BACK DOOR TO HELL. Lippert Pictures / 20th Century Fox, 1964. Jimmie Rodgers, Jack Nicholson, John Hackett, Annabelle Huggins, Conrad Maga, Johnny Monteiro. Director: Monte Hellman.

   For a low-budget combat film that doesn’t have a particularly compelling plot, Back Door to Hell is nevertheless worth a look. Directed by auteur Monte Hellman, the movie features a young Jack Nicholson in a starring role as one of three soldiers sent to the World War II-era Philippines for a reconnaissance mission.

   Nicholson, along with popular music singer Jimmie Rodgers and actor John Hackett, portray a diverse trio forged in fear as much as in valor. The three soldiers team up with a war weary Filipino guerrilla leader named Paco in a quest to free captives from the Japanese occupying forces. They also go on a daring mission to radio the American forces vital intelligence necessary to prepare for the forthcoming battle against the Japanese.

   Back Door to Hell, which was filmed on location in the Philippines, was made on a rather modest budget. And it shows. But with Hellman at the helm, it’s a far more stylish product than his mentor Roger Corman’s 1960 film Ski Troop Attack (reviewed here ).

   Indeed, there are some sequences that reminded me quite a bit of Anthony Mann’s work with James Stewart in the Western genre. In 1964, Hellman was a little known Hollywood director without a cult following. But that was all to change in the years ahead with the release of Ride the Whirlwind (released on television in 1968) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). As for Jack Nicholson, he went on to a pretty good career as well.