During the 1960s and '70s, as the movie industry struggled commercially (before the current "blockbuster" era was born with "Jaws" and "Star Wars"), it thrived creatively. Doors were opened to a diverse array of talent in the hopes something – anything – would spark consistent box office success to regain the audience lost to television.
Monte Hellman was one of those idiosyncratic filmmakers who benefited from this unstable era. But while some of his contemporaries later found a niche in the mainstream (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma) or thrived on the "art house" circuit (Robert Altman, Roman Polanski), Hellman faded into obscurity and hackwork (his last directorial credit was 1989's "Silent Night, Deadly Night 3," third entry in a psycho Santa series). Too bad, because his best films reveal a vision as strong and distinctive as any of his better-known colleagues.
Like many directors of his generation, Hellman's career was launched in the B-movie empire of Roger Corman. His directorial debut, a cheapie monster flick called "The Beast from Haunted Cave" (1960), and immediate follow-up projects didn't really hint at greatness. But when Corman gave him a two-for-one assignment (shooting two features quickly, using largely the same cast and crew), Hellman came into his own.
"Ride in the Whirlwind" (1965) was a strong if conventional western, but "The Shooting" (filmed at the same time but released in 1967), was something altogether different. It begins in straightforward fashion, as a hardened bounty hunter (Warren Oates) and his not-so-bright companion (Will Hutchins) are recruited by a wealthy, mysterious and demanding woman (Millie Perkins of "Diary of Anne Frank" fame) to guide her through the desert landscape.
Though she names a specific town as her destination, the path she forces upon her guides is less clear than her own intentions. When a stylishly dressed but deadly gunman (Jack Nicholson in one of his best early roles) meets up with the group, things become increasingly sinister and strange. Something terrible and unnamed in the past of Oates' character may be behind it all, but don't look for clear-cut answers in "The Shooting," which builds in tension but ends with a symbolic depiction of self-destruction open to widely differing interpretations.
Though not the masterpiece some have labeled it as, "The Shooting" is a memorably spare and spectral feature that combines classic western elements with a disorienting mood and psychology. While the performances of Hutchins and Perkins leave much to be desired, Oates and Nicholson (also a producer on the film) are fantastic and Hellman's restrained but evocative direction flavors the enigmatic story by Carole Eastman (the screenwriter of the great Nicholson vehicle "Five Easy Pieces," credited as Adrien Joyce here). Too bad VCI's excellent DVD is out of print (though available for fairly high prices from some sources) because the Madacy disc most online rental outlets carry doesn't do the film justice. The print transfer looks like a second-rate video duplication and the sound quality is muffled. It's better than nothing, but if you can hunt down the VCI edition, do so.
Trying to tap into the counter-culture audience that made "Easy Rider" a smash hit, Universal hired Hellman for "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971), which many consider his finest work. The story is so minimal, it makes the lean plot of "The Shooting" seem as involved as a soap opera. A driver (singer-songwriter James Taylor) and his mechanic (Dennis Wilson, the late Beach Boys' drummer) travel from one small-time drag race to another, with seemingly little on their minds beyond keeping the car running and making it to the next town.
They pick up a girl along the way (Laurie Bird), but even her free-spirited, reckless ways fail to stimulate her sleepwalking companions. Far livelier is GTO (Warren Oates again, as great as ever), an older driver who goes by the name of his car and is the only character named in the film. GTO seems like an upbeat braggart, but his competitive nature has an angry side that comes out when the driver and the mechanic challenge him to a cross-country race with ownership of the loser's car going to the winner.
It could be the set-up to an action-packed car chase, but it's not. "Two-Lane Blacktop" is deliberately slow – dull for those who don't fall for its hypnotic allure, fascinating for those who do. It's less a road trip than a road study, as Hellman contemplates the ordinariness and emptiness of his characters' motor-obsessed lives. He gives us a plain, unadorned world that speaks to the quiet dissatisfaction and endless yearning in all of us.
Taylor and Wilson can't really act, but they don't need to. They are the emotionally flat extensions of their car, driving simply to drive. Oates is their fiery counterpoint – still raging in his soul yet equally tied to his machine. This is a one-of-a-kind film that gets a first-rate treatment on the Anchor Bay DVD, which is out of print but available from several online rental services. A superb restoration of this widescreen film is accompanied by an informative audio commentary track by Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz, a short documentary segment on Hellman, a theatrical trailer, and some short cast and crew biographies.
"Two-Lane Blacktop" may have the reputation as Hellman's masterwork, but my favorite of his films is "Cockfighter" (1974). Though more structured in plot than the earlier films and less experimental in style, it is far from an ordinary movie in any respect. The subject matter alone made it an unlikely film to get made, as cockfighting is an illegal and brutal sport of animal cruelty. Using documentary footage of cockfights along with matches staged specifically for the film, this feature could absolutely not make the claim "no animals were harmed in the making of this film."
But Hellman is hardly casual or neutral in showing the violent forced battles between roosters (equipped with slicing spurs tied to their legs) and the "sport" comes across as repellant as it sounds. But as the title suggests, the film is less about cockfighting than the men behind it. Once again, the amazing character actor Warren Oates was called upon to bring humanity to one of life's losers. His Frank Mansfield is a man so perversely obsessed with winning that, after blowing a shot at the cockfighting championship, he vows not to speak until winning the title.
We do hear Oates in voiceover narration, but his character remains silent to others until the final scene, which includes what may be the most shocking reaction to romantic rejection ever committed to film. Before getting to that point, the movie takes us as deep inside the subculture of cockfighting as it does into Mansfield's pained psyche. Graced by some beautiful cinematography by Nestor Almendros ("Days of Heaven," "Sophie's Choice"), the easygoing, sunny, rural world of the film contrasts strongly with the desperation of the participants in this blood sport.
Besides offering another exemplary performance by Oates, "Cockfighter" reunited Hellman with "Two-Lane" cast members Bird and Harry Dean Stanton and Perkins from "The Shooting" (much better this time around). There's also fine supporting work from Steve Railsback, Richard Shull, Patricia Pearcy, and former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue.
Anchor Bay's DVD boasts a stellar transfer of the film; an engaging commentary by the director, production assistant Steve Gaydos, and American Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok; a selection of trailers, TV and radio spots; and a 53-minute documentary, "Warren Oates: Across the Border."
If Hellman's films are not suited to all tastes, that's a mark in favor, not against them. There is no shortage of mass appeal filmmakers – both good and bad – turning out crowd pleasers. But we could use a few more daringly different visions these days. We could use a few more Monte Hellmans…as if there could be more than one.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund