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.

This film is unique, because I think it’s the first time, ever, I haven’t hated a traffic cop.

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.

This guy, actually, is like a thin, pre-collision with cart load of avenging funnybook merchandise, Knowles. Seriously.

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.

Top, top cinematography

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.

Don’t you wag your finger at me, midget.

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”.

John and Zipper’s synchronised farting competition upset everyone.

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.

“I’m not little everywhere”

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.

In one of the more amusing scenes in the film, Wintergreen gets really overexcited about ditching the uniform.

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.

“Loneliness can kill you deader than a .357, so can I have some of your sandwich if I promise to be your friend?”

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,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

40 responses to “The Underrated: Electra Glide in Blue”

  1. Jarv says :

    Since I wrote this, I have discovered that Blake in real life is a reprehensible scumbag who probably murdered his wife, although he was acquitted. Although, admittedly, she was also a reprehensible scumbag.

    *hmph*

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      I was going to ask if Blake’s character shot somebody in the head after eating at a mediocre Eye-talion restaurant.

      So Blake is a “traffic cop” in Monument Vally on the Big Rez on a road that gets virtually no traffic most of the year? That doesn’t seen like a good use of resources and since Monument Vally is on the Navajo Reservation shouldn’t he be a tribal cop?(sarcasm here since people miss that concept a lot and most of the movie was filmed in the Phoenix area)

      • Jarv says :

        He does spend an inordinate amount of time sitting around. But I presume he’s a traffic cop, because the film opens with him handing out tickets.

        I did not know that about Blake. What a scumbag.

      • Jarv says :

        I also didn’t know that about the Reservation. So him sitting on his ass reading comics in the sun etc is a big breach of Reservation/ State law?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I was just being cheeky what the director was doing was exercising his John Ford fetish since Ford like to film/use stock footage of Monument Vally in a lot of his westerns and Monument Vally is aproximately 1000 miles past the middle of nowhere.

        Tribal cops are mostly made up from the tribe on the reservation and I was just goofing on that because of the third picture.

      • Jarv says :

        I suppose if you’re going to make a film set in Arizona, then you may as well include Monument Valley.

        it was apparently based on a true story about a Phoenix cop.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Monument Valley is about 350 miles northeast of Phoenix so including those shots is funny. It becomes even funnier when you factor in the fact that in ’73 you could have drove about 10 minutes in any direction from downtown Phoenix and found some really desolate lonely places to film. In ’73 the valley of the Sun(and AZ itself) had a miniscule population as compared to the overrun with California cocksuckers ruining the place like it is today.

      • Jarv says :

        Yeah, but it’s “iconic” rather than desolate. Like any shot of London has to have the Houses of Parliament.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        or the Ferris Wheel

      • Jarv says :

        Man, I hate that thing.

        £20 a spin in it.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        that’s steep to just go around in a circle at 5 mph for a few minutes.

      • Jarv says :

        Takes about 45 minutes, I’m led to believe. I haven’t done it, as I’m not clinically insane and don’t wake up every morning thinking I am actually an avocado.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        if you were an avocado then you be a super food.One step away from being batman

      • Jarv says :

        Yes, but Batman is arguably certifiable.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        yeah and? The point still stands…

      • Jarv says :

        But I wouldn’t fight crime. I’d steal things.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        or Big Ben or What’s his face the royal kid that was covering up his junk in Vegas.

      • Jarv says :

        Big Ben is just the bell in the tower at the Houses of Parliament. Just FYI.

        Felt a bit sorry for the kid for that, although I do think he’s a prick.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        that’s right isn’t I forgot that fact. As for Ginger Prince come on dude you should be smart enough to realize some one would cash in.

        I want to see the chick standing behind him she looked like a tasty little biscuit.

      • Jarv says :

        I knew someone would get him, but he’s been caught a few times now.

        Isn’t that little broad the Zimbabwean chick he’s been banging for years?

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I have no idea about the tramp i figured it was one of the pool skanks i.e. any whoor that Ginger prince’s fame and cash and his friends money “picked up” at the pool

      • Jarv says :

        To be honest, though, we’d all do that.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        hell yeah.

        The thing is though if you are a famous trouser snout that also comes from a tradition of extreme decorum, at least superficially, you should avoid LV summer pool parties. Those things full of mercenary skirts looking for a pay day or as they are known women.

      • Jarv says :

        He’s got form, though, and has been caught so many times it’s ridiculous. To be fair, though, he’s something like third in line and likely to go further back, so there’s little chance of him being a person of importance at any point. If he wants to get pissed and chase skirt, then it doesn’t matter.

        I was surprised that he did actually serve in Afghanistan. Fair fuck’s to the cunt.

  2. Continentalop says :

    “And you don’t even have to thank me.”

    If I was going to describe the theme of this film to anyone, it might be “Practice what you preach.”

    The cops in this film all talk about law, order and justice, and the homocide detective even wears a cowboy hat, but only Blake’s character follows the code of the movie western that supposedly these people believed in. Not only is he short like Ladd, but Blake’s character is as brave and moral as Shane.

    The final shot is a doozy. Good review Jarv.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Conti.

      Yes, he’s the only one that practices what he preaches. He clearly sees himself as the old-style Western Lawman cleaning up town.

      You know, I really don’t like Shane.

      • Continentalop says :

        Don’t like Shane? Sacrilege!

        Ok, the kid is annoying I admit (and looks like an escapee from the Village of the Damned).

  3. Continentalop says :

    Elisha Cook jr was also in Shane. I wonder if that was an intentional reference or not?

    • Jarv says :

      Not on the making of that was on the disc, although he was chuffed to meet Cook.

      I don’t like Shane because of the kid. I genuinely struggle to get through it.

      • Continentalop says :

        You’ve seen Pale Rider, right?

        While I think Shane is the better movie overall (mostly because the religious symbolism of PR is to on-the-nose at times) I do think Clint did make some really good improvements on the original, like replacing the boy with a teenage girl who develops a crush on him.

      • Jarv says :

        Not for years. The missus hates Westerns so it’s not likely to get a spin soon either.

        I think the kid is downright creepy in Shane, frankly.

  4. Droid says :

    Sounds pretty good. But Blake does put a dampner on things. Kind of creepy watching him in In Cold Blood, knowing what I do about his real life exploits.

  5. tombando says :

    Always liked Baretta but the guys a well known nutcase, google the stories about him onset playing a priest ‘Hard Step’ Castle or whatever in the 80s. Temper.

    This movies ok, has its good parts. I liked ‘ Shane’ as well though prefer John Ford stuff to it.

    Apache Jct for the win.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    For some daft reason I’ve always thought this was about motorbike racing and never bothered with it!

    I’ll have to look out for it now.

    Good read that, Jarv.

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