Mad Dog Morgan

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Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan (1976) is a film that is at once very much in love with the Romantic depiction of the Australian bushranger while also being a kind of homage to the westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Dennis Hopper’s drug fueled antics on set are so infamous that they eclipse the film itself. In fact it wasn’t until recently that Mad Dog Morgan was restored to Mora’s original cut and released in the U.S.A. and Great Britain for the first time.

With Hopper’s insanity far away in the rear-view mirror and the director’s cut readily available, Mad Dog Morgan is practically a brand new cinematic experience for audiences. Mora’s vision of Hopper’s Morgan is clearer and better defined. In some cases it appears that Mora was able to turn Hopper’s drug abuse to the advantage of the performance, creating a version of the famed bushranger that seems to exist outside of time. As a story Mad Dog Morgan is very much rooted in the tall tales of the nineteenth century while Hopper’s performance has the lead character straddling both the counter culture of the seventies and the folklore of the 1860s.

Graphic violence, unbridled machismo and politically liberal advocacy are all tropes present in Mad Dog Morgan that place the film in the tradition of the revisionist western. Mora’s extensive use of dolly shots are to Mad Dog Morgan what the zoom was to Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). The wide angled dolly shots Mora employs grounds Morgan in his environment while giving his movement a dreamy quality. The abrupt cuts in and out of vignettes mirror the violence of Morgan just as they keep the pacing going in true pulp fashion. Mad Dog Morgan is a beautiful western with the sensibilities of montage of the avant garde.

Where Mora and Hopper falter is in their attempts to give Morgan depth. This is more of Hopper’s failure than Mora’s, but it nonetheless prevents the viewer from properly investing in the arc of the title character. In Hopper’s best performances post-The Last Movie (1971) he is almost always at his best in a supporting role. In The American Friend (1977) and Out Of The Blue (1980) Hopper’s performances are designed to help explore the world of the narrative and to give support to the leads, allowing them to chart their characters at greater depth. In Mad Dog Morgan Hopper’s drug problems and mental health issues keep his performance grounded in a kind of wayward stupor.

Though it has never been considered a masterpiece Mad Dog Morgan has still managed to be one of the more influential films of the Australian New Wave; the reverberations of Mad Dog Morgan can be felt in the films and music of Nick Cave. After making Mad Dog Morgan, his passion project, Mora would go on to more commercial projects such as two of The Howling sequels.