|Ride in the Whirlwind|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 31 October 2000|
Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson met while working on 'The Wild Ride,' which Hellman edited and which starred Nicholson. They became friendly, and went to the Philippines together to make two films back to back, both directed by Hellman, both starring Nicholson -- who also wrote one of them.
These days, no one, probably including Nicholson, pays much attention to his career as a writer, but between 1963 and 1971, he wrote or co-wrote several interesting movies, including Roger Corman's 'The Trip' and the Monkees' 'Head.' His last credited work as a writer was on 'Drive, He Said' in 1971, which he also directed.
While in the Philippines, he and Hellman began work on an ambitious script, somewhat autobiographical from Nicholson's point of view, which they took to Roger Corman upon their return; he'd expressed interest in working with both of them again. He declined to produce that script, because it dealt with abortion, and suggested that they instead make him a low-budget Western. And while they were at it, why not make two of them?
So in January of 1965, Nicholson did some research on the real Old West, hunkered down and rode 'Ride in the Whirlwind;' his spare script precisely matched Hellman's lean style, and the result is one of the most impressive low-budget Westerns ever made. It's quiet, understated and naturalistic; no heroics, no stereotypes, no clichés, it's a simple, straightforward story that could very easily have really happened. The poetry lies in how it is told.
The movie opens as a rag-tag band of outlaws -- usually called "owlhoots" in the movie -- holds up a stage, killing the driver. In town, a sheriff decides to set out in pursuit. Meanwhile, three cowboys, Otis (Tom Filer), Wes (Nicholson) and Vern (Cameron Mitchell), long-time friends, heading for Waco happen upon a hanged man (whose presence is never explained), and then ride on into a canyon where they meet Blind Dick (Stanton) and his gang. (A minor tribute to the filmmakers: one of the owlhoots is Rupert Crosse, who's black; no mention is made of this because that's the way it was in those days.) When Dick and the other outlaws realize the cowboys are just innocent passers-by, they give them some grub and invite them to bed down in the rope corral next to the small cabin.
In the morning, the sheriff and his posse surround the cabin; they don't know the three sleeping outside have nothing to do with the bandits, nor would they much care if they did know. They open fire and the bandits respond. Wes, Vern and Otis realize that no one's going to stop to listen to their pleas of innocence, but when they try to ride off, Otis is killed. (Side note for those who care: Filer's other significant film credits are as the writer of the original story of 'The Space Children' and the script of 'Beast with a Million Eyes.')
When they find themselves in a box canyon, the frightened Wes and Vern, who've never been in a situation like this, have to abandon their horses, and climb the mountain on foot. Eventually, they find their way to the isolated farm/ranch of Evan (George Mitchell), his wife Catherine (Katherine Squire), and their 18-year-old ("I reckon") daughter Abbie (Millie Perkins).
There's no final big confrontation, things just proceed realistically and tragically. No one deserves what happens to them, but it does anyway.
The commentary track features director Hellman, Millie Perkins and Dennis Bartok of the American Cinematheque, and though it's a bit spotty at first, settles into an excellent, informative and very warm chat about this movie, and low-budget filmmaking in general. For example, Hellman explains that they didn't have the money for any more than one brief dolly shot; their camera was mounted on a tripod, and they had little time -- so they shot every scene that needed to be shot from a given angle at the same time, even if the scenes were widely separated in the story.
The cinematography by Gregory Sandor is excellent, and was done under unusual conditions, which are sometimes indicated by Hellman on the commentary track. Excellent use is made of the Kanab, Utah scenery, with its red rocks and smooth, rounded purple-and-mauve hills. (Many of the same settings are visible in 'The Shooting,' the other low-budget Western made back-to-back with 'Ride in the Whirlwind.' It has also been released on DVD by VCI.)
The movie is authentic without being fussy about it, the way a big-budget "authentic" Western would be (like "Tombstone," for example). The clothes look realistic and lived-in -- even grimy in the case of the fugitives Wes and Vern. There are little echoes of older movies, including 'The Ox-Bow Incident' and 'Shane,' although it's hard to see anything from what Hellman cites as the film he and Nicholson were most influenced by, Marlon Brando's 'One Eyed Jacks.' The dialog is graced with some old-fashioned expressions (instead of "thanks" almost everyone says "'bliged" for "obliged"), but again, these are not highlighted, it's just the way these people talk.
There are small touches throughout that underscore the dusty authenticity of the movie. During the shootout between the posse and the outlaws, the lookout that Dick posted on the hills above quietly gets on his horse and rides away and out of the movie. Wes complains that his feet are in terrible shape from walking so much -- and you realize that cowboy boots are not those that were made for walking. While waiting for an opportunity to escape from the settlers' cabin, Wes and Vern play checkers.
The entire cast is very good, as low-key and realistic as the movie itself. Nicholson's own performance is probably his best between 'Cry-Baby Killer' and 'Easy Rider,' naturalistic and believable; he really is this wandering cowboy who's life has been nothing but everyday work. At one point, he says this is "the least work I done on a weekday since I was four, 'less I was sick."
Millie Perkins' comments on the track are especially interesting. She doesn't have a large role here, but it's clear she gave a great deal of intelligent thought to her character, about how she walks, how she regards the strangers who arrive unexpectedly. She's still very fond of somewhat dim-witted Abigail.
The DVD is outstanding, a beautiful presentation of a movie that never had an official theatrical release in the United States. The company that financed this and 'The Shooting' sold them directly to television, but when they were released in France, their quiet power impressed cinephiles, and Monte Hellman's reputation as one of the great unsung directors began. It continues today, since he still rarely gets work.
Hellman was responsible for the careful digital restoration of the film, which is presented in widescreen. The colors are rich but naturalistic, the print is crisp and blemish-free. It's undoubtedly never looked or sounded this good before. The sound is mono, of course, nothing to show off your home theater system, but it's well-done. The only real flaw is Robert Drasnin's droning, conventional score, and even that might have sounded fine if they'd been able to afford a larger orchestra.
In addition to the commentary track, the extras include a fairly brief but intelligent review by Quentin Tarantino, some photos (which I was unable to access), and some biographies. In addition to the leads and Hellman, these also cover cinematographer Sandor and assistant director Gary Kurtz -- who later produced 'Star Wars.'
Don't expect an exciting shoot-'em-up or a sharp, wise-guy Nicholson performance; 'Ride in the Whirlwind' is a smaller film than that but, on its own modest level, damned near perfect.