The Big Picture
- Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie defied traditional storytelling with its non-linear structure and unconventional techniques.
- The making of The Last Movie was chaotic, with wild antics on and off-set, including drug use and confrontations with locals.
- The film’s post-production took a toll on Hopper, with his heavy drug and alcohol use, and the final cut was influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
There are films you see and you are left bewildered. Dennis Hopper‘s 1971 Western, The Last Movie, is one such film. The Last Movie‘s somewhat confusing use of flashforwards and flashbacks, non-linear structure, “missing scene” texts, jump cuts, and juxtaposition of realism and fiction defies every rule of traditional storytelling. With a plot centering around a movie within a movie, the film is an opulent disarray. Coming on the heels of Hopper’s success with his 1969 debut feature Easy Rider, which marked a radical shift in Hollywood storytelling, the director sought to build on that accomplishment with The Last Movie. He co-wrote, directed, co-starred in, and edited the film — a testament to his cinematic machismo of the time. According to an article by Life Magazine titled “The Easy Rider Runs Wild“, Hopper promised his friends, “My next picture is going to be really heavy, man.” Alas, The Last Movie underwhelmed both Universal Pictures and the film’s audience. Its making was even more chaotic, and it nearly became Hopper’s literal last movie, as he didn’t direct another until nine years later. Even so, his experiment with The Last Movie bore a film that was unconventional, with a beginning that claimed the Guinness World Record for the longest pre-credit sequence in a film.
The Last Movie
After a film production wraps in Peru, an American wrangler decides to stay behind to witness the ways that filmmaking affects the locals.
- Release Date
- September 29, 1971
- Dennis Hopper
- Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson, Michelle Phillips, dean stockwell, Russ Tamblyn
Dennis Hopper’s ‘The Last Movie’ Isn’t the Only Film With a Long Pre-Credit Sequence
Opening credits have undergone a significant evolution over time. Early films featured shorter pre-credit sequences, but as more creatives sought recognition at the film’s outset, these sequences gradually extended. Filmmakers began experimenting with creative approaches to displaying credits, with some opting to superimpose them over the opening scenes, while others preferred to plunge directly into the narrative to capture the audience’s attention before delving into the credits. Films like Ghostbusters 2, for instance, open directly with the title frame before transitioning into the story.
The Last Movie takes thirty minutes from its start before the title sequence appears. In the intervening time, there is action with speaking roles and Western-style battle sequences, most notably one involving the characters of renowned real-life Wild West villainous outlaws Billy the Kid (Dean Stockwell), Charlie Bowdre (Russ Tamblyn), and lawman Pat Garrett (Rod Cameron). According to Esquire, during the last minutes of post-production, Dennis Hopper instructed his editor Todd Colombo to “Take about the last ten minutes (of the film) and put it at the beginning of the movie, then go into the opening credits.” The result was that the final cut of The Last Movie had a bizarre beginning, with the pre-credit sequence running for thirty minutes, setting a Guinness World Record for the longest pre-credit sequence in a film.
The Last Movie is in good company with other films that have similar long sequences. In recent times, Mimi Cave‘s horror thriller, Fresh, a wild ride about the perils of modern dating, introduces us to the chaos in its protagonist Noa’s world for thirty-three minutes before its title sequence appears. Ryusuke Hamaguchi‘s Drive My Car also boasts quite a long sequence before its opening credits. The Last Movie may no longer hold the Guinness World Record, but back in the ’70s, its unique opening sequence’s duration certainly stood out.
Dennis Hopper’s ‘The Last Movie’ Set and Off-Set Life Was Chaos
As per the Life article, life on and off the set of The Last Movie in Peru resembled a movie in its own right, featuring drugs, intoxication, fights, police checks, confrontations with locals, and near-death misses as part of the daily experience. This lifestyle was widespread among 1970s Hollywood filmmakers. With the creative carte blanche he had over the film, Hopper hired some of the big names in Hollywood at the time, among them Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell, Jim Mitchum, and Russ Tamblyn—his friends and former collaborators. The expansive crew and cast on the low-budget film were not afraid to have a ball on set and off-set, sometimes to the point of tragedy.
As per Life, as soon as Hopper arrived, he was caught up in a local conflict when a priest sold to his crew roofing tiles that belonged to the local community. It created a big dispute that led to the priest being chased around the village, and Hopper diplomatically settled it by offering a second payment to the community. On the day the cast arrived, the Life article reports, “Almost 30 members of the company were sniffing coke, or had turned on with grass, acid or speed. By midnight, much of the cast had drifted to bed by twos or threes.” Life reports that the plot thickened as days went by, and one actor chained a girl to a porch post and almost burnt her. Another “swallowed live peyote in too rapid succession and almost died.” Cocaine and a majority of those drugs were illegal in Peru, but they were also easily accessible. Hopper told the New York Times that as a result of his team’s behavior in Peru, it was likely that future crews would face censorship while filming in the country.
The connection between the original ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ and older Chuck Norris Western led to some real trouble down the road…
But it wasn’t just the side dramas from the actual shoot that were wild, Hopper’s creative style was too. As per The New York Times, Hopper relied less on Stewart Stern’s screenplay, treating it as an outline rather than a screenplay, and instead chose to improvise, sharing with his actors the artistic freedom Universal had given him. In one filming session, he decided to include in the film sheep that were being slaughtered for sacrifice when his camera operator, Laszlo Kovacs, spotted them through his telephoto lens. The newspaper quotes Hopper, “How was I to know that I’m going to kill sheep today? I’m going to be sacrificing sheep in the church, with the Inca mass and the whole thing.”
In another Western gunfight scene, as reported by the Life article, an actor suggested that they pit the older guys against the younger ones, and Hopper rode with the idea, giving us one of the wildest sequences of the film. However, Hopper, who was also starring in the film, was in control of his set. And he had outbursts at different points, including shouting at his fellow star in the film, Stella Garcia when he thought she wasn’t giving the best of her performance. Life reports that she cried while walking off the set, and he demanded that she rejoin the set. Such was how wild Hopper’s The Last Movie set and off-set were, and these antics are the subject of Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the seventies film-making generation.
‘The Last Movie’s Post-Production Took a Toll on Dennis Hopper
As per Esquire, Hopper had used some of his money from the success of Easy Rider to purchase an estate in Taos, New Mexico. It had a 22-room house, part of which he converted into a studio that he dubbed “The Mud Palace”. He lived in the house with the editors he had hired to find his two-hour story from the dozens of hours he had filmed. Having been divorced, Hopper got engaged to singer-actress Michelle Phillips, and they eventually married a few months later before he could finish the edit, but the marriage lasted only a week (eight days). Heavy on drugs and alcohol, Hopper was distraught. Esquire quotes Hopper’s editor, Todd Colombo, as saying of him, “Dennis drank occasionally, meaning like all the time.” Actor Dean Stockwell also says of Hopper, “Dennis was very fond of guns at the time. Once in a while he’d go up on the roof and fire off a couple of rounds into the sky.”
As per Esquire, Colombo and Rol Murrow had come in as new editors after the first editor’s work failed to align with Hopper’s vision. Hopper screened the original footage for the duo at a theater he had purchased in Taos for that purpose and then dissected the footage scene by scene at his home studio, cutting it down step by step until it got to two hours. He showed a rough cut to a group from the Cannes Film Festival who were indifferent to the film. Back in Hollywood, Universal Pictures was getting impatient with Hopper and sent an executive to Taos. It was unfruitful. Ned Tanen, who later became the President of Universal’s film division, decided to fly to Taos himself. He was astounded to be met by an orgy at Hopper’s ”The Mud Palace”. This unconventional behavior by Hopper has been the subject of many documentaries and literary works on life in Hollywood, and Dennis Hopper’s career.
‘El Topo’ Director Alejandro Jodorowsky Influenced Dennis Hopper’s Final Cut of ‘The Last Movie’
Nicholas Ray, Esquire reports, who had been Hopper’s director on Rebel Without a Cause, was staying with Hopper at “The Mud House”. He encouraged Hopper to take more creative risks with the editing of the film. But it was Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of the famed El Topo who was one of the most influential people on The Last Movie‘s final cut. Though the degree of his influence remains a subject of debate, it is believed that his version of the film influenced Hopper’s final cut. Even at the very last minute, Hopper still had changes to the final edit, resulting in the long pre-credit sequence.
When it was finally delivered, Universal executives did not appreciate the film and didn’t want to promote it, but they had to because they were contractually obligated. They, however, decided to stagger its promotion. As per The Guardian interview, Hopper criticized their decision saying, ‘‘None of these movies were distributed properly, none of them given a chance. I still believe that we were undermined because we didn’t fit into the tax structure of Universal Pictures.”
The Last Movie‘s reception was less than desirable, and it tanked at the Box Office too, but there has been an upsurge in interest in the film, with movie lovers considering it as a work of art, giving it a second chance and creating a cult following. With The Last Movie‘s demise, Dennis Hopper’s rapidly rising star as one of Hollywood’s revolutionary filmmakers faltered, and he took a hiatus from the big screen until 1979 when the legendary auteur Francis Ford Coppola cast him in his similarly chaotic-making American epic war film, Apocalypse Now, before Hopper could return to filmmaking in 1980 with his Out of the Blue.
The Last Movie is available to stream on Kanopy in the U.S.