In 1970, two award-winning actors, both of whom paid their dues and honed their skills with hardscrabble years of stage and film work, stepped into the star spotlight in the title roles of their popular, button-pushing one-word-named movies. They also share today as a birthday: George C. Scott (1927-1999), the indelible portrayer of rip-roaring General George S. Patton (1970), and Peter Boyle (1935-2006), the unforgettable incarnation of a reactionary blue-collar bigot trying to cope with tumultuous flower-powered times in Joe (1970). Both were renegade “go-to-war” performances for the ages, and they would team together memorably eight years later in another powerful tale of culture clashes and flashpoint violence with a one-word moniker: writer-director Paul Schrader’s incendiary thriller Hardcore (1979). Their characters were a startlingly snug fit, each embodying a side of Schrader’s double-play on the title: Scott’s Jake Van Dorn is a chillingly conservative, strictly religious widower from a frost-bound Grand Rapids, Michgan, who’s come to Southern California in search of his daughter gone missing from a faith-based retreat; Boyle’s seedy, stealthy Andy Mast is a Los Angeles private investigator who serves as the searcher’s frontier scout into a soul-depleting world of pornography and exploitation. (The word “searcher” is precise: Schrader cites John Ford’s seminal Western The Searchers (1956) as a major inspiration, and Mast often refers to Van Dorn as “Pilgrim.”) It’s all the more startling when you consider that the guy who played the seething powder keg that the working-class Joe Curran became is the voice of calm who tries – ultimately unsuccessfully – to contain the hidden, unyielding rage of the calculating, patrician professional behind the righteous God-and-country personification of one of World War II’s greatest heroes.
Like The Searchers (1956), Hardcore is about lifting the blinders on one’s own beliefs before recovery and reconciliation can take place. The film’s most memorable sequence captures it, as The New York Times’ Janet Maslin observes in her review: “‘You like showing me this, don't you?’ snarls Jake Van Dorn, the hero of Paul Schrader's brave and chilling Hardcore. ‘I hate it,’ replies the private eye Andy Mast, with conviction. Van Dorn is a stern Midwestern businessman, whose teenage daughter has disappeared, and Mast has been hired to find her. All he's found so far is an 8-millimeter peep-show movie featuring Van Dorn's daughter and two men. There's cause to wonder why he's forcing Van Dorn to watch this abomination. Yes, the early sequence in which Van Dorn looks at only a few seconds' worth of film and then goes to pieces, makes for one of the most powerful moments in an already electrifying movie. But are there broader, less sensational reasons for Hardcore to include the episode? There are. Mast, played beautifully by Peter Boyle, may be something of a sadist, but he also senses Van Dorn's crippling inability to look at whatever he doesn't choose to see. Mast is doing more than inflicting pain: He's helping Van Dorn begin a journey that may provide him with a brutal – but perhaps necessary – education.” The path to a heaven fully attained gathers scars along the way via detours through Hell in Schrader’s hallucinatory vision, which is brilliantly shot by the cinematographer of Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and The Fugitive (1993), Michael Chapman. Boyle’s Mast is not the only guide on this turbulent mission: Season Hubley’s hardened yet understanding prostitute Niki takes over and provides another – if only momentary – daughter figure for the lost, unmoored Scott/Van Dorn, and serves as a potent symbol for the victimization of women by men in both familial relationships and in the dehumanizing sex industry milieu. Hardcore dares us to watch, and in the committed work of birthday honorees Scott and Boyle, as well as the other assembled on- and off-camera talents, grabs our attention and holds it fast on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Though this is our label’s only intersection with Boyle, more riveting work by the legendary Scott will come in the months ahead.