RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

Both were produced by  (uncredited), , and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded among films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

Still from Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)Nicholson is shockingly subdued and vulnerable. Even better is , an overly familiar character actor villain, in his best celluloid role. Despite very good performances, Ride In The Whirlwind lacks  and Millie Perkins, who gave The Shooting its essential grounding.

Hellman is a Western grim reaper, as vital and original as Sam Peckinpah as a harbinger of the genre’s death. Comparatively, Clint Eastwood and his celebrated deconstructionist Unforgiven (1992) are obvious and unsatisfactory.

The films premiered together at Cannes and were enthusiastically advocated by  and other notable French critics. Alas, it was to little avail. Hellman’s twin opuses received scant attention in the States and only belatedly earned cult reputations.

The Shooting was previously reviewed here. Ride In The Whirlwind has received considerably less attention, but Criterion astutely treats the two films as inseparable. True to form, Criterion provides a definitive edition. Both films finally receive spotless, lush transfers. Among the plethora of extras are interviews with Corman, Perkins, Harry Dean Stanton, and Will Hutchins, an outstanding homage to Oates (written by critic Kim Morgan), critic Michael Atkinson’s equally excellent essay, and several commentaries by Hellman accompanied by film historians Bill Krohn and Black Lucas.

CAPSULE: TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, , Laurie Bird

PLOT: Two men obsessed with illegal street-racing race another equally obsessive driver across America. Along the way, all three become increasingly involved with a fickle hippie chick, and inevitably their motivations change.

Still from Two-lane Blacktop (1971)


WHY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: All the main characters are so emotionally detached that at least one of them would nowadays be diagnosed as autistic, and they drive cars very fast for no significant reward because it’s all they know how to do. However, it’s not full-blown car-related weirdness on a level with ‘s  Crash. It’s an unusual film which some people will find interesting, but not really a candidate for the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.

COMMENTS: I’ve just said that some people will find this extremely offbeat film interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I wanted to, and for the first half, I almost did; but it suffers from the same problems as many of Monte Hellman’s other movies: pared-down characters who don’t say much in an ultra-macho yet deeply symbolic situation, having very little fun. These particular characters are so minimalist that they don’t even have names—Warren Oates plays “G.T.O.” (the make of car he drives), and the others are just called the Driver, the Mechanic, and the Girl. Incidentally, it’s the only movie I’m aware of in which two of the “actors” listed as cast-members are automobiles.

The performance of James Taylor, better known for singing than acting, sometimes transcends wooden and goes all the way to metallic; but in fairness to him, this is exactly how the character’s meant to come across, so maybe he’s a superb actor. The Driver can’t express the slightest flicker of emotion without somehow dragging cars into it, and literally cannot talk about anything else: the one time he tries to, he ends up babbling about the life-cycle of the cicada. The trouble is, how is the audience supposed to engage with a “hero” whose visible emotional spectrum ranges all the way from cigar-store Indian to constipated robot?

Warren Oates gives by far the most complex and interesting performance. Unfortunately, he’s playing another character who is impossible to like. A running joke has him picking up hitchhikers, then bragging about himself and his car in such a tediously obnoxious way that they bail out at the earliest opportunity. He’s also a compulsive liar, and has no more idea how to talk to people than the Driver, whose saving grace is that he seldom attempts to.

As for the Girl, played by a non-actress cast because she was a real hippie, she’s shallow, selfish, irritating, and expresses no interest in any of the men beyond casual promiscuity. She is, however, the voice of reason, bluntly pointing out that the Driver and the Mechanic are boring people who obsess about cars because they’re on “some big masculine power-trip”. Since the crux of the film is a “love” triangle between three people who don’t like each other and whom you don’t like either, it’s difficult to care how things work out between them.

Apart from this, the motives of all concerned are almost non-existent. The Driver and the Mechanic (Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s performance is adequate but lightweight, and since he talks constantly about technical aspects of car engines, not very interesting unless you’re a garage mechanic, which I’m not) usually win only enough money to pay for their next race, aren’t remotely famous, and don’t even seem to enjoy winning. As for G.T.O., he bought a Porsche by way of an unsuccessful charisma transplant.

A particularly odd aspect of the film is that there’s very little footage of cars doing anything exciting, and as for the big race that occupies most of the running-time, you have to keep reminding yourself these guys are supposed to be racing! There’s almost no physical danger, and if you’re hoping for a nail-biting dash to the finish line, all I can say is that Monte Hellman prefers downbeat endings. I’d even hesitate to say that this film ends rather than just stopping.

A lot of reviewers mention the groovy sixties music. In fact there’s very little; a song occasionally plays in the background, but most of the soundtrack is engine noise, and neither of the two professional musicians involved sings or plays a note.

If you’re into gloomy existentialism with cars, this is the film for you! If you’re into fast-paced action, sympathetic characters, or cars that aren’t ugly, you might find it a tad uninvolving. And you’ll probably agree with the studio’s decision to cut the original three-and-a-half-hour running-time by half.

“…a movie of achingly eloquent landscapes and absurdly inert characters.”–J. Hoberman, Village Voice (2000 re-release)

THE SHOOTING (1967): AMERICAN-STYLED DISSONANCE

As part of our continuing effort to restore all the posts lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010, we’re reprinting this column from Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema, originally published on Sep. 23, 2010.

Several years ago European avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez dismissed the cranky, experimental music of American composer Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives as “having come from an insurance salesman.” By contrast, Boulez’ own music is tinkly Euro-avant, a musical tradition that was given freedom towards academic experimentation by old money. Not a single Boulez work can get under the skin like Ives’ “Gong on the hook and ladder” or “Symphony 4.”
American horror has long had a fitful relationship with the American avant-garde; it has also been more genuinely disturbing than anything Europe has produced. Kentucky born Tod Browning produced jagged, feverish dreams while Brit James Whale produced well-crafted, sophisticated, and witty fairy tales. There is something far more unsettling in Lon Chaney painfully looping fishing wire around his eyeballs, or Lon Jr. “accidentally” strangling an extra, than there is in Boris Karloff’s passion for cricket. An avant-garde filmmaker even approached the infamous “naive surrealistEd Wood, hoping for a collaboration, but by then Wood was too drained and too ravaged by rejection to respond.

So, it seems only apt that B-horror maestro Roger Corman financed Monte Hellman’s sojourn into a western Oz. Hellman’s The Shooting (1967) could be a disturbed and disturbing younger sibling to Maya Deren‘s At Land (1944).  Carole Eastman’s Sarte/Camus-like screenplay is wistfully organic and, simultaneously, startling in its unflinching, unromantic bleak minimalism, assisted greatly by Gregory Sandor’s desolate camera work.

Still from The Shooting (1967)The Shooting begins where Anthony Mann left off, and may well be the defining subversive post-Mann western.  Former bounty hunter and miner Willet Gashade () returns to camp only to find his twin brother, Coin (also Oates) missing and his partner, Leland, shot dead by an unseen sniper.  Left in the camp is the hysterical Coley (Will Hutchins) who relates to Willet that he overheard an argument between Leland and Coin.  Coin had “ridden down a Continue reading