50 Years Ago This Week – Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson, Twice

The program of the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, which ran from October 20-30 of that year, featured two modest efforts that were the product of a partnership between Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman. The duo, who had previously collaborated on a pair of movies in the Philippines, had this time gone off to the Utah desert on Roger Corman’s dime (which is probably an appropriate indicator of their total budget) and shot two Westerns in six weeks, featuring overlapping casts. Nicholson and Hellman co-produced the films, with Jack starring in both and Hellman directing. Little seen and hard to track down before receiving the Criterion treatment in 2014, they were nevertheless among the films that gestured toward the emerging New Hollywood.  Nicholson, of course, would become one of the iconic leading men of the seventies film and starred in more than half-a-dozen New Hollywood classics; Hellman, something of a cult figure whose projects developed in fits and starts, is best known for Two Lane Blacktop.

The Shooting, written by Carole Eastman (she would also write Five Easy Pieces with Nicholson in mind for the lead), developed a good-sized and devoted following-by-reputation over the years on the strength of its uncompromising minimalism, existentialist aspirations, and the presence of the invariably excellent Warren Oates.  (Some of you might remember Oates as Sargent Hulka from Stripes – which I don’t mean as criticism, I’d put Stripes up there with Shakespeare – but let that not obscure his remarkable body of work.)  

However, and if at the cost of some hipster street-cred, of the two movies I’d actually lean toward Ride in the Whirlwind.  Written by Nicholson, it is a more tightly-structured film and a study in the economy of storytelling.  (Each movie clocks in at just over 80 minutes, but The Shooting still manages to take its time.)  A minimalist fable (if positively crowded with characters and events in comparison to The Shooting), Whirlwind presents the intersection of four archetypes of the western landscape: a motley crew of outlaws led by Harry Dean Stanton, a vigilante posse, three fellows on their way from here to there, and an isolated frontier family.  And it does so with effective, thoughtful set-pieces, and innovatively so—what starts out as a posse-and-bandits yarn shifts gears midway, morphing into something like a re-imagination of The Ox Bow Incident.  Ride in the Whirlwind is no Ox Bow Incident—but that’s pretty good company to keep.

The Shooting

Warren Oates in The Shooting

 

Whirlwind

Jack Nicholson in Ride in the Whirlwind