Much has been made of the pair of low-budget political Westerns director Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson shot back-to-back in Utah for Roger Corman in 1965, “Ride In the Whirlwind” and “The Shooting”. Before that though, the pair went to the Philippines to shoot a pair of black-and-white thrillers called “Flight to Fury” and “Back Door to Hell”.
As the screenplay to “Flight to Fury” was actually written by Nicholson from a story by Hellman and producer Fred Roos, you can actually see the same themes from Hellman and the same kind of performance from Nicholson that you could expect from their later films, together or apart. Hellman was only about 32 at this time while smilin’ Jack was five year younger.
The actual star is Dewey Martin as Joe Gaines. We find Joe losing at a Manila casino’s card tables only after witnessing several other people either watching or participating in the exchange of some stolen diamonds. Joe is oblivious to any of this as he finds himself dead broke and quickly befriended by the very strange Jay Wickham (Nicholson).
When a local woman he picks up is murdered while he’s in the shower after the pair had sex, Joe figures it’s a good time to leave town. He sends a message to his pilot pal Al Ross (John Hackett) to save a seat on the next flight out. Joe sends the message through Jay who promptly invites himself along for the ride. As a matter of fact, most of the other passengers, and Al, look mighty familiar from the opening scenes of the jewelry exchange. Somehow I don’t think the flight will actually arrive anyplace any of them had wanted to go.
The budget constraints are fairly obvious, and according to Hellman, filming in the Philippines in the early 1960’s was no picnic, either. Even at only 80 minutes, the movie drags along in parts. Most of the cast is okay, though a gang that figures prominently in the story appear as if they just walked out of the Manila production of “West Side Story”. It’s Nicholson’s sardonic and often sociopathic presence that mostly propels the film. He’s probably about 26 when this production was shot but he feels fully formed, even more so than in some of his later films.
“Flight to Fury” still looks more competent than the majority of the independent films I see made today, and there’s several hints of the great things to come from the people involved. I guess part of the fun is watching the proceedings and realizing that Jack never ever really looked particularly young and innocent. He was crazy even then.
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