Pretty Melissa (Susan Sarandon) returns to her squalid apartment that she shares with low-rent hustler Frank (Patrick McDermott). They share a bath together before he gets worked up about being out of cash and low on drugs. It's different for her, he tells her: she has rich parents to fall back on. But Melissa has embraced her hippy lifestyle and doesn't want their help - she'd rather watch helplessly as Frank calms himself down with a shot of heroine then tries - unsuccessfully - to make love to her.

Later that afternoon, Frank hits the streets to make a couple of deals in order to get money for more drugs. Melissa catches up with him in a café but he sends her packing, offering her a pink pill to counteract the dope she's already taken.

However, this provokes an overdose and Melissa collapses in a shop after smearing her face in lipstick. A customer calls for an ambulance and Melissa is whisked away to hospital, where parents Bill (Dennis Patrick) and Joan (Audrey Caire) rush to her aide.

Insisting that Melissa return home with them for recuperation, Bill then sets off for her apartment where he intends to pack her belongings. While there, Frank shows up fresh from pushing dope on to two young girls. A confrontation ensues, leaving Frank dead on his bed. Panicking, Bill stuffs Melissa's wares into a bag and then messes the place up even further, stealing Frank's stash of drugs to make the murder seem drug-related.

Bill is understandably shocked by his own actions and dips into a quiet bar before returning to the hospital. In the bar, Bill takes a seat beside bigot Joe (Peter Boyle), who is busy spouting off racist remarks at the silent barman. Joe is an angry individual who blames everyone but his own kind for the state of his country. In particular, his gripes are against immigrants and hippies.

Joe claims he'd be only too happy to kill a hippie to make a point. Bill exclaims that he's just done so, but soon laughs it off when Joe becomes excited. Joe takes to Bill immediately and buys him a drink but, remembering his duties, Bill rushes off to the hospital.

That night, Bill shares his dastardly deed with loyal Joan while Joe returns to his humble dwellings and to put-upon partner May Lou (K Callan). May Lou hands Joe beers for him to swig in front of the TV in his vest, after his long hard day at the factory. This is their routine.

That particular night while watching TV, Joe learns of Frank's death on the news. He immediately suspects that Bill was responsible and sets about locating his new friend. He finds Bill's telephone number at work and calls him the following morning, asking him to meet him that evening at a local bowling alley.

Bill shows up, perturbed. But Joe is not out to blackmail Bill. Rather, he wants something much worse: friendship. Joe is in awe of Bill for actually doing what Joe only talks about doing. The pair drink into the night and forge an uneasy bond, frayed by their obvious class divide.

But as the night closes in, Joe has taken to Bill even more and insists that he bring Joan to dinner one evening. Begrudgingly, Bill accepts. How can he say no, when Joe knows his most incriminating secret?

However, when Melissa returns to her parents' home and overhears the truth about Frank's death, she does a runner into the murky underworld of the city's druggies. And Bill is so desperate to find her, that he accepts the gung-ho Joe's offer of helping him scour the streets at night …

JOE coincided with actual shootings of students in the US and no doubt was a frighteningly timely film upon its 1970 release. Commenting on the death of the 60s and, of course, the fallout from the Vietnam war, the film captures not only the anger and resentment of working classes of the day but also the huge chasm between them and the middle classes.

It also stands as a savage and direct, albeit often darkly humorous, reminder of an uglier, less politically correct time when people like Joe - ignorant, flag-waving slobs intent on blaming unknown quantities for their country's failings - were all too common fixtures in bars everywhere. It's scary to see, because it's still plausible.

Performances add to the gritty realism and social seething that can be felt throughout. Boyle gives arguably his finest turn, portraying a despicable character with unflinching commitment. His hatred is unexplained, as much a mystery to us as it is to Bill, but that's fine - he's scary, and he exists as a real monster of barely contained rage in an all-too-real world.

Sarandon impresses too as the young Melissa (quite some figure on her too, in the opening bath scene!), but the top acting honours go to Patrick. He portrays Bill as an incredibly misguided, confused and vulnerable soul. Ultimately, he's no better than the fatally flawed Joe. But he's more capable of hiding his true colours - save for rare candid moments, when his true ugly self is exposed.

With a sharp, quick-fire script and edgy camerawork that captures the scuzzy backstreets of the drug-addled city centre, JOE feels authentic enough - almost as smelly as an early Paul Morrissey film. It's main drawback is Norman Wexler's dialogue, that often over-emphasises things to a degree that borders on farce.

Having said that, JOE - although not quite subtle enough to incite on a level it wishes to - is a very intriguing, if minor, character piece. Not dissimilar to TAXI DRIVER … but watching the latter will only further reveal how much better Shrader's understanding of his angry protagonist is.

Incidentally, Boyle went on to play Bickle's agony uncle-of-sorts in TAXI DRIVER. JOE's director, John G Avildsen, went on to direct ROCKY and THE KARATE KID. Sarandon went on to marry likeable alcoholic Tim Robbins. And Patrick ended up with bit parts in "Quincy" and "Remington Steele". Life can be cruel.

JOE is flawed, but engaging and definitely stands as an interesting comment upon the America of 1970. It's still socially relevant, which is scary in itself, but its dramatic arch and its overall impact are too small to give it any lasting impression. It's little wonder that this enjoyable if trite film has been largely forgotten.

The disc her presents the uncut film in a relatively bright and sharp 1.33:1 transfer. Some grain is evident, but for an also-ran from almost 40 years ago, it looks fine.

The same can be said for the English mono audio, which is a strong and clear offering throughout.

The disc has animated menu pages, including a scene-selection menu allowing access to the main feature via 12 chapters.

The only extra on the disc is a three-minute trailer from the film's theatrical release, rife with glowing one-liners from newspapers and magazines of the time.

Apparently Boyle spearheaded a campaign to make a sequel to the film in the 1980s, but it never transpired. It's a shame: the character of Joe deserved further exploration, and it would've been interesting to see where he went following on from the predictably downbeat ending of the original film.

Certainly worth checking out.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Optimum Home Entertainment
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review