LONE COWBOYS AND LACONIC DRIFTERS: THE FILMS OF MONTE HELLMAN
Having seen Monte Hellman’s 1975 feature Cockfighter at the National Film Theatre in the mid-90s, every week for years thereafter a friend and I would check the TV listings to see whether Channel 4 or BBC2 were screening anything else by this singular director. His road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was top of our wish list. Unsurprisingly it soon became a rite performed more in jest than any serious anticipation of fulfilment and sadly my friend died only months before the NFT screened it in 2005. This year it has surfaced on DVD but only to highlight the sorry state of affairs with the rest of the Hellman back-catalogue. Of his ten features to date only three others are currently available on DVD in the UK. Two early Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966), were reissued on DVD in July. Both films have been available for a while, along with Flight to Fury (1965), on a five-DVD box-set showcasing the early work of Jack Nicholson though the quality of transfers is variable and Hellman’s name is just about visible in the small print, eclipsed by his mentor Roger Corman whose involvement was minimal. Some of the remaining output, like Cockfighter (1974), China 9 Liberty 37 (1978) and Iguana (1989), are available in the US, though copies of the first of these retail on the internet at upwards of $70. It’s unlikely to see a release over here as it has been deemed to condone bloodsports. The NFT got round this back in the 90s by screening it as a private function.
It’s a curious state of affairs that whilst 2007 saw the DVD release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s entire output, the oeuvre of another so-called ‘cult’ figure like Hellman should remain in relative disarray. Watching Jodorowsky’s output back to back was one of this year’s highlights as one could trace his very particular technical, stylistic and thematic developments. The recent release of three DVDs is the occasion to do the same with Hellman in spite of the rather limited material at my disposal.
Nicholson’s continuing superstar status was undoubtedly a key reason for the reissue of both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind and whilst his trademark grin sure enough finds its way into the former, it’s the lesser known Warren Oates who carries the film as he also does Two-Lane Blacktop. As Hellman reveals in the DVD commentary, he received the script of Two-Lane Blacktop only to insist it be completely rewritten by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer. One of the major changes was the inclusion of the Oates character who was absent from the original write. Probably best known for his lead performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Oates was, until his death in 1987, a wonderfully versatile character actor who could play both straight and comedic roles and move fluidly between macho aggression and tender vulnerability (indeed in Cockfighter he manages this though barely speaking). If Nicholson’s grin is pure malevolence it is more than matched by Oates’ wonderfully disarming beam. In Two-Lane Blacktop he plays ‘G.T.O’, the driver of a yellow ’32 Pard Roadster’ who challenges James Taylor (‘The Driver’) and Dennis Wilson (‘The Mechanic’) in their grey 55 Chevvy to a race across the US from Los Angeles to Washington DC. As the only trained actor, Oates is the perfect foil for the laconicism of the other leads and without him the whole film might have been as grey and serious as the car they drive. Oates’ car, by contrast, is a mixture of schoolboy dream and camp excess and his character is all bluster and pompousness. Along the way they are joined by Laurie Bird (‘The Girl’) and they embark on a trip which, because it is from West to East, deconstructs the impetus towards American myth. Indeed, it’s tempting to see the Chevvy as a demythicised version of Melville’s great white whale, its dull matt grey signifying the end of days rather than the promise of glorious beginnings; it’s a road trip in which ‘nothing’ happens, with the race itself soon becoming something of a red herring.
Two-Lane Blacktop also plays out a very American tension between myth and pragmatism whereby the overarching idea of the race is broken down into the constituent pragmatics of the journey, and ultimately it’s these that become more pressing – the need to eat, sleep, fuck, and fill up with gas. It’s the incidentals, watching the characters stroll through a town, inhabit a diner or move around a filling station, that give the film its particular texture. On the commentary Hellman himself talks about how filming on location made such a difference to the feel of Two-Lane Blacktop and he uses one filling-station scene as an example. Its parerphanalia, he says, is as significant as the ‘action’ to the extent that it becomes ‘characterful’. As The Driver leans nonchalantly on a gas pump, the sign ‘regular’ written across it describes more than just the fuel going into the cars. But it’s not just words that live this double life. Objects, like the gas pump itself, are imbued with a significance they might not ordinarily possess. On one level this is what any art is all about but it’s also part of another peculiarly American tradition in which the factual and the everyday, what the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘the heavy, prosaic and desert’, possess an epiphanic quality. A lot of American painting is filled with this quality as is a lot of American film. Perhaps I need to revise what I said about the anti-mythic nature of Two-Lane Blacktop: myth in it resides elsewhere.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems even more remarkable that a major studio like Universal stumped up the cash for what Hellman and producer Michael Laughlin proposed: a road movie in which all the characters have generic names, in which the cars also share the billing as ‘characters’, and in which the proposed competition fizzles out almost as soon as it starts with the competitors effectively helping each other out along the way. Indeed the move from Darwinistic struggle and the survival of the fittest to a programme of cooperation might seem a little belated in 1971. Easy Rider had already dealt with the end of the Summer of Love though with US troops still very much in Vietnam the call for mutual aid was still vital in many minds.
Hellman’s earlier films, however, offer an altogether bleaker version of humanity. The Shooting similarly uses the journey motif with Millie Perkins’ unnamed woman leading Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) and his foolish and garrulous sidekick Coley (played by Will Hutchins in an earlier incarnation of Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop) through a dusty Utah landscape on a trail whose end is unknown until the final frames of the film. Joined late in the day by Nicholson’s sadistic hired gun Billy Spear, who insists on leaving Coley to fry when one of the horses is lamed, the party winds its way further and further into the desert, and before the inevitable shoot-out, Nicholson and Oates grapple with each other in the sand in a nod to the famous scene at the end of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed. In Flight to Fury, smuggled diamonds are the pretext for multiple double-crossings, self-interest infecting all the characters who survive a plane crash in the jungle of the Philippines only to kill each other off one by one as the diamonds change hands. In the end, Dewey Martin’s Joe Gaines pursues Jack Nicholson’s Jay Wickham through a labyrinth of rocks. The final shot is of Nicholson’s dead legs sticking horizontally into the frame, a gruesome parody of the hanged bodies that swing vertically from the trees in Ride in the Whirlwind which, in an economics lesson from Corman, Hellman shot back to back with The Shooting. In it a trio find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when they hole up in a shack with a bunch of outlaws who are smoked out by a vigilante mob and picked off one by one, the survivors strung up from the nearest branch. Only Nicholson survives and the film ends with him riding off not into the sunset but into an uncertain future, the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves a stark soundtrack to his bleak predicament.
Hellman has often been called an existentialist – indeed it’s an adjective he seems happy enough to accept on the commentary to Two-Lane Blacktop – though this blanket term perhaps obscures some of the other themes that emerge from his films. One of these is the relentless probing of masculinity. Hellman uses the genre of the Western, traditionally a proving-ground for extreme masculine behaviour, to question our assumptions about the way men behave. One of the ways he achieves this is by reconfiguring the female figure. In The Shooting, Mollie Perkins hires ex-gunfighter Gashade and Coley out of retirement to lead her to her quarry. Not only is she the film’s prime mover but her refusal to reveal her name gives her the air of mystery usually accorded heroic male figures in Westerns, most notably Clint Estwood’s ‘man-with-no-name’ in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy. With her black hat and leather gloves, she dresses like the classic male gunfighter. When Nicholson’s Billy Spear joins the group in the same get-up he is made to look like a version of her. Indeed at one point Gashade comments to Coley, ‘See how she look like him’, but it’s as much the other way around as Coley’s rejoinder implies: ‘Real strong and a pretty ain’t he, the way he got himself up?’ Billy Spear’s masculinity is further questioned in the course of events. Before leaving Coley to the mercy of the Utah sun he asks him, ‘You wanna ride with me boy?’ then threatens ‘to blow [his] face off’. Later Perkins looks at his leather gloves commenting, ‘You never take those off do you, not even when you’re with a woman?’ Spear and Gashade’s fight in the dust culminates with Gashade picking up a rock and stoving in not Spear’s head as we might expect but his right hand. Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.
Because the car is a technologised version of the horse, the leather gloves of The Shooting are passed on to Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop as part of his driving ‘get-up’ and he wears them along with an ever-changing array of woollen sweaters not unlike the jester’s traditional particoloured ‘motley’ – Hellman is nothing if not ludic. Masculine behaviour is under scrutiny here too as Hellman presents us with a cast of characters whose sexuality is fluid rather than fixed. When Oates rebuffs a gay hitcher (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who tries to seduce him at the very beginning of the race it’s because he ‘doesn’t have time for that sort of thing’ in the context of the competition, not necessarily in his life. The Driver and The Mechanic are curiously a-sexual and when The Girl arrives on the scene it does little to disrupt their partnership. Although she sleeps with The Mechanic she’s soon taking a driving lesson from The Driver but his inability to teach her how to get the car in gear can be read as a failure to get it on. He’s happier when his own hand is changing gear, one of the other things in America, as well as drawing a gun, your right hand is for.
As Chris Petit has suggested, Hellman’s films are all ‘terminal in their implications’ though many of them simply stop rather than end. Endings offer little or no resolution but are merely vectors for further uncertainty. However, both The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop offer particularly radical takes on endings. In The Shooting, after multiple gunshots ring out it’s unclear exactly who’s left dead or alive except for Nicholson who hobbles distantly across the screen, which then whites out as the camera aperture is opened to its fullest extent. It’s as absolute an indication possible that Hellman can take things no further, except possibly with the conclusion of Two-Lane Blacktop where the race ends not with a victory by either party but with the destruction of the very film stock Hellman is shooting, which burns up before our eyes. This is so much more profound than Barry Newman driving into a gas tanker at the end of Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (also 1971), a film to which it’s often compared. Vanishing Point wears its so-called existentialism far too obviously on its sleeve whilst that of Two-Lane Blacktop resides much more covertly, lurking somewhere in the knit-and-purl of one of Warren Oates’ V-necks.