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Electra Glide in Blue. 1973. Directed by James William Guercio. Screenplay by Robert Boris.
Starring Robert Blake, Billy Green Bush, Mitchell Ryan, Jeannine Riley, Elisha Cook Jr., Royal Dano, Peter Cetera, & Terry Kath. Guercio-Hitzig.
Not Rated. 114 minutes.
Disclaimer: certain portions of this review will contain spoilers about the film’s ending. If you’ve not yet seen this underappreciated little gem, I suggest getting yourself a copy before heading any further. You’ve been warned.
This is one unique flick. Robert Blake’s not exactly what I would call movie star material, though on occasion I’ve enjoyed his performances. Later in his career he frightened the life out of me in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. But early on he played an Arizona motorcycle cop named John Wintergreen, a short man trying to compensate, always wanting to be a bigger man than he physically can. He’s a man with something to prove. Electra Glide in Blue isn’t your typical cop crime-drama. There’s a huge mystery element involved, as John finds himself promoted to Homicide finally, his dream, after a case of suicide is debated.
But the most interesting part about this film isn’t even the solid screenplay from Robert Boris. The movie has a nice style, not exactly like all the similar pictures coming out at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s. One time feature film director James William Guercio makes this an interesting, stylish ride. The atmosphere, its look and feel, makes the story that much more interesting. All the while, we question the culture that exists in the background of the lives of police officers, their code, the way in which they tie their identity to a symbolism of law and power. Hard to believe I’d not heard of this until recently. I’m glad to have tracked this down through Amazon. Worth every penny and second. Don’t know why Guercio never directed another film, but sure glad he bothered to shoot this picture.
Cop culture is on display constantly and makes us question the bravado and machismo of their profession. The whole construction of masculinity behind being a cop, that romantic ideal. First prominent moment is when John shoots a picture of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper from Easy Rider, using the banner poster they’re on as target practice. Y’know, shootin’ hippies. They are the anti version of what Electra Glide in Blue concerns. That movie concerned two bikers looking for freedom, the actual American Dream. This movie concerns policing the American dream, protecting it, and the concept that you can reach out and take what’s yours, with hard work, a clean conscience. But within the rigid guidelines of the law. At one point later John and another officer pull over a hippie-looking cat, trying to make sure he’s not dealing drugs, or committing a Manson-style murder, I’m sure. So it’s the American dream, under American rule, so on. Not exactly freedom. Just freedom to the law’s liking.
Before any of that the camera makes it clear that John sees being a policeman as being nearly fetish-worthy. Right at the start, we move through his routine of putting on the uniform, watching his hands do up the shirt, getting himself ready. The camera stays tight, close up. Once more, this happens after John gets his big shot at being a Homicide detective. He trades in the blues for a suit, a nice shirt, boots, of course the hat, so on. Again, this sequence mirrors the beginning. John feels as though it’s all a mirage, even if he doesn’t readily admit this fact. But it’s all a blanket identity, made up out of clothes. That and some swagger; another point of contention for a man of smaller stature. Funny enough, John gets so caught up in dressing for his new detective assignment that he actually forgets to put his pants on, then heads back inside. Easily, director Guercio and writer Boris accomplish so much in a limited frame of time, setting up Wintergreen’s character with these couple sequences paralleling one another. At the same time this likewise opens up the larger themes of the film, in examining cop culture, as well as how its fragile masculinity can often lead to tough places.
Certainly by the end, John is done in because of his idealism. This movie is the anti-idealist cop picture. It works against John that he’s so honourable. His lack of corruption and ideal for the symbolic heroism of police officers is what leads to the film’s violent finale. One that encompasses John and everything he’s about in a tragic sense. Literally, this last scene with John epitomizes the belief that no good deed goes unpunished.
This entire film looks impressive, each scene is beautiful from landscapes to the shots of the road, to just capturing Blake as this short yet intense cop – we get times that are funny in that respect where the camera crosses from one tall guy’s head to the top of John’s helmet; other times, the seriousness and the strength in Wintergreen comes out in the way the camera expresses his natural acting. Great directorial choices all around. The cinematography itself is so spectacular. Why? Because Conrad L. Hall, that’s why. Already with a bunch of excellent pictures under his belt, Hall brings the depth and scope of his thoughtful lens to this story. Many stretches of road feel as if they might go on forever, the horizon so vivid. The desert surrounding Arizona, the highways between it, the mountains; everything feels atmospheric, the colour rich. We’re even treated to a couple black-and-white shots nearer the end.
However, it’s perhaps the final moment of John Wintergreen’s patrol that catches us so sharp. The movie blood is a bit underwhelming. Aside from that this is a poignant, heavy moment. Hall slows things down to a crawl, all before John comes to a resting stop on the road, sitting up. Then we pull back along the highway from him, his body left all alone in the road, and the camera seems to recede, fading into the distance. One of the best shots I can remember in a long while, honestly. Hall is a master Director of Photography, his talents show in just about every single frame. Some of the best are the final frames, and the opening ones that show us the road (comes full circle at the end), also giving us a look at Wintergreen suiting up, structuring his idealism from the moment we first lay eyes on him.
I’ve got to say, this is a 4-star bit of work. Electra Glide in Blue (Electra Glide is a type of motorcycle highway cops often used; the in blue part is self-explanatory or should be) is one of the 1970s flicks that somehow slipped past my radar. Certainly I haven’t seen every movie there is, yet at 4,200 and counting there’s not often a real good movie I didn’t at least hear of along the way. This is one of those that fell into obscurity, except in scattered circles. Maybe part of that has to do with the fact Robert Blake really dropped from the spotlight after the murder of his wife, his trial, his acquittal, and finally his being found liable for her wrongful death, ordered to pay $30-million to the children of his wife. That could have something to do with reluctance to run out and blab about Blake as an actor, or even any of his movies. Not sure.
Regardless, Electra Glide in Blue is a fascinating little movie. It’s unexpected, fresh. Never are the characters cliche, even to the point of being weak a couple times. You just can’t get away from the look, the atmosphere, and best are the themes which writer Robert Boris explores. If you get the chance, watch this one. A ’70s diamond, buried under its stars later infamy and wedged at the box office between films like The Exorcist, Bond caper Live and Let Die, The Sting, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Enter the Dragon, Al Pacino acting clinic Serpico, Papillon, Westworld… you get the point. Track this movie down, give it the shot. The film, Conrad L. Hall, surprisingly one-time director James William Guercio, ALL deserve that much.