“They look like coffee addicts to me, boys!”
The plotline for “Straight to Hell” is rather simple despite the evidence of chaos, wacky violence and wild humour that takes place within the narrative. After an attempt to complete a hit-job inside a Los Angeles hotel goes haywire, four criminals (Dick Rude; Courtney Love, pre-Hole fame; Joe Strummer from punk band The Clash; and Sy Richardson) drive down to the Mexican desert in an effort to escape the wrath of their boss. Once their car breaks down on top of a hill near what looks to be a Mexican ghost town, the gang tries to blend in with some madcap inhabitants. With a singing hot dog vendor, a dangerous, sexually frustrated storeowner, his bored wife, and coffee-addicted McMahon bandits (Irish punk band The Pogues), is there a way for this film not to end in an over-the-top violent shoot out? Director Alex Cox embraces a wonderfully bizarre hybrid of Spaghetti Western and punk sensibility in “Straight to Hell”, creating a work that is the antithesis of conventional American independent cinema. The brilliance of “Straight to Hell” is that it is an all-encompassing viewing experience due to the sheer amount of intertextual references that assemble together to create a master homage to Spanish and punk cinema.
Before attempting to analyse any of the film’s expansive layers of pastiche filmic allusions, one needs a rather sound understanding of Alex Cox’s cinematic approach to decipher the layers of imagery. Cox’s resume is not only limited to film directing: he is a writer of screenplays and nonfiction literature, and he is occasionally an actor. His reputation as a filmmaker gathered momentum in 1984 when his science-fiction crime comedy “Repo Man” starring Emilio Estevez, Dick Rude and Harry Dean Stanton became both a cult-film favourite and critical darling. Today, the film is found on decade-based compilation lists and has recently been newly restored by The Criterion Collection. Cox’s success was further cemented in commercial cinema with the release of his biopic “Sid and Nancy” in 1986 starring Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb. Yet the critical and commercial failure of his next feature in 1987, “Walker” saw an end to Cox’s domination of comedy hybrid commercial films. The Mexican Acid Western that was “Walker” proved too confusing for American critics, with Roger Ebert describing the film as “essentially pointless” (Ebert 1). In 1986, “Straight to Hell” was released within the musical context of the change over between punk and grunge (for the lack of a better critical term) and the transition between film eras in American film from New Hollywood to the big budget projects pioneered by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Unfortunately, “Straight to Hell” was pushed aside by critics and the public, resting in both a film and music limbo that wasn’t accepted anywhere.
Punk cinema is commonly defined by how closely a filmmaker mirrors the aesthetics and energy of punk music, rather than understanding it as a separate entity. As writer Stacy Thompson argues, punk cinema is like punk rock in that it must resist capitalism through aesthetic and economic means (Thompson 25). This emphasis on the “must” to resist capitalism offers, essentially, a narrow-minded approach to this sub-genre of cinema. Promoting the emphasis on punk aesthetics immediately aligns viewers with a media-promoted understanding of punk, limited to images of safety pins, spikes, creepers, and leather. However, films such as The Ramones’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979) may have inadvertently started the trend of such academic thought, with the style continued in popular commercial films such as “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and “Fight Club” (1999)(King 48). What marks “Straight to Hell” (or any of Cox’s films) as essentially “punk” is that it promotes an understanding of the world through the observation of political and social issues such as race, class context, and social opportunity. Cox resists easy commodification of his later films through his employment of fast moving narratives, delayed plot momentum, jump cuts, unconventional costume design, and soundtrack compilations that are not actually limited to punk audio tracks (Atkinson). Ultimately, “Straight to Hell” will forever be a punk film due the film’s continual changes in its deployment of sound mixing ad accepted conventions of genre (Strummer, Jones and Headon 9). Highly similar to the immediate and intellectual lyrics written by The Clash and the intertextuality of their music inspired by Jamaican, American, English, and Latin-American influences, “Straight to Hell” is punk because of the urgency in the film’s action and humour – thereby expanding the film into experimental aesthetic and thematic territory.
As Alex Cox mentioned himself, the entire film is an explicit homage to the 1967 spaghetti western “Django Kill,” directed by Giulio Questi (Cox 1). However, originally, the film was inspired through Cox’s observation of Joe Strummer and his friends the morning after a wild drunken night in Cannes, France. Cox remembered Strummer sitting in the corner of a hotel wearing a black suit waiting for coffee thinking; “there must be a movie in this” (Cox, Audio Commentary). “Straight to Hell” was criticized for being too unbelievable at the time of its release, which is an interesting critical argument to make considering that Spaghetti Westerns are quite “unbelievable” films due to the fast-paced narrative rhythm which stops at no point to really answer viewer questions (MacInnis). The architecture of the Mexican Desert (or Spanish countryside, if you take into account Cox’s shooting locations) exists in its own realm of beauty; Cox captures the magnificence of the endless picturesque blue sky and sand covered mountains that hide the town from any other signs of civilization. When the four criminals first walk through the town, men and women from the McMahon gang swarm them. They leap out from their vehicles and carefully remove glistening silver coffee machines and gather together to hold the machines like spiritual offerings. Essentially, it becomes clear that any gang in “Straight to Hell” will not play by the already established images of criminals in cinema – rather than carrying loads of guns, drugs, or human bodies the members of the McMahon gang are simple coffee addicts (Cox, Audio Commentary). On top of this, the viewer also notices that no two members of the McMahon gang have the same accent; rather, the collection of voices belongs to Irish, American, and Spanish sounds. By this point, the film assumes that the viewer is either with the film or they are not; that one can either look past the different assembly of characters and transcend the lines of believability or find a way to disconnect from it.
But what are the explicit homage references to other films? The opening credit sequence with the startling red text is recycled from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western “For A Few Dollars More,” the store owner’s wife washing down a dust covered motorbike in front of a group of men takes inspiration from “Cool Hand Luke,” and car chase sequences filmed only in tight close up on the actor’s face takes a cue from “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (MacInnis). But how do these recreated images provide the film with any cinematic value? Can “Straight to Hell” even be interpreted as original when perhaps it should be labeled as remake of several films? “Straight to Hell” gains its value through mixing and aligning pre-existing cinematic references in a narrative order so that new meaning arises between each frame; providing the original story of “Django Kill” with new life and new context to one’s existing understanding of the standalone images.
To understand the remixing cinematic references, one can take a closer look at the scenes between Simms (Joe Strummer) and his relationships with various women of the town. When Simms first enters the town general store, the exquisite beauty of the shop-owner’s wife immediately strikes him. The shop owner and husband, George, in contrast is – simply put – a bumbling fool whose exaggerated tantrums disrupt the cool peace of the town and his wife’s desire to be closer to him. Cox sets up this scene quite interestingly. Gone is the convention found in Spaghetti Westerns for a man to be in control of his home, his family, and his workplace – here, the every man is a chump preventing the viewer from completely taking his side. Simms takes the place of the desirable, strong willed man that wins over the wife’s gaze. As George’s wife sends him to the back of the store in order to have a private moment with Simms, Simms leaps at the wife and the two almost make love until Simms ends up biting the wife’s neck like a vampire attack. While one would expect some slick conversation between the two that would fire the film’s expected romantic sub-plot, Cox denies this action and favors presenting characters who feel the need to attack other individuals even if they do not know who they are. The moment is certainly humorous but allows for a sense of peril to arise – a reminder that even the most basic conventions of film genre are turned on their head.
Cox also remixes the taboo and danger of the female spectacle found in traditional American Westerns in “Straight to Hell”. Evident more so in classical American Westerns as opposed to Spaghetti Westerns, the physical spectacle of the female body is acknowledged and marveled at by men usually within the setting of a saloon bar or private back room of a brothel. Westerns are not traditionally known for their explicit sexuality; instead sexuality is merely suggested or teasingly revealed (Meeuf 114). Cox counteracts this convention during the scene in which Simms is caught sneaking off with a McMahon bandit’s old lady. The scene opens with Simms being undressed by the woman, not vice versa. As the two stand inside an abandoned hut in the middle of the open Mexican landscape, Cox reverses the spectacle and takes the frivolous and intimate nature between the characters outside of the private space. In doing so, he replaces the taboo with an impending sense of danger of being found out. It works out that Simms is caught by a member of the McMahon gang who shoots him in the leg from outside while demanding to know what is going on. Simms’ feverish reply is a simple “Rattlesnake!” while the woman bends down to bite his thigh. As Simms then yells, “She’s sucking on the poison!” the line suddenly removes the threat of Simms’ life being in jeopardy and changes the tone to a more comic one. Cox’s sideline positioning of the camera makes the moment look considerably more sexually suggestive than in its actual reality, however the McMahon gang member slowly lowers his gun and apologizes, muttering to himself that he needs another cup of coffee. Within the open landscape it is true that there exists a hazard of dangerous animals, yet due to preconceived understandings of the Spaghetti Westerns one is more ready to accept the threat of a human rather than an animal. The simple acceptance of Simms lie denies the viewer any expectation of violence to occur as the threat of snakebite is seen as more dangerous than a gun. The fact that the McMahon member returns back to his coffee addiction implies that his character is alone in representing patterns of traditional cinema. The female antagonist in American Westerns is more often than not the overall prize, the driver of masculine competitiveness and sense of loyalty (Meeuf 118). Cox may deny the woman an attempt of rescue or heroic shootout in her honor, but the example of switching subtexts without warning allows “Straight to Hell” to sidetrack from conventional narrative storytelling. Whilst the action is wacky and unpredictable simple reasoning exists behind it, allowing for a parallel link to be made back to the film’s punk sensibility: behind the anarchy and violence exists a desire for acceptance.
Since cinema is a visual medium, what is the most memorable element of “Straight to Hell” is the film’s cinematography that allows the two most prominent thematic concerns of death and sex to develop vibrantly. As Dick Rude mentions in the film’s audio commentary, upon its original release the film was given an R rating by the MPAA for foul language and depiction of explicit sex (Cox, Audio Commentary). To a viewer this is an incredibly confusing fact considering that sex and the foulness of the characters’ personalities is merely suggested rather than shown. Due to the fact that the film relies on suggestion rather than unambiguity, the intention of “Straight to Hell” can be seen as a film that looks to cause offence without copying the traditional means of offensive cinema of character exploitation and foul language (Cox, Audio Commentary). As acknowledged by both Rude and Cox, the slickness and sexiness to the film’s cinematography exists due to the very location of the shoot. The rural Spanish countryside is essentially a desert, humid and steamy, and each of the male inhabitants of the town cover themselves in a mixture of water and sugar in the hope that they will attract flies; there is a sexy veneer to each character literally due to their sugar coating (Cox, Audio Commentary). The hypnotic look of “Straight to Hell” relies on cinematographer Donald McAlpine’s direct reference to the “telephoto style” evident in “Django Kill.” The specific camera lens is particular in that the focal length is longer than the physical length of the lens itself, which ultimately allows for a narrower field of view (Smith 10). This enables the cinematographer to crop and magnify details of distant subjects so it appears that the camera appears closer to the object than in definite reality (Smith 20). Aesthetically, the use of this lens allows for the viewer to gaze at the marvelous assortment of costumes. The women of the McMahon gang are amazingly vivacious with feather hairpieces; mini silk dresses; dust covered, worn-in motorcycle boots; and layers upon layers of gold bracelets, whereas the men opt for Mariachi-inspired suits with white puffy shirts and giant gold earrings that adopt an almost pirate-like appearance. In dress, the sexiness existing between the men and women of the McMahon gang is implied through the adoption of punk sensibility to use clothing as a mark of their own classification, the mix of heritages, the hybrid of recognisable imagery, and the power of their sexuality.
The cinematography is also entrancing in the way that Cox blends together the physical landscape of the Mexican desert with the human body; particularly in the film’s closing shoot-out sequence. The vitality in the colour coordination of the layers of clothing and jewelry separates the McMahon gang from the landscape itself, making it appear that the characters sit on top of the landscape rather than blend in. In contrast, as each character dies during the final gun battle, Cox looks to camouflage the body within the land. At the film’s end, as Simms mutters his last words and dies near an open grave, Cox frames Strummer’s face in a tight close up as he lies horizontal on the ground, making his face appear as an abstract facial landscape (Cox, Audio Commentary). The crisp outline of Strummer’s nose, cheekbones and the fly waiting on his lips all become its own individual setting in itself; it is a revamped image of the desert heat, the sweat, dirt, and blood-stained suits of “Django Kill” (Laderman 7). In the area surrounding him, the lifeless bodies of the McMahon bandits are covered with dust and dirt, concealing the fantastical costumes. Thematically, death works as the great equalizer in “Straight to Hell”, where the social and aesthetic difference between an outsider and a town bandit is covered over literally by the land. In a way then, “Straight to Hell” transcends genre conventionality in that the film inevitably becomes about the landscape and uses the human body as an extension of it rather than focus on characters and landscape.
If there is any reason for “Straight to Hell” to be reconsidered by film fans, the film should be of interest due to the fantastic ensemble cast. Courtney Love, who was then unknown, is now an established artist within both the music and film realms; the recent death of Joe Strummer contributes to the mythical impact of his name and provides further evidence of his artistic partnership with the band The Pogues. If you are able to track down a DVD copy of “Straight to Hell Returns,” this is the recently recut, digitally enhanced version Cox has worked on to restore the film and achieve a greater glory than its first presentation. “Straight to Hell” is a compelling and enthralling venture as it is evidence of a filmmaker at play with cinema. The act of homage to cinematic obsessions revitalizes the notion of film genre and cinematic conventionality; inviting viewers into a fictional universe that is visually familiar yet narratively experimental.
Cox, Alex. “Alex Cox on making his own spaghetti western.” Financial Times (2009): 1.
Cox, Alex. Audio Commentary. Straight to Hell. Dir. Alex Cox. Perf. Joe Strummer, Sy Richardson, Dick Rude, Courtney Love, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones. 1987. Madman. DVD.
Ebert, Roger. Walker. 4 December 1987. 22 September 2014 <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/walker-1987>.
King, Douglas. “Alex Cox’s Straight To Hell Returns.” Library Journal 136.4 (2011): 48.
Laderman, David. “The Road Movie Rediscovers Mexico: Alex Cox’s Highway Patrolman.” Cinema Journal 39.2 (2000): 7.
MacInnis, Allan. Straight to Hell Returns: filmmaker Alex Cox on Joe Strummer, punk politics, and The Wonderful World of Kittens. 15 November 2010. 26 September 2014 <http://bigtakeover.com/interviews/straight-to-hell-returns-filmmaker-alex-cox-on-joe-strummer-punk-politics-and-the-wonderful-world-of-kittens>.
Meeuf, Russell. John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2013.
Smith, Warren J. Modern Lens Design. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Strummer, Joe, et al. The Clash. Great Britain: Rocket 88, 2011.
Thompson, Stacy. “Punk Cinema.” New Punk Cinema. Ed. Nicholas Rombes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 21-38.