Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Electra Glide In Blue: Surrealism on a Motorbike

Electra Glide In Blue
MGM // 1973 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“He’s a good cop. On a big bike. On a bad road.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot
Robert Blake anchors a surrealistic thriller as a motorcycle cop who yearns to join the homicide squad. When he gets his chance, the film unravels into a nihilistic political statement, circa 1973, drawing inspiration from such varied and iconic period pictures as Dirty Harry, Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Vanishing Point. The results are a fascinating mess.

A Bit of Plot…
Patrolman John Wintergreen (Blake) prowls the Arizona highways on his Electra Glide motorcycle, ticketing scofflaws and inspecting tractor trailers. The life of a traffic cop is simple, but unsatisfying. He is literally a little man with big dreams.

Wintergreen is so diminutive, so unimposing as a cop that he has learned to use his small stature to his advantage. His pickup line to a girl is “You know, me and Alan Ladd were the exact same height? Right down to the quarter-inch.” Wintergreen says this with such conviction that he transcends pathetic and becomes curiously charming. (Indeed, actor Blake is no taller than the breasts of a woman of average height, which results in some unintentionally amusing scenes during his conversations with women.)

The officer dreams of “getting paid to think” by rising to the detective division. On patrol, he spots and chases a skittish old desert rat (famed character actor Elisha Cook, Jr., The Maltese Falcon), who babbles something about a dead friend. Investigating a nearby farmhouse, Wintergreen finds the friend in a serious state of decomposition — an apparent suicide, as the trigger of a shotgun remains tied with twine around the dead man’s big toe. We already know what Wintergreen must discover, as the tip-off comes before the opening credits: This was no suicide, but a cleverly staged murder. Sensing opportunity, Wintergreen convinces the detective working the case to take him on as a trainee on the homicide squad. The men discover drugs, treachery, and police corruption just beneath the surface of the scorching Arizona desert. Motorcycle chases, early ‘70s wacka-wacka guitar music, and Sam Peckinpah–style mayhem will surely follow.

Historical Context and Significance
Long before Robert Blake was acquitted on charges of murdering his wife, before there was a Baretta television show or Electra Glide in Blue or even his best picture, In Cold Blood, there was the career of little Mickey Gubitosi, which is Blake’s real name. Mickey was among the third lineup of child actors who played in The Little Rascals, the beloved one-reel comedies produced by Hal Roach in the 1930s and ‘40s. For a time it seemed Mickey might be the heir apparent to Spanky’s reign as most popular rascal. But the popularity of the series began to wane as the actors grew older and considerably less adorable. Mickey Gubitosi floundered for awhile, eventually winning an unbilled but memorable role in John Huston’s classic adventure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as the Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a winning lottery ticket. Following a name change, real success would elude Blake for another quarter-century until he was cast as the tough undercover cop Baretta, who has a soft spot for his pet cockatoo.

Electra Glide in Blue paved the way for Blake’s long-running television series, according to the film’s producer-director-composer James William Guercio. Before winning his lone shot at directing a film, Guercio’s main claim to fame was composing and producing rock music. He produced the band Chicago in the group’s early days during the late 1960s.

Guercio notes in his introduction that Electra Glide in Blue was labeled Fascist on its initial release. So was Dirty Harry, which this film resembles in many ways, chiefly in its politics and attitude. But Guercio is no Don Siegel, who directed Clint Eastwood in one of his most influential films. Instead, Guercio strikes an existential pose (like that of Vanishing Point), which contrasts wildly with his law-and-order message and awkward, even embarrassing, attempts to impose humor where it does not belong, as when he tries to fob off sight gags that just don’t fit the material. Incredibly, the impression is that Guercio intended to make a serious message film that would appeal to both conservative and hippie audiences without alienating the mainstream. In other words, he attempted the impossible. The movie is also the antithesis of Easy Rider, which presented freedom and consequences from the opposite end of the telescope. At times, Electra Glide in Blue feels like it is about to jump the rails, cartwheeling into the anything-goes realm of exploitation. Yet every time, Blake’s intense, sincere performance pulls the film back on track and holds our interest. He is an interesting actor with real screen presence, but this is a seriously schizophrenic motion picture in terms of tone and thematic concerns.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Assets include gorgeous cinematography by Conrad Hall, a three-time Academy Award winner who won his last Oscar posthumously for The Road to Perdition. In Guercio’s introduction to the film he recounts an amusing story of how he managed to hire Hall, who was already an established cinematographer in 1973, commanding $10,000 a week. Guercio says he brought in Electra Glide in Blue for just under $1 million.

The director’s commentary spills over with passion and interesting information. Guercio remains proud of his film, the only picture he ever directed. He also insists that it was an important message movie for its day. Doubtful. The politics are about as wobbly as Robert Blake on a motorcycle, but the film is compulsively watchable in a “what-the-hell-is-this?” kinda way.

The video transfer is gorgeous, which is as much a product of Hall’s work behind the camera as anything MGM might have done in preparation for this DVD release. The 2.0 audio is clear if not overwhelming.

The Contrarian View
For those who have not seen the film, the optional director’s introduction should be avoided before a first viewing, as Guercio reveals significant plot points, including the ending.

Some of the acting by the supporting cast is atrociously amateurish — real hambone scene chewing — which may be inevitable on such a serious-minded, low-budget film. The occasional attempts at humor, as noted earlier, come off wrong.

In a final bit of puzzlement, this is a damned violent movie to skate by with a PG rating. With the volume of bloodshed and sex on display, the picture would almost certainly receive an R if released today.

Fans of early 1970s drive-in cinema, edgy action flicks, and crazy non sequiturs will dig this picture. The movie deserves a cult following, but until MGM’s DVD release, finding a copy to watch was a real challenge. Electra Glide in Blue remains a relic of its era, in which context it must be seen to be fully enjoyed.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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