Monday, February 16, 2009

Movie Review: Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

Have you ever noticed that there are certain movies you’ve seen over the years repeatedly in video stores, making mental notes to yourself that you need to sit down and watch them? For me there are a handful of these whose boxes have intrigued me time and again, never enough to push me over the edge enough to actually view them. Part of the hesitancy involves some nagging sense that they couldn’t be as cool as the cover or their reputation make them out to be, the other part is just plain laziness. In this computer age, I’ve found Netflix (not to mention the library) to be a potent tool in diving into that list of titles I’ve passed on time and again. I put the title in a queue and the video arrives in the mail shortly thereafter, forcing me to watch it in order to get the next (perhaps more desirable) title from my list. It basically amounts to eating your vegetables in order to get to dessert. It was easy to go straight to dessert when perusing the items in a video store, but a click of a button now makes it possible to overcome this mentality by using the queue to indulge in potentially disappointing curiosities. One title that has stood out for quite some time in my video store explorations is one Electra Glide in Blue. Prior to my viewing of this title last week, my only knowledge of the film was limited to three items:

#1 – The film stars Robert Blake.

#2 – The box features a neat cover of Blake dressed up as a motorcycle cop.

#3 – Random comments I’ve seen have called the film a cult classic.

I have to admit, the main draw for me was really Robert Blake for reasons I’ll explore shortly. Otherwise this one was a total wild card. Fortunately the critics (at least the ones used on the box) were spot on, as this one is a true masterpiece.

First off, why I wanted to see this film or was attracted to it in the first place – Robert Blake. Chances are if you remember or visualize Robert Blake two things will come to mind, his 70’s television hit Baretta or his recent troubles with the law. True he was also one of The Little Rascals, but he didn’t really register like a Spanky, Alfalfa, or Buckwheat. That he was involved in that show just amounts to interesting trivia given his later, edgier acting pursuits. Putting aside the legal issues he is associated with, I have fond memories as a kid of Baretta. Not because I actually remember anything substantial about the show, but because his best friend was a Cockatoo. Combined with Blake’s trademark quirky presence, this made for a potent bit of imagery. This sort of TV cop hero could only have existed in the 70’s, as you certainly wouldn’t see this sort of thing on CSI or Law & Order. (Note: Actually to be fair something as outrageous could have and did exist in the 80’s, as Don Johnson’s Sonny Crockett had a pet alligator named Elvis. I’m no expert on alligators, but that seems like a pretty unwise choice for a pet, and added a rather out-of-step bit of absurdity to Miami Vice). While individual episode details elude me, I just remember Blake being outlandish and interacting with that Cockatoo . . . and that’s enough my friends. Having that frame of reference at my disposal made me pay attention any time I saw Blake’s name associated with a film.

The thing is, after Baretta Blake’s name wasn’t associated with films all that often. In fact Electra Glide was a large part of how he got the series from what little I’ve gleaned doing light research. He was sort of an up and coming actor who had three big credits to his name in terms of movies: In Cold Blood, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and Electra Glide in Blue. That’s a pretty interesting resume without even taking into consideration his other pre-Baretta credits. Not a loser in the bunch. However Baretta seems to have derailed his film efforts, as it cast him in an iconic role that was hard to shake. He would only sporadically turn up in forgettable films (e.g. Money Train) afterwards. The only exception to this was his villainous turn in David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway. Blake plays one of the creepiest characters I have ever seen in a movie. I didn’t care much for Lost Highway, but Blake’s scenes (especially his introduction to Bill Pullman) make the movie worth viewing. (Note: I normally love Lynch films, but Lost Highway rides on Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty who just aren’t dynamic enough to carry a movie in my opinion . . . so I may be a little biased). The long and short of it is that Blake had an incredibly interesting run in the late 60’s and early 70’s before Baretta, and his quirky presence always added something to the pictures he found himself in during the later years. Because of the scarcity of Blake output, a cult enthusiast such as myself can’t help but be intrigued.

So after years of procrastination, I plunked Electra Glide in the old DVD player and held my breath waiting for magic to happen. And happen it did! The film opens with the apparent suicide of a desert hermit, which is depicted off camera. The sequence is done with a great sense of style, and draws you in right away. Immediately following this the film turns to our hero John Wintergreen (Blake), as he gears up to head out to his job as a motorcycle cop in a desolate area of Arizona. The montage of his preparation for work is not unlike something you would see in a Rambo movie. Very methodical, letting you know this guy takes his job seriously. The catch however is that Wintergreen is very short in stature, especially compared to his fellow officers. This point is driven home in an effectively humorous scene in which Wintergreen is dwarfed by his peers during morning roll call. The film proceeds to follow Wintergreen during the course of a humdrum day of pulling over traffic violators on the highway, which Wintergreen does with great zeal. You see he is obsessed with his work and keeping to the letter of the law. In part this is due to overcompensating for his height issues, but it is also related to his desire to make detective (which is also feeds into his obsession with seeming bigger physically than he actually is).

As the day moves along Wintergreen and his fellow officer/friend Zipper come across a local crazy named Willie, who reports to them about the suicide of his hermit friend. They rush to the scene where Wintergreen takes charge, immediately making copious notes in the hopes of taking it on as a murder case. In so doing, he sees the death as an opportunity to pave his way toward becoming a detective. The local coroner (played by the great Royal Dano) shows up and quickly lets Wintergreen know that he’s out of his element, and that he needs to back off. Wintergreen, realizing he is no match for the coroner, heads back to his motorcycle completely helpless to do otherwise. And then Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), a local hotshot detective, shows up . . .

Okay, here is the other reason why I was so excited about Electra Glide in BlueMitchell Ryan. Now that name may or may not ring a bell, but I guarantee you know this guy. Without question Mitchell Ryan is known to 99% of the movie going public as the villain in Lethal Weapon. He’s the guy for whom Gary Busey acts as henchman, and who is ultimately responsible for the shooting of Tom Atkins (who for the record you don’t actually see die in the film). A generally all-around despicable fellow, and no friend to us Atkins devotees. The fact of the matter though is that Ryan has been around forever, and has been in pretty much everything. Most recently I’ve rediscovered him in his fantastic role as the intense Burke Devlin on the original Dark Shadows. So when I saw he had a featured spot in Electra Glide I knew the time was right to sit down and watch it. Let me tell you that it is amazing to me that he never became a big star following this film! His performance here is one of the best I’ve ever seen, as he creates a larger-than-life lawman whose reputation and philosophy are put to the test by Blake’s Wintergreen. There is one scene in particular, and you’ll know it when it comes, when Poole is cut down to size that is just incredible. It is gut-wrenchingly raw and realistic, and it’s a shame Ryan probably didn’t get the credit he deserved given the obscurity of the film.

Anyhow when the egomaniacal Poole arrives on the scene he’s more than happy to assess the situation as a murder, because it affords him an opportunity for publicity. He’s also excited to take Wintergreen under his wing (as his driver), as it gives him a constant audience to bear witness to his greatness. Wintergreen of course eats all of this up, and practically reveres Poole as a deity. However as they proceed with the investigation, and Poole violently tramples on the rights of others at the altar of self- promotion, Wintergreen is presented with the ugly side of life as a detective. Whereas his daily grind as a motorcycle cop may have been mundane, it also didn’t involve much in the way of moral ambiguity. In the top tier of the organization, where ethics are a little less black and white, egos and the advancement of personal interests more readily take priority over upholding the letter of the law. Ultimately it’s only when Wintergreen gets beyond his own ego, and illusions with regard to what it means to be a lawman, that he’s able to solve the case.

Beyond it’s terrific central performances, Electra Glide offers some other noteworthy qualities. It features some truly beautiful cinematography by the legendary Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Marathon Man), interesting supporting characters, a great Western-like feel, and a decent mystery at the heart of it all. Furthermore it’s all wrapped up with one of the most haunting endings you’ll ever see. The only thing I didn’t care much for is that it has just a touch of an Easy Rider sort of vibe. I’ve never been a big fan of 60’s era message movies, but that’s just a personal thing. Most of them end up feeling a little too preachy for my tastes, but thankfully Electra Glide sticks more to the characters rather than getting bogged down in making a point. I suppose one could argue that there’s an undercurrent of criticism with regard to law enforcement, but I would suggest otherwise. The focus is more on personal ethics and choices, with law enforcement used as the vehicle for telling the tale. Ultimately this is just a great cult classic that shows what a talent Blake and Ryan exhibited at the height of their careers, and is worth the effort of eating your vegetables between Lundgren and Seagal dessert flicks.

And speaking of Seagal . . . coming later this week I will be posting my review of his latest DTV effort Against the Dark! Those of you who have attended the past few Fantasmos have heard Rob and I mention this one. Yes, it’s the one where Seagal battles vampires! You don’t want to miss the review (but you may want to miss the film : ) More details coming soon . . .

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