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
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?
Film Rating: 8/10
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.
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.
Criterion: My Darling Clementine
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, JOHN FORD, 1946
The best genre films are those that touch on deeper themes, and John Ford was an expert at using the Western as a way of examining his present. My Darling Clementine is considered by many to be among the best of his films, and I’ve seen it mentioned as best of the genre. While it maintains many of the genre conventions that are found in his and other films, it is as much a statement about the horrific war that had just completed and Ford had seen, and the relieving peace and prosperity with his return.
Walter Brennan’s Clanton gang begins the film by welcoming Wyatt Earp and pointing him towards Tombstone, which we discover soon enough is just a ruse for them to rustle his cattle and kill one of his brothers in the process. Despite their benevolent first appearance, they are the embodiment of evil and completely merciless. In a later scene, Pa Clanton is unhappy with his sons when they create a ruckus in a saloon. At first we think he is angry because of their behavior, when in reality it is for pulling out their gun and not killing their opponent. This is the nature of the enemy, pure evil, and there is not a redeemable quality within them. This portrayal is not dissimilar to Nazi Germany, and that is probably no coincidence. Ford had seen the evils of total war firsthand.
Ford makes good use of darkness versus light in order to isolate his themes. Most of the beginning takes place at night, and Ford uses light and shadows to frame his shots, similarly to how he did with Gregg Toland on The Grapes of Wrath. When he discovers the misdeeds of his enemy, night is not only dark, but a torrential rain falls. Many of the confrontional scenes take place at night and oftentimes the characters are obscured by shadows and speak openly of death, especially Doc Holliday who is obsessed with the subject and his own mortality. This could again be yet another statement about the horrors of war.
However, the battle between the Clantons is not the only storyline in the film. After establishing Earp’s motivation of revenge and getting him situated as the town Marshall, the title character of Clementine appears on the screen. She is a former paramour of Holliday’s when he was a different person from a different world. She is grace incarnate, and she is out of place in the tumultuous town of Tombstone. With her comes peace and progress. Not long after her arrival, the foundation of a church is laid and later a school will be coming. She is not coincidentally filmed almost exclusively during the daytime, which is lit so brightly that it is the antithesis to the scenes that square off the the Earps versus the Clantons. On top of this, aside from her role as a nurse towards the end of the film, her storyline and the battle with the Clantons does not intersect. When she interacts with Earp, there is almost no sense that anything amiss is happening.
When Clementine is present, things are calm, peaceful. One of my favorite scenes is when Earp spots her getting out of the coach. He is calm yet is obviously stricken by her. Aside from the ending, the daylight scenes are total peace. Earp seems unaffected during these scenes by his feud with the Clantons. In another terrific scene, he does a little balancing trick with a support beam while leaning his chair back, seemingly without a care in the world. In the daytime, Tombstone is a nice, relaxing place to be.
The presence of Clementine is somewhat perplexing, and we cannot really tell what Ford intended. This disc includes two versions, the one cut by Zanuck and the rough cut put together by Ford. The latter is not a director’s cut by any stretch, but it gives a better idea of how this relationship was supposed to play out. The changes that Zanuck made were sometimes slight, like using the score more forcefully in Earp and Clementine scenes. There were other, bolder changes, like the ending that required a re-shoot to give the relationship a more romantic touch. In Ford’s version, the relationship between Clementine and Earp is of mutual, platonic interest, with an ambiguous hint of a possible romance. Earp is reticent to show pursuit because of his friendship with Holliday, and it is almost out of character for a man with his set of values to be so forward in the final scene. The platonic relationship, on the other hand, keeps him from committing between war and peace. He is playing both sides.
The final battle at the OK Corral is a thing of beauty. It is John Ford doing action at his best. He builds to it with the Earp party slowly and deviously approaching, using decoys through the center of town, photographed in gorgeous long shots that show the monolithic structures of Monument Valley in the background. The shoot out is quicker yet more satisfying because of the pacing to get to it, and the dust storm that he uses is another move of cinematic, action genius.
Film Rating: 8/10
Comparison of versions: This was terrific. This is one of the movies, like with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, where the consensus is that the shorter version is the better version. This lengthy comparison shows many of the key differences between the two, so you really don’t have to watch the longer version to understand it (although I probably will someday). As I noted above, a lot of the changes had to do with the Clementine scenes, and Zanuck also cut some of the light comedy. There were some cuts that I agreed with, and most likely Ford did too, and some I didn’t like as much, like the ending.
Video Essay: Often these are my favorite supplements on a Criterion disc, and this was good, but it was a little short. That said, Tag Gallagher is an often cited, leading western genre scholar, and he shows a lot of things that I might have missed. He touches on the war motif, although I took it a little further in my reading of the film.
Bandit’s Wager: This was a mediocre 1916 short directed by John’s brother Francis that stars Francis in the lead and John in the supporting role. While the film is nothing to write home about, it does give a glimpse of what western elements John would use in his later films.
1963 news report about Tombstone and 1975 report on Monument Valley : I found that I appreciated the historical featurettes the most of supplements. They are short and sweet. They show that Ford’s version of the Earp legend was mostly fiction and not shot anywhere near the real location.. Tombstone has fascinated people because of the legend and has been portrayed in many films before and since Clementine. Monument Valley, on the other hand, was a favorite of Ford’s because it provided the aesthetical beauty of the outdoor shots. Whether it was realistic or not, the location and the legend added to the film.
Audio Commentary: I’ve heard better and I’ve heard worse. Joseph McBride is a John Ford biographer and has worked in the industry. He discusses many of the things that are touched on in the other supplements, such as the historical accuracy, the differences in versions, and the war motif. He also talks about Ford’s methods, how he worked with actors, and how he got along with Zanuck. There were numerous interesting anecdotes even if the commentary wasn’t the most compelling.
Criterion Rating: 9/10