Despite directing more than a dozen films since 1959, Monte Hellman has never received much in the way of mainstream acceptance. The first two decades of his career were the most prolific, and perhaps the most well-received of his films during that period was Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), an existentialist road movie starring Hellman regular Warren Oates and musician James Taylor. Five years earlier, Hellman directed two unconventional Westerns back-to-back during a six-week period for producer Roger Corman, with each one sporting a budget less than one-tenth that of Blacktop. Both featured similar cast and crew members including Corman collaborator Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins, as well the occasional shootout, long stare, horse ride, and tumbleweed. But The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) are anything but carbon copies of one another...and if nothing else, these aren't your daddy's Westerns.
Of the two, The Shooting is the tougher nut to crack. This extremely focused and minimalist Western follows Willet Gashade (Warren Oates, in his first of many starring roles for Hellman) and the bumbling but loyal Coley (Will Hutchins) as they piece together the murder of their mining partner Leland Drum (B. J. Merholz), killed two days earlier by an unseen shooter. Gashade's brother Coign was with Drum moments before he died, but fled their camp immediately...and before long, Gashade suspects that his brother was actually the intended target. The following day, a wealthy young woman (Millie Perkins) hires Gashade and Coley to safely take her to Kingsley for $1000, and refuses to answer any questions about her background or personal information. Gashade is skeptical but accepts the proposal, questioning her motivations at every turn. Coley is too enamored with the young woman to form an objective opinion.
As their journey progresses, it becomes clear that the woman isn't working alone: following the three travelers from a safe distance is Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), a hired gun whose professional relationship with her isn't made immediately clear. One thing's for sure, though: once he officially joins the party, Gashade and Coley know that their lives are at risk, but an easy exit from their $1000 contact may not be in the cards. As the plot thickens and we're left to wonder how and why their lives have intersected, the film's slow, psychological burn and skeleton cast moves The Shooting further away from traditional genre archetypes and into the realm of something else entirely. It's widely considered the first "Acid Western", a sub-genre that would grow in popularity during the next decade and beyond.
In direct contrast, Ride in the Whirlwind is easily the more accessible of the two, especially if you're relatively new to Hellman's filmography. Here, we follow three cowboys on their way back to Waco: Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer). Tired and hungry, they accept the hospitality of Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton, in an early film role) and his men, who offer them food, drink, and a place to stay for the night. What Vern and company don't realize is that Blind Dick's men have just robbed and murdered a group of travelers, and a group of justice-seeking vigilantes are currently en route to their hideout. Naturally, the vigilantes assume everyone's working together...and obviously, they're not looking for any sob stories either. Hoping to avoid the hangman's noose, Vern, Wes, and Otis attempt to escape the hideout during a fierce, prolonged shootout. Unfortunately, only two of them make it.
Lives again intersect as the two remaining men come across a nearby ranch occupied by Abigail (Millie Perkins) and her protective parents. They're all innocent...but the family's the real victim here, unwittingly forced to conceal both wanted men until they've got another chance to resume their journey. But tragedy strikes once again as the vigilantes catch wind of their new hideout...and soon enough, they're making their last attempt to escape this unfortunate nightmare. Ride in the Whirlwind would undoubtedly be the more commercial of these two enjoyable films: it's stronger visually and introduces us to more defined characters and a more identifiable story. While it lacks the psychological staying power of The Shooting, there's a more immediate charm here that first-time viewers will appreciate.
For obvious reasons, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind will forever be linked together...on home video, at least. They've been released before as a double feature on public domain DVD (The Shooting also scored a stand-alone release), but this deluxe Blu-ray package from Criterion will undoubtedly increase the profile of both films. They've been lovingly supervised by director Monte Hellman, who not only contributed to the restoration of each one but also appears in most of the terrific bonus features included on Criterion's disc. This is royal treatment for these unique but interesting films...and I suspect we won't see a more complete home video package for years to come, if at all.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind were made on shoestring budgets, but these 1080p transfers make 'em look like two million bucks. Presented in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios, the fantastic compositions are highlighted by consistently excellent image detail, textures, black levels and color timing. Speaking of color, the earthy palettes look terrific with only a handful of vivid hues along the way: most everything is washed in a dry, dusty haze and peppered with bright, scorching bursts of sunlight. Both films have a similar visual aesthetic despite their different locales, and the careful treatment of both films on Blu-ray only strengthens their bond. Digital imperfections---including excessive DNR, edge enhancement, and compression artifacts---were nowhere to be found. In fact, the only problems I could spot were sporadic moments of slight softness, but these are likely source material issues and nothing more.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
There's much less to say about both PCM 1.0 tracks aside from "they're perfectly adequate". Dialogue, sporadic music cues, and sound effects come through crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while the overall audio experience even manages to showcase a few moments of depth at times. Overall, these lossless mono presentations feel to the source material and purists will certainly enjoy them. Optional English subtitles are included during both films, which may help first-time viewers decipher some of the vocabulary, character names, and regional accents.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with collage cover artwork by John Gall
. The accompanying Fold-Out Insert
features an essay by critic Michael Atkinson, although a booklet would've been more practical.
The participation of director Monte Hellman---now a surprisingly young 85 years old---has improved everything about this release, especially its extras. The main attraction is a pair of feature-length Audio Commentaries
featuring Hellman with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas; these are entertaining and candid tracks that fans will truly appreciate. It's also important to note that, like most of the supplements on this disc, these commentaries are full of comparisons and contrasts between both films, although singular observations are more common here. Topics of discussion include budgetary constraints, cast members, visual themes, editing, photographic trickery, and much more.
Also here is a collection of Interviews and Video Essays (most running approximately 5 to 20 minutes) that explore other aspects of the production through the words of key cast and crew members. "House of Corman" briefly sits down with Hellman and the legendary producer as they discuss the films' unique back-to-back production. "The Diary of Millie Perkins" and "Blind Harry" feature Perkins and Harry Dean Stanton, who share about their experiences with Hellman and company. "Whips and Jingles" sits down with Will Hutchins ("Coley" in The Shooting, his first major film appearance) and film programmer Jake Perlin. "The True Death of Leland Drum" features Hellman and actors John Hackett ("Winslow" in Ride in the Whirlwind) and B. J. Merholz (who appeared in both films). "Heart of Lightness" includes words from Hellman's assistant director Gary Kurtz, while "The Last Cowboy" focuses on wrangler Calvin Johnson. Finally, "An American Original" features film critic Kim Morgan as she pays tribute to actor Warren Oates, who died in 1982. Unfortunately, as with other Criterion discs, optional English subtitles or captions have not been included for these extras.
The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind have never been able to secure more than a cult fan base since 1966, but their unique charms and timeless appeal still make these unconventional Westerns accessible almost half a century later. Thankfully, Criterion's fantastic double feature Blu-ray arrives not a moment too soon: many of the key cast and crew members are still around to share their valuable thoughts and, in director Monte Hellman's case, also supervise the films' fantastic restoration. Both features look terrific and serve up no shortage of informative supplements (including two audio commentaries), so fans of the genre or director will certainly want to indulge. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.