never had a chance to see these two legendary westerns that were made
back-to-back in the mid-1960s, presented by Roger Corman, directed and
co-produced by Monte Hellman, and starring a young Jack Nicholson (among
others), for they were elusive. I’d heard they were quirky, moody, and very
different takes on the western genre, so I was excited to hear that The
Criterion Collection was releasing both pictures as a double-bill on one
Blu-ray disc. Now you, too, can view these strange little movies in all of
their high definition glory.
was one of the few directors that producer Corman would let helm pictures for
his studio, which at that time was famous for low-budget horror films,
youth-in-rebellion pictures, and, later, rock ‘n’ roll counterculture flicks.
Jack Nicholson was also involved with Corman since the late fifties, doing much
of his pre-Easy Rider work for the
producer as an actor and sometimes writer. In this case, Nicholson served as
co-producer (with Hellman) on both pictures and wrote the script for Ride in the Whirlwind. At first, Hellman
presented Corman with the script for The
Shooting, written by Carole Eastman (using the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce” and
who would later write the screenplay for Five
Easy Pieces). Corman suggested that Hellman shoot two westerns at the same
time to get more bang for the buck, so to speak. Therefore, Nicholson came up
with Whirlwind and both movies were
shot together in the Utah desert with the same crew and most of the same cast.
The two motion pictures were seen at several film festivals in 1966 and the
distribution rights were bought by the Walter Reade Organization, which
promptly sold them to television. They were broadcast sometime in 1968 and were
then lost in limbo.
The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could be called “existential westerns” because
they are indeed philosophical, atmospheric, and, well, arty. Very arty. Corman
had insisted that Hellman and Nicholson add more action to both scripts—which
they did—but you still can’t say these are in any way typical westerns. At a
time when Sergio Leone was tearing up the genre Italian-style, it’s no wonder
that the two pictures slipped into obscurity.
the one hand, both films are interesting simply because it’s fun to see the
young actors that appear in them—Nicholson, Warren Oates, Millie Perkins (the
original Anne Frank from the 1959 The
Diary of Anne Frank, now a grown up and a babe), Harry Dean Stanton (billed
as “Dean Stanton”), and a not-so-young Cameron Mitchell. No one in the films,
except maybe Mitchell, looks particularly comfortable on a horse; it’s rather
obvious that these actors are “playing at” being in a western. Other positive
aspects include the cinematography—by Gregory Sandor, for both pictures—and the
strange musical scores—by Richard Markowitz (The Shooting) and Robert Jackson Drasnin (Ride in the Whirlwind).
the other hand, as narrative westerns, they don’t measure up. The acting is,
for the most part, pretty bad. Nicholson is the heavy in The Shooting, and he spends most of the time sneering. The
higher-pitched voice of the young Nicholson doesn’t really work for the
character; he is much better in Whirlwind
as one of the good guys. Oates is suitably ornery but not much else. Perkins
seems like a fish out of water in both films. Will Hutchins, who plays Oates’
simple-minded sidekick, straddles a fine line between being quite effective and
incredibly annoying. Mitchell is forgettable. Stanton is—well, Harry Dean
Story-wise, there isn’t much there. In The Shooting, Oates and Hutchins are hired by Perkins to escort her across the desert. Along the way they pick up bounty hunter Nicholson, who was hired by Perkins earlier. Perkins is obviously tracking someone, but we don’t find out until the very bizarre ending who that is. The attempts at dramatic conflict between the characters come off as spats under a hot sun, and the payoff simply isn’t worth the trouble. Luckily the picture is less than ninety minutes in length. Oddly, of the two westerns, this is the one that seems to have the better reputation.
For my money, though, Ride in the Whirlwind is the superior flick, but not by much. Nicholson, Mitchell, and another guy are mistaken for horse thieves and killers, so there’s a posse after them looking for vigilante justice. The trio hides out in the home of Perkins’ family, but eventually the posse finds them. The characters have a little more meat on them and the story is more coherent... but, like in The Shooting, the pacing and mise-en-scene are too quiet and low-key to generate any real excitement.
That said, I’m sure there are cinephiles out there who will appreciate these relics of 1960s low-budget independent movie-making. Criterion’s presentation is first class, of course, and both pictures look great in the new 4K digital restorations supervised by Hellman. The director also participates in audio commentaries for both films. There are quite a few extras; interestingly, it’s Hellman himself who acts as the interviewer in pieces with Roger Corman, Perkins, Stanton, other actors, assistant director Gary Kurtz, and wrangler Calvin Johnson. There’s a new video appreciation of Warren Oates by critic Kim Morgan, and in the booklet an essay by critic Michael Atkinson rounds out this unique package. It would have been nice to see Nicholson comment on these relics from his past, but I imagine he couldn’t be bothered—or was too embarrassed.