Some four-odd years ago, contemporary film culture seemed to have settled on as the consensus death of the classical Western. The 1962 releases of three films, Ride the High Country, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Lonely Are the Brave served both to mourn old Hollywood tropes and herald a wave of revisionist scrutiny. In this context, Monte Hellman’s Western exercises are all too happy to rid themselves of obligation to a pre-established tradition. No genre so thoroughly scrubs out a layer of metaphor as the Western, just as few films use the trappings of genre as such an emphatic gesture as do Hellman’s. The clop of hooves and lowering of a wide-brimmed hat into frame have the effect of an arm clearing off a table.
Low-budget affairs, produced together by Hellman and Jack Nicholson (who wrote and starred in Ride the Whirlwind and played a key supporting role in The Shooting) on the quick and under the supervision of Roger Corman, the films take pleasure in burrowing closer into their settings rather than pull the camera back for expansive VistaVision panoramas. Instead of such a view, we see a horse’s hooves struggling to pick a path down a rocky slope, inching forward, then back. A shot doubles as keen display of the limited costume budget — an insert of a rider’s black gloves grasping the pommel saddle — and as an introduction of the picture’s cockeyed concession to a certain genre convention, the bratty femme fatale played by Millie Perkins, clad in black hat opposite the faded beige of Oates’ own. This is the B-film as theory.
Perhaps it’s the microscopic effect of these camera choices and budget limitations that contribute, more than anything else, to the reputation that’s been reinforced around these films over the years as an outgrowth of Hellman’s experience directing theatre, specifically the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett. For most critics, this merits a mention but not much further inspection, as it’s the kind of juxtaposition that stands out on a director’s CV but requires real know-how to investigate beyond a plot comparison of The Shooting or Ride in the Whirlwind with, say, Waiting for Godot.
(I can think of one scene in both of these films that feels specifically Beckettian, in which the halfwit partner of Oates’ character, played by Will Hutchins, asks Perkins’ dark rider her name. “Why don’t you tell me just what is your most favorite name,” she teases, and he hems and haws for a minute trying to think of a woman’s name, any name, even struggling over his mother’s for a moment. This exchange could reasonably come from a number of Beckett’s stunted protagonists, particularly the couple in “First Love” or one of his other short prose pieces.)
But one does get a similar sense watching these films as one does reading or seeing Waiting for Godot. Everything present on the screen or stage is only there because an author has deliberately placed it there. The borders of the shot or wings of the stage are, for that moment, the edges of the known world, with nothing existing outside it. Whether this is because Hellman’s philosophies sync up with Beckett’s or because the few markers of set design are shuttered and packed up every time the film cuts to a new scene is an exercise left to the viewer’s interpretation. This is also a key component of the B-film’s lasting appeal. You get to suss out the intersections between the happenstance of the production and the qualities of the text that follow, the degrees of which have fed cinephiles’ fixation on films noir and the strain of exploitation practiced by Corman and his proteges for decades.
Ride in the Whirlwind is somewhat less satisfying in this regard, even from the perspective of an ardent Western fan. It’s far more action-packed than The Shooting, but spends most of its time draining the romance from the three stages that comprise its script: shootout, chase, and siege. By devoting comparatively little time to conversation, Nicholson’s script instead allows Hellman to focus for long periods of time on crouching behind rocks, scrabbling up a mountainside, and the uncomfortable silence at a dinner table where Nicholson’s Wes and partner Vern (Cameron Mitchell) take refuge from a hanging party, in pursuit of them for no particular reason.
Certainly Whirlwind takes the same burrowed-down approach to its setting that The Shooting sets out with, and in its best moments — like a late conversation between Nicholson and the farmgirl (Perkins, also here) — matches the exhaustion of its images with palpable futility and resignation, a chase picture in which the characters seem to have begun at the end of a marathon.
The Shooting, on the other hand, feels wildly unfettered in its second half. Having laid out a sparse grammar of closeups and inserts, about halfway through the camera suddenly does pull back, revealing miles of blank desert in every direction. Having first posited that there is no world outside the frame, the film then expands that frame, suggesting a world that does exist beyond the borders of the lens but simply goes on, and on. The final, sun-dried struggle to reach Perkins’ goal introduces harsh diagonals into Hellman’s clean horizontal compositions, a jagged psychology emerging as the climax’s terrain.
Years later the director would make another film with Warren Oates, the road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, in which the final shot from within a car at the start of a race seemed to catch and burn up in the projector. Like The Shooting, Two-Lane Blacktop is one of the great American movies, and both Westerns are similarly preoccupied with the futility of movement and its consequences. Oates’ Willet, climbing up a rockface, the camera expanding once more to the borders of a world small enough to traverse the desert entire and come back around the other side. In a final, effusive gesture of B-movie poetry, Hellman closes off a self-contained universe with — what else? — the solution to a casting problem. Print it.
Shunted to TV on stateside release, the two films have finally gotten more than their due in a handsome, overstuffed Criterion Blu-ray package. The project was overseen with Hellman’s enthusiastic participation, as evidenced by his appearance in a handful of bonus features, including a conversation between him and Roger Corman at the latter’s office. This is a gem of a clip: in it, two elder statesmen of the alternative cinema reliving the best days of their careers and returning to old disputes even as they clearly enjoy each other’s company. No such set would be complete without its own individual appreciation of the great, perennially underappreciated American actor Warren Oates, here composed by the critic Kim Morgan in a loving video essay, a format which pays tribute to the man better than this review could attempt.