really on the screen. This is a scruffy, aimless B-movie, a shotgun marriage of docudrama and drive-in that never quite comes together. What Norton does in his directorial debut is capture the fringes of a Los Angeles that has passed into time. Venice Beach exists as a ruined shrine to the ’60s, before the Boardwalk was transformed into a tourist trap. This lends several of the scenes an almost haunted quality.

Another point of interest is Harry Dean Stanton. Billed as “H.D. Stanton”, the great character actor gives one of his finest performances ever, playing a strung out musician with one foot in his grave. Kristofferson wrote and performed four songs – “Loving Her Was Easier”, “I’d Rather Be Sorry”, “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33” and “Breakdown” – that fit the fabric of the drifting film beautifully. Cisco Pike doesn’t add up to much, but I liked the way it tried to get there.

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Geoffrey Miller at DVD Verdict writes, “Cisco Pike is an entertaining little document of the splintering counterculture in the early ’70s … By no means is it a masterpiece – the shaky direction makes sure of that. However, it’s full of gritty cult appeal.”

“Though there’s no mistaking Cisco Pike for anything other than a product of its time, the film often manages to overcome its ’70s excess and generally comes off as an effective character study,” writes David Nusair at Reel Film Reviews.

Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun writes, “I can barely get into how much I admire this film and its cast (a list of actors I’ll see in any movie – Kris Kristofferson in his debut, Gene Hackman, Karen Black and Harry Dean Stanton) so I’ll just say it plain – Cisco Pike is a masterpiece.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · Music

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cisco // Feb 19, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    nice overview
    great film
    in its way
    it used to show on abc network nyc tv
    late saturday nights
    late 70’s-80’s

  • 2 David // Aug 30, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Cool old movie about a time and place I lived.

  • 3 Lynne // Nov 10, 2010 at 8:03 am

    I just saw it last night…great flick.

  • 4 HotRod // Feb 16, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Just watched this on Crackle.com
    It really took me home, as I grew up in the area late 60’s early 70’s, so it was totally Deja Vu. It’s very much a B movie, but still enjoyable for the cast, backdrop, and subject matter. Overall it’s a good flick….

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