***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras A
starring Robert Blake, Billy (Green) Bush, Jeannine Riley, Elisha Cook
screenplay by Robert Boris
directed by James William Guercio
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. By 1973 in the United States, film had already become chronicles of listless motion, failed ideologies, ironic Westward expansion, and rampant paranoia. American cinema was in the process of cannibalizing itself in great gulps of genre reconsideration, taking the lead of the movies-by-critics of the French New Wave and reassessing the western/film noir/thriller cycle of studio-era Hollywood through a new mirror darkly: The iconography of the hero mythology Americans hold most dear (cowboy, hardboiled detective, two-fisted man of action), forced now to be populated by incoherent psychopaths and, worse, effeminate ones--lawyers, journalists, ex-cons, ex-soldiers back from an unpopular war, unloved, disrespected, lost and still losing.
1973 saw films like The Exorcist, The Wicker Man (from across the pond), The Last Detail, High Plains Drifter, Serpico, Sisters, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Like Scorsese's Mean Streets and Malick's Badlands and Roeg's Don't Look Now and Altman's The Long Goodbye. It also saw James William Guercio's curious Electra Glide in Blue, shot as a favour and for a song by the great Conrad Hall, who photographed the interiors in his dark, diffuse style but the exteriors in homage to John Ford, according to Guercio's wishes. It's not too much of a stretch to see Hall's previous film, Fat City, seeping into this one around the edges--particularly in a pivotal bar scene where our pint-sized hero struts into a role for which he doesn't realize he's ill-prepared. The result is a picture that, just visually speaking, alternates between the feel of Vilmos Zsigmond's work on McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Winton Hoch's on The Searchers. Without spending any time at all on the text of it, in other words, Electra Glide in Blue is already involved in critique. One foot in the past, the other bruised by the present, it innately understands what the New American Cinema was all about.
The wisdom of casting Robert Blake as the picture's hero, Officer Wintergreen, is irony, writ large by Blake's recent struggles with addiction, rage, and a rather unfortunate public murder trial, sure, but objectively as well in that Blake, coming in at an even 5'4", is hardly the traditional image of American superman. Physically miscast as paladin of law and order, Wintergreen is referred to with various height-based nicknames (I liked "little chief" the best; also good is "Mr. Small"), derided for his earnest do-gooderism, and shown throughout to be overcompensating for his perceived physical shortcomings (through sex, dress, ambition), and trying to use his stature, in a practised comparison with Alan Ladd, to his advantage with a pair of lovelies. In truth, Blake is two-and-a-half inches shorter than even Ladd, making the comparison interesting not just for the parallel it draws to Ladd's mysterious, idealized gunfighter in Shane, but for Wintergreen's exaggeration, too. It shows complexities to this character that come to the fore as the picture unspools; predicts that Wintergreen's swagger is mere hot air; and suggests that the heroes we've canonized were much smaller--figuratively perhaps, literally certainly--than we first suspected.
A highway patrolman in Arizona (rationale for the Ford-fetishizing Guercio to shoot in Monument Valley), Wintergreen dreams of becoming a detective so that he can "think for a living." He's bristling beneath what he perceives as a humiliating role and tied to a meathead partner, Zipper (Billy Green Bush), who revels in busting the hated Hippie. The case Wintergreen believes will be his deliverance to gumshoe glory is shown in oblique images as the movie opens. It appears to be a suicide, scored to an incidental piece from My Darling Clementine in one of countless nods to the Old West tradition in cinema, and timed beautifully--grotesquely--to the cooking of a pair of bloody pork chops. Guercio makes a joke of the chops later when Wintergreen demands a laconic coroner (Royal Dano!) do a post-mortem on them. Guercio, we find, makes a joke of a lot of things.
The first unexpected element of Electra Glide in Blue is that it's as much farce as it is tragedy--a precursor in many instances to the surreal moments in films of a kind like The Parallax View, Night Moves, and The Stunt Man in the way it allows its seeker-of-truth protagonists to be mocked rather than venerated. Indeed, during this period, the very act of attempting to discover some capital "t" Truth is a ludicrous undertaking--not for any lack of nobility, but because there isn't any kind of Truth to discover. When Wintergreen finally gets a shot at the big time, he's paired with bully Poole (Mitch Ryan), who, it turns out, has a thing for the waitress (Jeannine Riley) Wintergreen's been boning on the side. Poole's emasculation at discovering this in a long, uncomfortable, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-inspired monologue by the drunken barmaid is a defining moment in '70s cinema: amateurish on the one hand, curiously authentic on the other.
It's this sense of a pretentious piece that so transcends pretension as to acquire a desperate authenticity that links Electra Glide in Blue to Easy Rider (the film against which it's most often compared, though mostly for the identical finality of their respective conclusions). Film at war with itself and its categorizations characterizes the French New Wave and identifies the '70s in the United States as a period in which American cinema became similarly auto-critical. Set up to be the underdog who makes good, Wintergreen instead, given his first opportunity to interrogate suspects on his own, dirties his pretty boots in pigshit, gets called names by hippie chicks, and proves himself completely incapable of doing the job he most desires. It's a stunning inversion--as is the identification of the killer, more pathetic than menacing, making all of Wintergreen's successes Pyrrhic, and all of his failures the more sad. At the end, Guercio's message is complex: the hippies aren't evil so much as they're useless; the Man isn't ineffectual so much as he's base, venal. There's no difference, Guercio says. No hope, either. And when Wintergreen dies, he doesn't even get the dignity of lying down.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shout! releases Electra Glide in Blue on Blu-ray in a beautiful 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that showcases "Connie" Hall's dark brown interiors with the most clarity and fidelity I've ever seen. The opening sequence looks like something out of a Leone, betraying the only part of the film that likely received an appropriate amount of care and planning. The rest of it's not too shabby either, mind, but the prologue really pops. Detail is glassy without noticeable digital enhancement, while grain is appropriately "filmic" and locates the picture, along with its brown contrasts, as very much a product of the Seventies--as does musician/Chicago-band producer Guercio's Michael Small-like score. The accompanying monophonic 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is less successful, however, with a couple of lines distorting and the mid-film honkytonk shakedown balanced in such a way as to cause my speakers to buzz at almost any volume. It's obvious that more care went into the image than into the sound--in the presentation, if not the mixing, of it.
Special features are ported over intact from the MGM DVD, upconverted to 1080i in the case of the video-based ones. "Introduction by Director James William Guercio" (9 mins.) handily includes every crucial clip from the film as a way to well and truly infuriate the "spoiler" police. Guercio, meanwhile, provides a nice, humble summary of how Electra Glide in Blue came to be and his "study" at the feet of a kindly old projectionist who made him watch John Ford movies hundreds of times when Guercio was a child. Surprisingly, he says he has no regrets about never having made another picture. His audio commentary is likewise understated and informative, detailing some of the gentlemen's disagreements he had with the prickly Hall, although he offers no real context as to why the legendary DP agreed to do the film for next to nothing. My ears pricked up at the revelation that Hall was seeing Katharine Ross at the time and that Ross hung around the set. I was also intrigued to have Nick Nolte trainspotted for me in the hippie commune scene (obviously lifted in part from Easy Rider) and be told that Nolte complained to Guercio later in their respective careers that "you never used me, man." He also makes himself the subject of a tale often told apocryphally: When anxious producers asked why him was behind in shooting, he responded by ripping out several pages of the screenplay, saying, "I'm not behind in shooting." Electra Glide in Blue's theatrical trailer rounds out the presentation.