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Criterion: Ride in the Whirlwind, Monte Hellman, 1966

While Ride in the Whirlwind sbould be compared with the film that preceded it, The Shooting, it is not a carbon copy. It shares many elements in common with the companion film. The most obvious is the cast members of Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins, but there were also many of the same locations, the same crew, and even the same horses.

Despite these similarities, the differences are more distinctive. First and foremost, the style is different. If these two pictures are considered “acid” westerns, then The Shooting is far more “acidic.” Whirlwind is actually quite linear in comparison. Rather than being oblique with major plot elements left to the viewer’s imagination, this time the narrative is clear and direct. There are four different groups of characters with conflicting motivations, and we get the general idea of what they are about. The first group are outlaws; another is a group of cattle-hands trying to pass through; the third group are the vigilantes, and the final group is a farming family in the wilderness.

The premise is that the cattle-hand protagonists end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They encounter the outlaws, who unsuccessfully try to pass themselves off as cattle-hands. After an awkward meeting between the two groups, they camp out and find themselves under fire from the vigilantes before they can depart. They are completely innocent, but in the eyes of those with the guns, they are guilty by association.

Only two of the three cattle-hands survive the initial shootout, played by Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson, and they make it out of the camp on the same horse. From here begins the existential dilemma on who is and isn’t an outlaw. Who is good and who is moral?

After escaping out of the valley, they encounter the farming family. They assure them that they are good people, not outlaws, but they have to do certain things in order to escape from their accusers. One thing they need to do is take the farmer’s horse, which is theft. They try to justify it because otherwise they will hang for something they didn’t do, but theft is theft. In the farmer’s eyes, they are taking his horses and that is unjust. They are intruding on the family, eating their food, making them uncomfortable and putting them in harm’s way. As the story unfolds, the ‘innocents’ commit other acts that blur the lines further. Every man that turns towards the immoral has to follow a series of actions. While we side with the main characters that we believe are good people, it is perfectly justifiable that they would be seen as evil under the circumstances.

Nicholson and Perkins play completely different characters than in the previous film. Nicholson’s character is unlike most of what he would play in his later, illustrious career. He is softer spoken, kinder and gentler. He tries to endear himself towards Perkins, whereas most outlaws would not care one bit. He plays the character well, but in an understated, muted fashion. There is no chewing scenery here.

Perkins played a sort of Femme Fatale in The Shooting, but here she plays a meek, naïve and inexperienced young farm girl. She is not nearly as savvy or manipulative. In the special features, Perkins says she tried to play the girl as if she was imitating one of her chickens. That makes sense, as the girl is physically and socially awkward, and does not know how to behave around people outside her family.

It is clear that even when the duo has the family hostage, that Hellman wants us to like them. They remain kind and respectful, and plead that they are not evil people. They even play checkers to pass the time. They can be as nice as they want, but the existential crisis remains. They are in control of the situation, holding people against their will and forcing them to keep their presence quiet. The circumstances of how they ended up in that situation are immaterial. There are there, and in the eyes of the victims, they are just as criminal as the stage robbers.

Even though both of these films were shot inexpensively, they get the most out of the small budget. Visually, both films look far better than other independents from the era, even if The Shooting has more showy shots. Whirlwind is more straightforward, mostly because that is what the plot calls for. There are more characters and more events to unfold, which require shorter shots with more cuts. There are a few exceptions where the camera is allowed to breathe, such as the visually striking scene when the pair are climbing to get out of the valley. Another impressive shot is the final scene. It may be the prototypical cliché shot of a character riding off into the sunset, but it adds some panache. Rather than just watching him ride off, he is enveloped into the misty clouds, or the whirlwind as the title implies. It looks good visually, but it also fits the film thematically. The world has changed for this character, and we know that even though he survives, it will not be a pleasant existence. He has come full circle and is what he hated.

Film Rating: 6.5/10

Supplements:

Commentary: Again, we had the same participants from The Shooting and they had a similar dynamic. The film historians would comment based on their own knowledge and experience, while peppering Hellman with questions about the production and background.

One interesting aspect of this commentary was the level of Nicholson’s involvement. He was not the star that we know today, and he wrote and acted in the film. We don’t think of him as a writer, and it says something that the character he wrote for himself was so far from the type he would play throughout his career. For the screenplay, Nicholson researched stakeouts at the library, and this particular story was based on a real shootout that took place over three days.

It was impressive hearing Hellman discuss how the cabin burning took place. It looks spectacular on the screen, yet they had to contain the fires so they could continue shooting without destroying the set. Had to show multiple stages of the fire, and of course, it ended with the set destroyed. It was risky to try to pull off with the limited budget, but it worked amazingly well on screen.

This was a productive year for Hellman. He had made two Philippines movies prior to this, so with these two westerns, he had made 4 movies in 12 months. That is a third of his career output in one year, which is saying something.

House of Corman – This was a conversation between Roger Corman and Monte Hellman. It’s a very chummy talk. One thing that they do not bring up, that Hellman revealed in the commentary, was that Corman did not want to make the films once he saw the screenplays. He didn’t think they could be commercially successful. Instead they talk about Corman’s decision to make two westerns, and his influence on American filmmakers by that time. His influence was considerable, and Hellman was one of his protégés that would not have the same career otherwise.

The Diary of Millie Perkins – In The Shooting, she put dirt on her face to cover discrete makeup. She wanted some sort of unique look, so the mud became her makeup. She talked about her horseback riding, which she handled quite well, a lot better than the other actors. She had an interesting relationship with Jack during the time, and they are still friends. They bonded.

Whips and Jingles – This is a Will Hutchins interview. He talks about running up hill with chalk. He was in decent shape, but not an easy run and had to call a medic. One thing that comes up often in all these features is Jack and Monte arguing about budget, but they had to pay out of their pockets if they ran over. He accidentally stumbled into a Parisian theater in 1969 and was surprised to see The Shooting and RTW playing. He had no idea it had been released anywhere.

Blind Harry – This was a short discussion between Hellman and Harry Dean Stanton. Jack said don’t do anything, play yourself, just act. That’s interesting because he’s been accused of doing that on a couple occasions. Harry was head of the gang so he didn’t have to do anything. This was a major influence on his future approach to acting.

The True Death of Leland Drum – Hellman talks to B.J. Merholz and John Hackett, actors in Ride in the Whirlwind. They were amateurs, which Hellman makes the point is not a dirty word. They talk about the horse wrangling, which is a recurring theme in all of these supplements because a high percentage of the budget went towards horse wrangling due to the teamsters union.

Heart of Lightness – Hellman speaks with Assistant Director Gary Kurtz. They talk about all the rain early in The Shooting that caused production delays. The crew was small, with one or two in the art department, one horse wrangler, two cameramen, two sound men, and one on wardrobe. Again, it is quite a final product for such a slim production.

The Last Cowboy – They talk to Calvin Johnson, the horse ranger that worked on the films. He had worked on westerns since he was 10 years old. They revisit the locations. Pahreah was one of the towns where they shot, which is long gone now. Talks about shooting at the “staircase” near Bryce Canyon where they had the final scene in The Shooting. The locations were just gorgeous.

An American Legend – This was my favorite supplement on the disc. It is a critical piece by Kim Morgan on the career of Warren Oates. Much of it is a career retrospective, but she also discusses the “it” factor that made him such a renowned actor. She says it starts with the face. He was a type of “gorgeous ugly,” as she puts it, recounting his attractive, grizzled look. The Shooting was his first leading role, which began a Hellman collaboration over a few films. He was thought of as a character actor, which is unfair, probably because his lead films were in smaller, grittier films from Hellman and Peckinpah. He died too young. Who knows what the future auteurs of the 90s and 00s could have done with him?

Even though there are far better movies in the Collection, this disc is loaded with two quality films and a ton of features. One of the notable absences on the features is anything from Jack, although he has been in retirement lately and may not have been up for it.

Criterion Rating: 9/10

Criterion: The Shooting, Monte Hellman, 1966

The Shooting and Ride In the Whirlwind were companion, low budget westerns pieces, shot together over a 7-week schedule (3 weeks for each with a week off in between). At the time they were overlooked, but have become cult classics and influenced many of the ‘Acid Westerns’ that followed.

Of the two, I consider The Shooting to be superior. Maybe not so coincidentally, it also had the most problems with the production. Some flooding took place early and forced delays. While the movie was wrapped up in time and within the budget, there appear to be some short cuts taken. Some scenes probably did not get the coverage they deserved, and there are gaps in editing. Towards the end, the narrative skips and jumps ahead without dissolves, making the passage of time less clear and challenging the viewer

For such a small budget, the film looks spectacular. Some of the beginning photography has a gritty, washed out look, which may have more to do with the production delays than anything. The later scenes in the desert are brighter and more photogenic, in part because of some great choices in locations. Aside from a handful of interior shots, most of the movie was lit with natural light on location. DP Gregory Sandor deserves credit for making the most with limited resources, as the film does not look cheap by any stretch on the screen.

Compared to Ride In the Whirlwind and other westerns that came before and would come later, The Shooting is minimalist, with sparse dialogue and a lot of long shots of the characters that highlight the locations.

Warren Oates, who would become familiar to most film buffs later, was starring in his first lead role. Willett Gashade was a fitting character for him. He is quite, sober, sensible, and stoic, which is in stark contrast to Will Hutchins’ Coley Boyard, who is boisterous, cowardly, and wears his emotions on his sleeve, particularly his fondness for the mysterious woman that would set the narrative in motion.

Millie Perkins plays the unknown woman. We never learn her name, despite Coley’s attempts to learn it and get closer to her. She is also uniquely portrayed. In previous westerns, the villain’s are almost universally male. She is more like the mysterious femme fatales in noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. While we learn early on that she is on a mission of revenge, she keeps quiet as to her motivation until the very end, and we never learn of the circumstances that brought her there.

It is impossible to review Jack Nicholson’s involvement outside of the context of his later performances. While The Shooting was created before he was known, this is the same, familiar Jack that would rise to stardom in the upcoming decade. Like Perkins, he plays a reserved and quiet character and reveals next to nothing about why he does what he does. He reveals some information about a crime he has committed, but does so in the confidence of a character and the audience never understands how and why. His character relishes in cruelty, and he shows the same bright white, wicked smile that we would see later in his career. He grins widely and wickedly as he tells Coley, “Your brain is gonna fry out here. You know that?”. It is the same expression he would later use in The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and many other roles throughout his career. Even though he does not appear until the middle of the film with an unceremonious entrance, he steals most of his scenes.

The last 15 minutes are where the picture is the most impactful. They are when the action resolves, and they are also the most enigmatic and would embody the “acid” characteristics. There are some questionable editing decisions, such as when Gashade is burying a body. Most of the events unfold visually without narrative. We do not know how long they have been out there. The ending resolves the fate of some characters, but we do not know the fate of the rest. The actual ending is amazing, as ‘The End’ is written on the screening during a long shot with one of the remaining characters. Does that mean it is his end as well?

The Shooting end

Film Rating: 8/10

Supplements:

Since this is a single disc combined with Ride in the Whirlwind, I am going to discuss the supplements in the entry for the other film.

Commentary:

The audio commentary was recorded this year with Hellman, film critic Bill Krohn, and western historian Blake Lucas. The three have an interesting dynamic. At times I wanted to hear more from Hellman about the production of the film, but on the other hand, I enjoyed them interacting with him and asking film geek types of questions. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have learned as much about his influences going into the film.

With this project, he wanted to get to the major question, as Hellman put it. He actually eliminated 10 pages of exposition just to speed up the plot. He eliminated dissolves as well, which he attributed to the French New Wave and the lack of a budget. Dissolves are more expensive.

His influences were of course John Ford films, and he mentioned a few others. One curious influence was One Eyed Jacks with Brando. He also mentioned that he was influenced by Antonioni, the French New Wave, and other arthouse cinema directors. Perhaps the most interesting influence was the JFK assassination. This project began soon after those events, and he said they were an influence on the film. You can see remnants of the Zapruder film and the footage of Oswald getting shot in the final scene.

This was a transitional period in westerns, which the critics commented more about than Hellman. The John Fords and Anthony Manns were slowing down, while Peckinpah was yet to come. One detail that came up but was not delved into was that Hellman was under discussion to do Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I can only wonder how that would have turned out under his hand rather than Peckinpah.