Videophiled: Monte Hellman’s existential west

Shooting Whirlwind
Criterion

The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) – Director Monte Hellman and actor Jack Nicholson met while making a pair of war films for Roger Corman in the Philippines. Nicholson was interested in all aspects of filmmaking, not just acting, and he and Hellman teamed up to produce a pair of low-budget westerns, one of them written by Nicholson and both of them directed by Hellman and starring Nicholson.

I used to call The Shooting (1967) the most existential western ever made. Seeing it again, I find it more haunting and elemental and savage, an almost abstract odyssey through a harsh, desolate desert landscape that wears its enigma proudly. Warren Oates takes the lead as a former bounty hunter hired to track a man by the mysterious Millie Perkins, who toys with Oates’ childlike partner (Will Hutchins), and Jack Nicholson co-stars as a sadistic, black-clad killer. It was written by Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce), who later earned an Oscar nomination for Five Easy Pieces, which also starred Nicholson. The spare cinematography burns bright and harsh in southwest sunlight that simmers the already edgy relations and Hellman directs the ambiguous script with always surprising flourishes, keeping the audience in the dark about the true nature of the odyssey as the characters talk around the conflicts as they warily eye one another. Nicholson is appropriately vicious in a preening sort of way and Oates is magnetic and commanding as a man driven by some fate beyond his comprehension. The film ends with more questions than answers, but it is never less than compelling.

'The Shooting'
Warren Oates

Ride in the Whirlwind (1967), written by Nicholson, is only slightly more conventional, the story of a couple of cowboys (Cameron Mitchell and Nicholson) who run from a posse that mistakes them for bank robbers. In contrast to the harsh desert and heightened tension of The Shooting, this takes place in wooded hills and advances at a leisurely pace (much of the film is their nervous waiting in a farmhouse) in an easy, naturalistic style that belies the urgency and danger. Mitchell has an unforced authority as the older cowboy and Nicholson is excellent as the jumpy younger partner just trying to wrap his mind around their predicament.

The films, financed by Roger Corman (who had also produced Hellman’s Los Angeles stage production of “Waiting For Godot”), were well received at European film festivals but tossed into legal limbo when its European distributor went bankrupt and ended up being sold directly to American TV. If I’m not mistaken, they’ve never really had an official theatrical release in the U.S., but they were rediscovered in the 1970s, in part thanks to Nicholson’s success, and have screened in festivals, retrospectives, and repertory programs. They have also never had a high quality disc release (the DVD release a decade ago from VCI was respectable if unspectacular) until this Criterion double feature. This is the first time the films have looked this good for decades, either on home video or on film.

Hellman oversaw the new HD digital transfer, mastered in 4k from the original camera negatives, and produced new supplements for the disc. He provides commentary for the two films with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas and personally interviews producer Roger Corman and stars Millie Perkins and Harry Dean Stanton in new featurettes that play like conversations. Also includes interviews with Gary Kurtz and actor Will Hutchins and a visual essay on Warren Oates by Kim Morgan, plus a fold-out leaflet with an essay.

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