By Haden Guest
The late Monte Hellman had a great run in the late ’60s and early ’70s directing an unusual series of low-budget films whose surface resemblance to popular genre pictures belied a smoldering ambition to forge a distinctly American mode of art cinema. Among these were three films produced by Roger Corman: The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966),a pair of taut, unsparing Westerns made back-to-back with Jack Nicholson, and Cockfighter (1974),an ambling, tragicomic portrait of a hapless gambling man played with battered grace by Warren Oates. And then there was Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Hellman’s visionary and now undisputed masterwork, a radically uncompromising film that simultaneously announced his arrival as an auteur and his permanent exile to the far edges of Hollywood. By declaring Hellman a cult director, some have tried to rescue, and even exalt, the many compromised films and jobs-for-hire that marked the zigzag path of a career defined as much by unrealized and fugitive films. Not discounting the occasional offbeat merits of his other works, in these four films Hellman’s vision finds its fullest expression, and upon them firmly rests his legacy.
A set of singular approaches unites the four films: a distrust of language; a reduction of narrative to its starkest minimum; and a desire to capture the alienating strangeness and beauty of quintessentially American landscapes. Hellman’s training, first in theatre and then in Corman’s unofficial exploitation film school, guided his exploration of a territory somewhere between the European art film of Bresson and Antonioni and the genre cinema that gave fertile ground to maverick independents such as Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller as they navigated the flux of the postwar studio system. Indeed, Hellman’s restless, unmoored characters seem to inhabit both worlds, embodying archetypal roles laden with narrative expectations—the cowboy, the race-car driver, the gambler—but placed within ambiguous narratives that ultimately question their agency and, at times, their very being. Revealingly, Hellman’s first acclaim came as director of a celebrated 1957 Los Angeles production of Waiting for Godot, innovatively staged as a Western. This was, in fact, what inspired Corman to invite Hellman to join the growing cadre of young filmmakers working for his various independent production companies,a group that paved the way for what would optimistically be called the New Hollywood.
It was Corman’s idea that Hellman return to the Western by making not one, but two films in remote Utah, following a then-standard practice of maximizing minimal budgets by sharing locations, cast, and crew. In the case of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, shot within days of each other, Hellman took creative advantage of the demanding double production to deliver more than just the two pictures, crafting instead a diptych of complementary films exploring close variations on themes of inexorable cruelty, exacting revenge, and uncertain identity. The often-uncanny symmetry uniting The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind is made clear by Hellman’s casting of lead actors in antithetical roles across the two films—with both Nicholson and Millie Perkins alternately playing sadists and innocents—and by the opposing direction of the films’ lean revenge narratives. While The Shooting sits on the side of the hunter as it follows a merciless quest for vengeance, Ride in the Whirlwind largelytakes the perspective of the prey, three weary ranch hands wrongly identified as stagecoach robbers and chased down by an inexorable posse hell-bent on scorched-earth justice.
Oneirically stylized and structured, The Shooting was aptly labelled an “acid Western” for its trance-like story about an enigmatic stranger (Perkins) who contracts a grizzled bounty hunter (Oates) and his idiot sidekick (Will Hutchins) to lead her across the desert without disclosing her mission. Nicholson’s sudden appearance above the sand dunes, playing a leather-bound gunman with familial and/or amorous ties to Perkins, is just one of the sun-blasted surrealist images that punctuate the film. Other echoes of Buñuel are found in a mirage-like encounter with an unidentified bearded man lying in the sand, holding a letter for Perkins, and an early close-up of a pistol held to the head of the white horse that Perkins kills in cold blood. Surreal as well is The Shooting’s surprise ending, which reveals the purpose of the long voyage to be the assassination of Oates’ brother, a shadowy figure only mentioned at the start of film as the man who may have accidently killed someone close to Perkins. When, at the very end, she at last fires at the long-awaited target, the film suddenly shifts into slow motion to reveal that the brother is also played by Oates, without any attempt made to alter his appearance. The absence of Oates’ sibling doppelganger in the credits underscores the dream logic at work across the film, while also announcing the uncertainty of identity that remains a major theme shared by Hellman’s key works.
Written by actress-turned-screenwriter Carole Eastman (under her Adrien Joyce pseudonym), The Shooting works on a mythopoetic and symbolically charged register defined as much by her pared-down, often riddle-like dialogue as by Hellman’s haunting visuals and the film’s cryptic ending. Driven by a tautly efficient narrative and general avoidance of ambiguous imagery, Ride in the Whirlwind marks a clear stylistic contrast to The Shooting that is further grounded in the script written by Nicholson, based on historical accounts of Old West frontier violence. In particular, Ride in the Whirlwind employs period language and vocabulary mostly absent from The Shooting, foregrounding an awkward vernacular that contributes to the film’s overall detached perspective from the events it depicts. This remove is more bluntly expressed by the brutally matter-of-fact depiction of extreme violence, especially an extended shootout between the posse and two greatly outnumbered bandits whose demise is clearly foretold. The profusion of deaths by hanging and gunshot, often viewed from a distance, lend the violence in Ride in the Whirlwind an almost banal quality, quite unlike the brief, highly stylized killings that bookend The Shooting. Although made by nearly identical crews, the two films are thus shaped by a markedly different rhythm and tone, imparting to The Shooting the floating, uncertain qualities of a waking dream and to Ride in the Whirlwind the starkly lineated contours of a woodblock print.
The stylized narrative ambiguity and precisely detailed yet detached realism alternately explored in Hellman’s two Westerns were brought together in unusual ways in his next and most ambitious film, Two-Lane Blacktop, which found Hellman employed by a major studio for the first and last time. So desperate was post-1968 Hollywood to capture the ascendant and elusive youth audience that the studios began to nervously entrust younger, often novice filmmakers with a rare kind of creative (but not, of course, budgetary) freedom to make counterculture-oriented films inspired by, if not directly imitating, the wildly popular Easy Rider (1969). Coming just before the end of this predictably brief experiment, Hellman’s invitation was to adapt, for MGM and then Universal, a conventional three-act script about a cross-county race between hardcore gearheads in a 1955 Chevy and obnoxious rich kids driving a shiny new Pontiac GTO. Taking full advantage of his final-cut contract, Hellman brazenly kept only the title and the barest skeleton of the original plot, and collaborated with underground novelist Rudy Wurlitzer to fill in the rest. Drawing from their immersive research on the Southern California car subculture, Two-Lane Blacktop integrated the slang and style of the hot-rod scene into a film that resembled a documentary in extended sequences shot in actual drag-racing hangouts and tracks, using non-actor members of these local scenes. Yet, as in Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman maintained a deliberate and neutral distance from his ostensible subject, depicting the racing scenes almost entirely from a spectator’s point of view and avoiding the kind of thrilling driver’s-seat action expected in road movies.
Hellman’s refusal to cinematically exoticize racing was complemented by the even more daring casting gambit of placing musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in the 1955 Chevy and Hellman regular Warren Oates in the GTO. The last time I wrote about Two-Lane Blacktop, I described the film’s central race as a metaphor for cinematic acting that pitted Presence, embodied by Taylor and Wilson and their stripped-down vintage auto, against the fascinating, changeling Performance delivered by Oates, the ultimate actor’s actor, and his snazzy muscle car. I would now add another reading of the cars as metaphors for alternate modes of cinema contesting for dominance in ’70s Hollywood: a race between an auteur-driven filmmaking artfully drawing from deeper historic traditions, and a market-driven, special-effects cinema primed to repackage tested formulas. Six years later, this metaphor proved prophetic when William Friedkin’s hallucinatory road movie-cum-critique of American neo-imperialism Sorcerer bombed at the box office while Star Wars broke records selling tickets and toys.
I would go even further now by also considering the specific resonance of Hellman’s selection of Taylor and Wilson, two musicians shaped differently by the dark pressures that celebrity placed upon their identities and authenticity as artists. Although both deliver admirably understated performances seemingly “modelled” directly on Bresson, hints of their own real-life personae and stories are nevertheless legible. In this way, the not-yet-mega-star Taylor’s nervous irritability and eagerness to confront would-be contenders with barbed taunts suggest his anxious place as a singer-songwriter possibly poised on the edge of success. Wilson’s near-trance state hints at an even darker private struggle, recalling his only recently recanted friendship and dangerous artistic collaboration with Charles Manson. Early in the film, the drifter played by Laurie Bird flippantly asks the two musicians if they are the “Zodiac Killers,” and it is Wilson who answers with a half-hearted joke. As they drive in a film almost devoid of music, Wilson and Taylor seem to demonstrate Warhol’s discovery through cinema of superstardom as a mode of immediate and remarkably vulnerable presence, revealed by a seemingly indifferent yet pitiless camera.
This Warholian play between surface and depth extends to Two-Lane Blacktop’s dispassionate depiction of the American heartland as a deromanticized no-place, in seeming dialogue with the critical reappraisal of landscape then being explored by ’70s photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, among others, as well as by photographer-filmmakers Jerry Schatzberg and Wim Wenders. Indeed, the gas stations, motels, and road houses of Two-Lane Blacktop resonate as the kind of “uncommon place” captured by Shore in his eponymous series of cross-country trip photographs, soulfully desolate sites yearning with a melancholy sense of soon-to-be-abandoned purpose. Oates’ constant banter about all the different American cities he claims to come from underscores Two-Lane Blacktop’s prescient understanding of cinema’s potential to map a “new topographics.” Oates’ litany of place names as interchangeable ciphers that are nevertheless charged with emotion thus suggests an endless possibility of races and road trips to nowhere. As Richard Edson observed years later in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), “You know, it’s funny, you come someplace new and every place looks just the same.”
I first saw Two-Lane Blacktop at a screening where Hellman was asked a question about the iconic ending, when the film seems to catch in the projector gate and ignite, burning a slow-motion image of Taylor furiously accelerating the Chevy down a final racetrack. To my surprise, Hellman cited as an influence Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality.Years later, when I asked Hellman about Kracauer’s book, he was reluctant to expand on its relation to his work, gently suggesting instead that I should read it myself. Certainly, as a work of proto-slow cinema Two-Lane Blacktop affirms Kracauer’s championing of modes of filmmaking that found new ways to engage with the world, or what Kracauer called “the Flow of Life.” And the fiery end of the filmfinds even greater resonance in Kracauer’s nuanced argument that cinema’s essence lies in its affinities with photography and its singularities as a temporal medium. The final burning of the film thus not only reasserts cinema’s photochemical quintessence (even when seen in digital form), but also affirms, even redeems, the act of viewing movies as always an experience of the pure present. And yet, Two-Lane Blacktop also explores images and performances that go beyond mere photographic indexicality, and moreover, seem to deliberately blur the boundaries between iconic, indexical, and symbolic meanings, even and perhaps especially in the film’s final, defiant non-image.
A very different kind of redemption of physical reality is offered in Hellman’s last major film, Cockfighter, which stands in many ways as a mellower, creative counter-sequel to Two-Lane Blacktop. Hellman again uses documentary footage to depict a sporting subculture, but now raises the stakes by focusing on an endangered blood sport that, at the time, was only legal in a few Southern states. While Two-Lane Blacktop keeps a largely observational distance from the drag-racing scene, Cockfighter captures the distinctly American grain of the cockfighting world, devoting ample time to richly detailed sequences of rooster breeding, fighting, and betting, with an equal focus placed upon the audiences of men, women, and children as the gory spectacle unfolds in the “cockpit.” By weaving scenes of raw violence into an otherwise tender story of a man’s stumbling search for love and dignity, Cockfighter once more found Hellman combining seeming incomparable elements into a film that critically rebuffed audience expectations, here by refusing to soften or sentimentalize the sharp edges of the brutal world he depicts.
Like Hellman’s paired Westerns, Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter are connected by an implied symmetry embodied in the protagonists played by Oates, whose loquacious, tall tale-spinning GTO in the former becomes Frank Mansfield in the latter, another quixotically dedicated sportsman, but one who has sworn a vow of silence until he has won a long-coveted cockfighting medal. In contrast to Two-Lane Blacktop’s insistent present tense, Cockfighter shares narrative space with a ruminative past, framed by the self-effacing voiceover narration spoken by Oates at the opening, with a key scene told as a rueful flashback to yet another of the disastrous bad bets that have constantly derailed his career. Although Mansfield eventually captures the elusive prize, it comes with the bitter price of losing both his champion rooster, who dies in the final fight, and his girl-next-door sweetheart (Patricia Peary), who is so repulsed by the blood-stained spectacle that she vows never to see him again.
The world-weary acceptance of his Pyrrhic victory by Oates’ battered anti-hero emblematizes Hellman’s own imperilled status as a filmmaker, after the box-office failure of Two-Lane Blacktop branded him as undesirable by the major studios. As the film’s producer, Corman took a far less trusting approach to Cockfighter than he did to the director’searlier Westerns, undercutting Hellman’s original version by inserting even more graphically violent cockfight footage, as well as an arch close-up showing a spectator hungrily gnawing on a fried chicken leg. Even worse was Corman’s hiring of Joe Dante to recut Cockfighter after a lukewarm preview screening, recasting it as an exploitation film by reusing ample footage from two of Corman’s popular cycle of nurse films and changing the title to Born to Kill.
A meditation on defeat and resignation, Cockfighter symbolically marked the start of a troubled pattern that would define Hellman’s career from that point onward—of promising films taken from him midway through and important projects denied, the latter including a number of now-classic pictures that Hellman came tantalizingly close to directing, among them Fat City (1971), Duck, You Sucker (1971), The Last Picture Show (1971), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973),and Logan’s Run (1976). Cockfighter effectively marked the end of Hellman’s brief period of auteurist freedom, which was not to be regained until the final works that formed his last diptych: the Kubrick-inspired short Stanley’s Girlfriend (2006), and his last feature, Road to Nowhere (2010), two notably dark cautionary tales imbued with a deep nostalgia for the Hollywood of old. Not quite a masterpiece but perhaps a major work, in Road to Nowhere Hellman offered a mesmerizing mise en abyme of internested films and mysteries that paid melancholy homage to the powers of cinematic performance and illusionismwhile also offering a deeply moving final statement about the loneliness of the long-distance filmmaker, who must wait years until their work is at last discovered, or even understood.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Hellman during this period, and enjoyed several long conversations about his films and career. The conversation I recall most is one inspired by a photo hanging in his home, a remarkable black-and-white portrait of a startlingly young Jack Nicholson taken by Hellman back when the two were regular collaborators. Hellman waxed nostalgically about photography as his first passion, ignited when he was a young man and began to take portraits of local children in his neighbourhood. In many ways it is possible to see his great films as cinematic portraits of sorts, shaped by their minimal dialogue and intense focus on characters whose motivations and feelings most often remain unclear, even though we are, as in a photograph, able to carefully study and read their bodies and expressions. Toward the end of Cockfighter there is a striking and enigmatic moment that points back to Hellman’s earliest artistic vocation: a brief but haunting scene of a little girl, presumably a fan, asking Oates to pose for a photo. A close-up shows the black-and-white Polaroid image as a strangely cropped portrait of a man without a head, presaging Oates’ final gesture of tearing the head from his dead champion rooster. The headless portrait also suggests the limits and possibilities of narrative cinema as a photographic, performative, and redemptive art whose auratic moving images have the potential to allow true actorly presence to reveal its fullest, most lasting enigmas.