Sunday, June 14, 2009

179) Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

179) Electra Glide in Blue (1973) Dir: James William Guercio Date Released: August 1973 Date Seen: June 13th, 2009 Rating: 4.5/5

If there were any justice in the universe, people would only remember Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider as a footnote in their larger collective memory of James William Guercio's vastly superior Electra Glide in Blue. Guercio and screenwrite Robert Boris respond to Hopper's empty-headed celebration of alternative lifestyles with a compassionate, intelligent and expertly assembled portrait of the male authority figure at odds with his environment. 

"Big" John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is a motorcycle cop that oversees a ceaseless stretch of road somewhere in Arizona. He's at once a zealous tyrant--he uses an Easy Rider poster for target practice and hassles a fellow Vietnam vet looking for a sympathetic ear--and a bored bottom-feeder on the chain of command, desperately seeking a way to get promoted to a desk job, where he'll be "paid to think." His big chance comes when the body of a local geezer is found, giving him an irrational cause to suspect foul play, the kind that warrants an official investigation and might speed him along on his way to a promotion.

Once Wintergreen gets his shot, it becomes apparent that he's bound to be disappointed with the detective position he's been pining for. The bigshot city cop that takes Wintergreen under his wing, Harve Pool (Mitch Ryan), is an uptight, self-righteous bigot. He beats up hippies just because he's impatient, warns his colleagues against "niggers waiting in the bushes" and freezes up at the unfounded suggestion of adultery that his wife puts in his head. Pool's such an irascible martinet that he could be from Easy Rider save for the fact that he's just as psychically scarred as Wintergreen.

Ryan's devious actions and his well-timed delivery of a handful of long-winded speeches are punctuated by a deeply unsettling silence. That eerie quiet reminds us that Pool's prejudice and outbursts are direct products of his vacuum of an environment. Like most of the characters in the film, he blusters on and on in the hope of filling the pitiless void that enshrouds the valley he and Wintergreen patrol. Here, the American countryside is the real enemy, an indifferent land completely separate from the one that John Ford romanticized in his horse operas. Mind you, this is three decades before Cormac McCarthy came to the same conclusion in No Country for Old Men.

That kind of inescapable fear makes Wintergreen's potentially high-handed rejection of Pool and the corruption he embodies eerily tranquil. The speech he lays down on Pool just after he hightails it back to his lonely stretch of road is swallowed up by his uncaring surroundings, an emptiness that can't be bested by self-righteousness. Even at film's end, when he proves that he's not like Pool, he's struck down by sheer bad luck. All alone and with no one to recognize him when he does the right thing, Wintergreen is one of the most memorable American anti-heroes.

Note: I loved Blake's performance here, especially he way that he fumbles over his words and his oblivious smile. 

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