Electra Glide in Blue should be a severely schizophrenic movie.
The two compelling storytellers, the first time director James William Guercio and cinematographer Conrad Hall have almost bipolar extremes in what they strive to achieve artistically.
There's one of those great behind the scenes film stories concerning Electra Glide that makes one smile and also shake your head. Guercio was virtually independent in the music industry, so when Hollywood came calling, he loved movies but it wasn't his creative imperative that he had to do movies. He loved movies; he especially liked John Ford Western films like The Searchers, often filmed in the 1950s in brilliant colors in Monument Valley.
This 1970s film, ostensibly about motorcycle cops patrolling the Arizona desert territory, had a minimal budget. Guercio wanted Conrad Hall as the man to film Electra Glide. Now, this is a curious desire, because Conrad Hall's approach to filming is the antithesis to John Ford's approach. I've written about Conrad Hall in a piece on the Stoney Burke TV series from Timeless. Right from the get-go, Hall experiments, on a weekly series, with low-key lighting, in Stoney Burke. Hall even blacks out Jack Lord's face in an intense emotional sequence from one of the episodes.
Hall does that again in Electra Glide, with Robert Blake, virtually obscuring Blake's features during an especially emotional sequence with Elisha Cook, Jr.
Look at a lot of Clint Eastwood's later directing work: He must have loved Conrad Hall. Clint didn't care if all you could see was a thin lighting sculpture along his jaw-line.
Guercio forsook his pay to get Conrad Hall to film his movie, only to learn they had radically different visual approaches. One wonders how Guercio did not see how Conrad Hall pushed for natural lighting, right to edges of blacks obliterating central images. Hall experiments with this approach right from his beginning in the TV series Stoney Burke and then The Outer Limits. The two settled on the idea that Guercio would call the shots on the outdoor material, in which Guercio was influenced by John Ford. Hall would light the interiors and film them the way he thought.This gives the film an interesting contract throughout.
So, how can these two opposite approaches mesh?
If Guercio wanted Hall so much, but wanted to capture the spirit of Ford's films, he must have seen Conrad Hall's work. He wanted Hall so much (and this is the part of the story I hope is true and makes me smile and shake my head, because in a way it so lovely, and shows how wild and crazy it can get in a collaborative creation). Guercio directed the film for $1.00.
Not a fistful of dollars.
One single dollar so that he could afford to pay Conrad Hall to film his movie.
And then they learn they have totally different views of how to do this.
They come to a solution: Hall will film all the outdoor sequences and vistas in the way Guercio wants and Hall can film the interiors with subdued lighting, and slow pans lovingly delineating the inner living spaces within the dry, desert, fantastic rock formations.
This visual disparity sounds as if it should be jarring in its contrasts, yet it works remarkably well, giving the film an intimacy that one vision might not have captured.
A sample of Conrad Hall's lighting, capturing all the small pieces that make up the daily living in the middle of the desert.
This duality of approach, along with its themes, and the performances of the lead characters probably account for Electra Glide In Blue having achieved a cult status. There is little exploitation element here, despite what the cover on the Blu-ray might make people think This cover is an example of beautiful 1970s Poster art; it captures all the external elements of the film, but not its heart and soul, nor its downbeat nature despite moments of humor.
Shout Factory has done an excellent job of presenting Electra Glide in Blue in Blu. The sheer blending of shades of black alone could have caused viewing problems, but this is an excellent print, and retains Hall's subtleties.
John Wintergreen takes aim at a poster for Easy Rider, using Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda as cardboard targets.
There aren't any subtitles on the film.
If you travel over to Ian Jane's review, which will go into the high definition qualifications with much more detail than I ever could. There are also comments from Cliff MacMillan on the film that you can check out. There is a commentary by Guercio on this Blu-ray edition, with long intervals of silence, but when he does speak he imparts some interesting facts about what influenced what during the filming.
Shout! and Timeless are to be commended for the work they have done on films like these, lost in the vast titles of films, and for entire TV series offered at reasonable prices. The company has come a long way. You can find Electra Glide on Amazon for less than $15.00 in Blu-ray.
The only chase sequence in the movie, filmed 6 months later by Director James William Guercio, as he reveals in his commen
tary. But not filmed in John Ford's Monument Valley but nearer to where Roy Rogers had his museum in California.
Blake certainly turned late night talk shows like Johnny Carson's into unique moments where Bobby went after everybody. This just wasn't done. You're there to promote a film. People did not go on a talk show to rip out the throats of the people they were working with. I recall seeing Blake with Carson speaking about the movie Coast to Coast, and even though I had yet to be inside some of the hidden hard hearts of the entertainment industry I thought, "Man, Bobby, you have to go work with these people the next day."
A vast, lonely landscape with a motorcycle cop riding alone in the midst of it.
I wonder what that must have been like. At any rate, I suspect there would be no dull, unemotional, telling me what I'm looking at talk on this track. There would be no long empty spaces. I think they should have gone for it.
I liked him as Little Beaver in the Red Rider movies.
I liked him in the Have Gun, Will Travel episode, "The Killing of Jesse May."
I liked him in Electra Glide in Blue, when I first saw it in 1973.
I liked him as Baretta, which is a more colorful, louder, less subdued character than motorcycle cop John Wintergreen. I liked him because he seemed to care about the disenfranchised. He championed the young; he championed the elderly.
But when the going got narrow, sometimes I wished he'd listened to some of the words the writers gave him to say.
Robert Blake stands as John Wintergreen in front of an Electra Glide Blue motorcycle, but the cycle is not his dream.
Among the treasures in Electra Glide are seeing Elisha Cook, Jr., as a lonely man living in the harsh extremes of the desert; Royal Dano as the dour, burned-out Medical Examiner who isn't looking for the complications of murder versus suicide; Mitchell Ryan as Harve Poole, the cowboy homicide detective with his Oprah like self-help "look within" mantra.
Electra Glide In Blue in one way is the antithesis of Easy Rider. The victims in Easy Rider are the road travelers. The victims in Electra Glide are those who patrol the roads, or live just off to the side of them, or far into the sandy wasteland off the major roads.
It caused some controversy upon its release. There were some who felt it was Fascist in nature, with police hassling people with painted vans and long hair. Blake plays John Wintergreen, a cop who takes his job seriously, but is often aware of the abuse of power. He never comfortably condones small or big corruption, as does his partner,
Billy "Green" Bush as Zipper, who is not above planting drugs on people he despises.
At the heart and spirit of Electra Glide, countering the thought it is a colorful motorcycle chase film, is John Wintergreen's solemn evocation; "Loneliness. Do you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a 357 Magnum?"
Elisha Cook, Jr. gives strength and power to the notion of lethal loneliness.
Ultimately, Electra Glide In Blue is about dreams.
Dreams washed out and faded, some bleached like skeletal remains.
It's about the American Dream, and how that dream is not one dream, but many individual dreams.
And how that American Dream can be interpreted.
And torn to shreds.
One of the original movie posters for Electra Glide.
© Don McGregor June 11, 2013