The Underrated: Electra Glide in Blue
Booed on release in Cannes for being fascist, in my opinion erroneously, even were Electra Glide in Blue rubbish, which it isn’t, that it was made at all would strike me as worthy of a review. The time was the early 1970’s, the counter-culture was in full force, still, and protests were raging across the United States. The studio decided to give James William Guercio, manager of rock/ pop group Chicago, $1m to make a film that asked the audience to sympathise, to some extent with the police. The resulting film, Electra Glide in Blue is a genre-crossing mish-mash that reflects Guercio’s love of early Westerns, particularly John Ford films, adds a dash of noir and was heavily marketed as “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio”. Critically reviled for being, amongst other things, “Slick and exploitative”, Electra Glide in Blue has since been described as “the most overpromoted and widely reviled film of the 1970s.”
Electra Glide in Blue was, until recently, also one of the most notoriously rare films to find in the UK. It’s now received a full DVD release, yet the commentary on it on the internets remains relatively scarce. I think, in part, that this is because Electra Glide in Blue is a morally difficult film, it doesn’t wear its political sympathies on its sleeve, even if it clearly isn’t fascist, and requires that the audience think and draw their own conclusion. This is a balanced, nuanced film, and as such has undeservedly almost disappeared.
Robert Blake stars as “Big” John Wintergreen. A small traffic cop, he spends his time handing out tickets to speeders, and refuses to give anyone a break. By the same score, however, he’s totally fair, and disgusted by the antics of his best friend “Zipper” (Billy Green Bush) as he plants evidence on a travelling hippy. He loathes his life on the road, and wants nothing more than to become a homicide detective- to use his brains rather than numb his ass on his hated motorcycle. Zipper, on the other hand, has smaller ambitions, just wanting to buy the titular “Electra Glide in Blue”. On discovering a confused desert rat (Elisha Cook Jr.) crying about his best friend’s suicide (stunningly shown in the opening credits).
Wintergreen latches on to this suicide as his means of promotion, and instantly believes that it’s a murder due to several minor details that totally evade the coroner (such as the pork in the pan, the location of the bullet wound and other minor intricacies). A screaming match ensues, and Wintergreen is backed up by detective Harvey Poole (Mitch Ryan) who declares that “incompetence is the worst form of corruption”. As a result, he promotes Wintergreen to drive for him.
Sadly, the investigation does a lot to shatter Wintergreen’s delusions. Harvey is a grade-A bastard who beats up a group of hippies for information, has borderline ridiculous theories about “An epidemic of cop killings”, and their relationship eventually collapses after a disastrous confrontation with Harvey’s girlfriend Jolene, who is not only shagging Wintergreen, but ridicules Harvey’s sexual performance, the sum of which consigns Wintergreen back to the long and lonely Arizona freeway.
This sets up the final act. Wintergreen, independent of Harvey, solves the case (and in classic noir fashion it has almost nothing to do with the central investigations of the characters), then solves the red herring of the film: the location of the missing cash, before returning as a broken man to his beat and setting up an ending of quite staggering nihilism.
Blake shines in the lead role, although Wintergreen is one of the more well written single dimensional characters out there. I know this is a contradiction of terms, but he’s basically driven by an overwhelming need to do the right thing, and as such never gives or takes an inch. It’s interesting that the final events of the film occur as the direct result of him abandoning his personal credo, but that’s just a footnote. Wintergreen, aside from his sense of right or wrong (think Serpico as traffic cop in Arizona), almost seems to overcompensate for his lack of stature by being overly macho, he clearly has a minor Napoleonic complex. He also seems to be slightly obsessed with Allan Ladd, having memorised the diminutive actor’s films, and using the fact that they’re the same size in an attempt to pick up women.
It does help that Wintergreen gets some fantastic dialogue, notably “Loneliness can kill you deader than a .357” but Blake plays it with a wry humour, until the intense nihilism of the final act. By the time the end comes, Wintergreen is a broken man, he’s travelled as far as he possibly can on this road, and there’s nothing left for him: no friends, no career, no woman, only a life pounding the 2 lane black-top with that “Elephant under my ass”. Blake handles this with no little flair, and somehow manages to keep not only keep but arguably deepen the sympathy for a little man who tells a trucker back from Vietnam that “I’m going to do for you what it took six months for anyone to do for me… Nothing”.
The murder is the catalyst that launches the events of the film, but Wintergreen is the pivot. He clearly is a man out of time: an honourable man in a dishonourable world. His actions throughout the investigation look at both sides of the counter-culture debate, albeit as little more than a passive observer, but he chronicles it with mounting disgust. Blake, plays this stunningly, and the final scenes of the film with a broken Wintergreen alone on the lonely road are a subtle and completely objective comment on the hypocrisy of both sides of the debate. Wintergreen just simply doesn’t fit. The finale, actually, almost seems to stick 2 fingers up at Easy Rider in particular, and the 6 minute tracking shot the film closes with may be indulgent, but it’s simply stunning.
This is why I don’t understand how anyone can say that Electra Glide is pro-establishment. It clearly isn’t, as all the cops in the film are portrayed as corrupt, stupid, violent and little better than criminals. Harvey and Zipper’s actions in particular are treated with withering disgust by Wintergreen, he’s a man who’s proud to serve, proud to be a policeman and genuinely believes in right and wrong. His encounter with the hippies is painfully uneasy, as it’s clear that they’re lying to him (actions borne out by Harvey’s brutality), but by the same score, he treats them with respect and courtesy in asking for help and not demanding it. Admittedly, Electra Glide in Blue is full of snide little digs at the counter-culture (the picture in the shooting range is a poster of Easy Rider), but considering the well-considered main themes of the film, this is a minor issue.
The cinematography here is simply stunning. Conrad Hall, fresh from an Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was intrigued by the film and Guercio, so volunteered his services (the director forsook his fee to secure Hall). However, he had a repertoire of more “modern” camera techniques, such as overexposing the film to take the colour out. Guercio, seeing this as a western, wanted it shooting as traditionally as possible, so cut a deal that all the external shots would be rich, sumptuous old-fashioned compositions and Hall could light what he likes on the internals. The result is a bravura performance by the cinematographer, and the film contains many, frankly, brilliantly staged shots that seem to truly capture the loneliness and harshness of the desert life.
Overall, this is a great film. Electra Glide in Blue is a lost minor classic more than worth rehabilitating. The murder mystery is almost incidental, instead, kick back and watch a thematically complicated film unpeel itself for your viewing pleasure. Electra Glide in Blue looks great, sounds great and contains one of the least exposed and most unfairly overlooked great central performances from the 70’s. A subtle and complex film, Electra Glide in Blue come highly recommended, but make sure you don’t watch the trailer first, as it nearly put Mrs. Jarv off watching the film because the trailer missells it as a Dirty Harry light crappy piece of exploitation. As, incidentally, does that poster above.
Finally, before I sign off, let me just finish with a recommendation I found elsewhere that sums up this film perfectly: Electra Glide in Blue is a milder, less unpleasantly misogynist Peckinpah film.
Until next time,