We’ve all got ’em — friends we used to be pretty tight with, even inseparable from, that we just sort of part company with over the years. Sometimes it’s a long, slow, drawn-out process that we don’t even really notice taking place. Other times, there’s some definitive breaking point of sorts after which, as the saying goes, “nothing will ever be the same.” Whatever the case, life moves on and most of us make new friends to serve as de facto “replacements” for out former best buds or gal pals. At times, though, old friends can find it hard to let go, or to accept that things are changing —
One of the things I love most about the heyday of exploitation cinema is that even a flick with a title as innocuous as director Noel Nesseck’s 1975 Crown International release Best Friends can actually prove to be a treasure trove of fucked-up psychodrama of the highest order. Hustled off on the public as something of a race-hate film (see the poster above) on the basis of a brief scene in which one of the female leads does an an impromptu strip-tease at a bar on an Indian reservation that leads to a fight between the movie’s two male stars and a bevy of Native American locals, it’s really, of course, nothing of the sort. Don’t blame Crown for playing the cheap and easy angle, though — I know that if I were a studio executive, I’d be at a complete loss as to how best to market this flick, since it many ways it quite literally defies any sort of categorization. Read on and see if you agree , won’t you?
Best friends (hence the name an’ all) since childhood Jesse (a usually shirtless Richard Hatch, three short years from hitting it semi-big as Apollo on the original Battlestar Galactica) and Pat (Doug Chapin, who actually enjoys an “additional dialogue” credit vis-a-vis this film’s Arnold Somkin-penned screenplay) are just back from ‘Nam , where they were “Airbone, airborne all the way!” Pat’s sustained something of a gruesome hand injury and it’s obliquely hinted that he had a rougher time of it over there than Jesse in general, but never mind all that — the two lifelong pals are back in the States now and, together with their fiancees Kathy (Jesse’s gal, played by Susanne Benton) and Jo Ella (Pat’s lady, the one who drops her top on the rez, portrayed by Ann Noland) they’ve rented a Winnebago for one last cross-country road trip before they all settle down into married life.
There’s just one problem, though — Pat’s decided he doesn’t want to tie the not with Jo Ella, so that double wedding thing ain’t gonna happen. Furthermore, it’s pretty obvious that Pat’s resentful as hell of Kathy and wants Jesse all to himself. He dreams of him and his (purely platonic, apparently, but ya gotta wonder) buddy spending their army savings on a couple of bikes and hitting the open road a la Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider (at one point they even go to the famous Sacred Mountain gas station/tourist trap depicted in that seminal film). Jesse, though, is having none of that. He’s played the field plenty and he’s finally found the girl of his dreams and is downright eager to settle down.
Pat lowers the boom on Jo Ella pretty early on in the proceedings, but the suddenly-uncomfortable foursome vow to “make the best of it” and enjoy the trip as much as they can anyway. Pat buys himself a 450cc (or thereabouts) dirtbike and is spending less time inside the camper anyway, riding alongside it “on his own,” so to speak, so who knows — maybe that will lessen the tension and things’ll work out, right?
Of course not. The real friction here comes in the form of Pat’s increasingly unsubtle attempts to bust up Jesse and Kathy. He engineers a set-up whereby he knows Jesse won’t be able to keep his hands off Jo Ella, and when Kathy gets wind of it she freaks as you’d expect — but only for a moment, By the end of the night she’s — here we go again — determined to “make the best of it” and plans on going ahead and marrying Jesse anyway. Undaunted, pat then tries to lure Kathy into the path of a rattlesnake so he can take credit for “saving her life” and get her to do him a favor — drop Jesse. Still no luck. Then he tries to rape her so Jesse won’t want her anymore. That doesn’t work, either. There’s just no breaking up this hoping-to-be-happy couple. Jesse’s got a truck-driving gig waiting for him back home. It’s gonna pay him six or seven bucks an hour. Enough to put some money down on a house. Save up a little to have a kid in a couple years. Pat’s fantasy of a never-ending summer just can’t compete with that, it seems.
The weirdest thing about Pat’s whole Kathy obsession, though, is how disarmingly impersonal it all seems, even when he’s ripping her shirt off. She’s just an obstacle to him, something that’s getting in the way of what he really wants — Jesse, And him. Together. Forever. And yeah, okay, Nosseck never plays up any sort of explicit unrequited homo-lust angle here, but come on — does he really need to? Lines like “you always get the good ones, and I take the dogs — that’s how it’s always gonna be with me an’ you, an’ I’m okay with that,” really don’t require Chapin to stare at Hatch’s shirt-free torso to get their point across. “The love that dare not speak its name” isn’t spoken of here, but it’s the undercurrent that’s whisking all our young protagonists toward, wouldn’t ya know it, tragedy.
When Jesse does finally decide he’s had enough and boots Pat out of the Winnebago for good, we’re headed for a shockingly downbeat finale that in no way plays out how you expect it to. Yeah, okay, Pat can’t stay away and comes back to get revenge for his banishment, but beyond that, who ends up dead — and who does the killing — really will surprise you. I’ll just say that somebody here wins by losing and that the “happiness” of one of the central characters is tinged with a hollow, soul-shattering defeat (and surrender) on the part of the other. It’s actually a pretty harrowing little way to wrap things up, and has something of the weight of inevitablity more commonly found in a naturalist novel than a ’70s exploitation flick.
So yeah. This one’s a tough beast to pin down. Part road movie, part homoerotic love story, part coming-of-age struggle, part returning-vets-are-scarred-physically-as-well-as-psychologically “message” film, part pre-Fatal Attraction cautionary tale about lusting after someone you can’t have — all in all, you can see why Crown just stuck with the easy — if tenuous — play and tried to plant butts in the seats by convincing the masses they were in for a rape-revenge story with red, rather than the customary black, tones. It does the film itself a disservice, sure, because this is actually a rather complex, generally-well-acted (Chapin in particular being terrific, Hatch’s quasi-pompous shtick, which grates after awhile, being the weak link), beautifully-shot (cinematographer Stepehn M. Katz is no Laszlo Kovacs, but he does his best to ape him) piece of work that frankly probably confounded the drive-in stoner crowd more than anything, but hey — I ask, again, what would you have done with it? Cannes was probably out of the question, but fuck it. Their loss. Best Friends is, dare I say it, an actual quality piece of cinema, no matter how hard it pretends to be otherwise.
Now that you (hopefully) want to see this, go buy it. You can get it cheaply in a number of different DVD iterations, but I’d suggest your best bang for the buck is with Mill Creek’s “Drive-In Cult Classics” 32-movie, 12-disc set. These are all directly repackaged BCI Navarre discs, as Mill Creek picked up rights to the entire Crown catalog for a song when BCI folded up shop. There are no extras on any of the discs, but the quality of both picture and sound on all the films is surprisingly fantastic. In the case of Best Friends, sure there’s some artefacting and splotchiness here and there, but on the whole the remastered widescreen picture looks great and the mono sound is good, too. You don’t even have to go out of your way to find this set — Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, you name it all stock it for under ten bucks, and it’s got a genuinely nice variety of flicks, including Trip With The Teacher, The Creeping Terror, The Stepmother, Malibu High, Blood Mania, and The Pink Angels, to name just a handful of standout selections. Invite over a friend you haven’t seen in awhile and relive the good times.