Here we enter the altar space of American totemology through the side gate, when no one’s looking, after grandeur and money and heroic individualism have wafted away with the night smoke and left only questions. Monte Hellman’s mitotic microwesterns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind don’t define their era—which barely saw them—so much as manifest a broader existential modernity rivaled only by Antonioni’s in the same decade. Famously, they were both shot in 1965. Hellman, who’d toiled intermittently in the Roger Corman–verse, had recently finished making two tiny back-to-back thrillers with Jack Nicholson in the Philippines for Robert Lippert and was scrounging for work when Corman suggested he and Nicholson drop the proposed abortion drama Nicholson had written, head out into the Utah desert, and make not one low-budget western but two. Carole Eastman wrote the first (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce), Nicholson wrote the second, and total production time amounted to six weeks.
In these movies, though, there’s no sense of urgency—just an air of private apocalypse. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could hardly be more mythic in their gritty, elliptical unmythness. That is to say, as with all myth materials that matter, the films’ mysterious sense of doomed ritual and palpable anxiety about landscape are as physically real and familiar to us as the wind of an approaching storm. What’s realistic—syntactically and behaviorally as well as visually—becomes indistinguishable from what is anagogic. You look hard enough at these masterpieces, as you should at Hellman’s next film, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), at their circular paths and roads to nowhere, and you see an abrupt, parabolic sensibility so expressive of basic existential identity and destination dilemmas that every image, every pensive beat, has the poignant, needy ache of a child fruitlessly asking about God.
Famously as well, Hellman was a Beckettian, and had already staged Waiting for Godot as a western in L.A., while working odd jobs on the industry fringes during the fifties, before ever having made a film of any kind. The elision reflex is at work everywhere in these films, down to the forfeiture of transitions between scenes in favor of ka-thunk jump cuts. The stories, intentionally simple and restricted to frontier wandering (these are westerns without populations, lawmen, commerce, or railroads), are only about survival, in the face of vengeance and a little greed and a stony, wind-sculpted mountain desert zone as unforgiving as an uncolonized moon. (Glen Canyon, near Kanab, Utah, and so evocative of Wile E. Coyote’s American wasteland, became Lake Powell, the United States’ second-biggest man-made lake, after the dam on the Colorado River was completed in 1966, the same year Hellman’s films were released, which means that all of their locations have been under several hundred feet of water ever since. Think on that: this is the West we’ve drowned.) But the narratives here absolutely share Antonioni’s philosophical ambiguities—in being either out-and-out mysterious (The Shooting) or so run through with ellipses and known unknowns and pointless struggle (Whirlwind) that the stress of the story has more to do with existence than circumstance.
Both films open in medias res—something has just happened. In The Shooting, it’s with a close shot of a horse hearing something in the hills, and his rider, Warren Oates’s Gashade, picking up on the paranoia down by a stream. But nothing appears, not yet. This crepuscular odyssey is all shadow and unseen quantities and questions with answers that don’t help. Gashade returns to his compatriots’ makeshift mining camp to find one still standing—Coley (Will Hutchins), a blathering boy-man not sure of what happened except that a third partner, Leland Drum (B. J. Merholz), was shot dead, from somewhere, as he sat by the fire. The fourth, a flip side of a man named Coigne and apparently Gashade’s brother, had already hightailed it into the desert before that. The vaguely recounted trigger event was some incident involving Drum, Coigne, and a skirmish in town that may’ve resulted in the killing of a child; Coley’s terrified babble is not only secondhand and unreliable but delivered in an uneducated argot only Gashade can fully understand. Already wary, the older poke knows the story’s not through: “Somethin’s comin’,” he says, an ear to the wind.
Soon enough, the two are joined by two others, Godot-ishly but not quite: first, an unnamed woman (Millie Perkins) with a pouch of money, insisting, with cash, that Gashade and Coley show her the way across the desert “to Kingsley”—which is, we’re gradually led to assume, also the direction Coigne may’ve headed—and, later, a tightly leather-bound gunslinger named Billy Spear (Nicholson), who shows up in response to a misfired gunshot cue from the icy and manipulative woman. Of course, he’s been offscreen since the moment the film began, setting Gashade’s horse aquiver. Who these people are, what they really want, what they might have to do with the earlier offscreen incident—these are all unspoken mysteries, and all potentially mutable, their essence evolving as time passes, and as Oates’s trepidatious middleman perceives what may be the reality of what’s happening.
Which we’re never sure of—nothing is explicated in dialogue, as Coley is sent off into the desert alone, the horses start dying, and the remaining trio march through the arid barrens like characters in search of an author but find only death in the wilderness. In the end, the film itself breaks down in an entropic fracturing of time and perspective, step printing a visual descent into not knowing, as we catch up with Coigne (also Oates), the doppelga?ngerishness of whom, along with Gashade’s stunned reaction, leaves us to wonder whether, as with Bergman’s Persona (released the same year), the whole experience hasn’t been an interior struggle somehow, a particle-in-two-places-at-once bipolarity reflected with brute angst onto the endless western no-man’s-land. Critic Chuck Stephens has characterized the film’s ending as “Zapruderized, quantum,” the climactic violence “analyzed until it atomized, scrutinized until it scrambled.” The idea of physical breakdown was extended by Hellman in Two-Lane Blacktop’s famous ending, where the film melts in the projector, essentially because we’re watching. Our omniscience vanishes with the fragility of the plastic image itself.
Ride in the Whirlwind’s opening is also abrupt and reactive: we’re close behind two scalawag outlaws high on a hill, watching for a sign—a coach is coming through. But there’s no hurry here, either—Harry Dean Stanton’s weasel even stops to piss before they rejoin their gang, and after they roll the coach, amid sputterings of mumbled dialogue and fallen bodies, and send it off into the middle of nowhere at all, the group lollygags; no law is coming anytime soon. Only then do the credits drift up. The film is at once the more conventional of the diptych and the one with a biblical title (see Proverbs’ “When your dread comes like a storm / And your calamity comes like a whirlwind,” or Job’s waiting for God in the whirlwind, among other passages) that deftly secures the connective tissue between the mythic nature of the traditional western, the fearsome desolation of ancient human life, and the godlessness of the contemporary world. The genre equipment may be familiar, but Hellman’s sensibility constantly threatens to tip us over—cutting, ka-thunk, from an almost abstract close-up of the coach’s horses to three new characters, traveling cowhands Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, and the writer Tom Filer (in his only acting role), semi-lost in the outlands on their way to Waco, Texas, and coming upon a lynched corpse, prompting this lean, Cormac McCarthy–esque exchange: “. . . Two, three days.” “Yeah. Ain’t no country to set a foot.”
Nicholson reportedly thieved the film’s ringing language from vintage dime novels, and to great effect, since there are three times as many characters and thus three times as many mouths delivering the story as in The Shooting; the minutiae-focused dialogue is filthy with laconic ellipses and pungent abbreviations. “Less work I done on a weekday since I was four,” Nicholson’s frustrated everyman grumbles after being holed up by the heedless posse hunting down the coach thieves. “Lest I was sick.” Earlier, one outlaw assures another, of the three interlopers looking to camp the night, “They ain’t no trouble, goin’ to Waco’s all they are.” The movie rather smoothly pits four complex quantities against one another: the two packs of weary, suspicious men, one felonious, the other innocent; the unregulated lynch mob bearing down; and a stern homesteader’s family, with the bitter, half-lidded, almost-mute weirdo Millie Perkins as the hot frontier daughter everyone assumes everyone wants.
They don’t—just as the outlaws (including Shadows’ Rupert Crosse) live in a real world of consequences and vary in their agendas, the three guileless rubes caught in the cross fire, forced to become horse thieves and hostage takers to evade the posse that has mistaken them for members of the gang, all behave like real people with consciences, not western types. Texturally, in this film and in The Shooting, the crisp, semi-articulate dialogue and watchful performances, powerfully communicating a different era from the one we know, are vital to the startling terrain claimed between realist conviction and metaphoric torque, but Hellman’s visual agenda is just as distinctive. He was effectively reinventing the western, not simply complementing its classic topoi with menopausal seasoning and a knowledge of pathology, as Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann had done, or further symphonicizing it with hyperbolic, balletic gore and fatalistic sentiment, a? la Sam Peckinpah. Hellman’s De Chirico–like compositions, unorthodox framing, abrupt contrasts between pregnant close-ups and vast, patient long shots sans dialogue (the thieves’ struggling capture and lynching in Whirlwind are virtually silent), the tactile relationship the characters have to the ominous topography around them—all told, it’s a visionary strategy, and it’s where the antiwestern, as a modernist commentary on and inversion of this most simplistic of all-American genres, was truly born.
“In the fight between you and the world,” Kafka wrote in The Zu?rau Aphorisms, “back the world.” We’re all alone. Existentialism may’ve begun as the woeful irony of godlessness, but for philosophers like Sartre, it found fashion in the mid-twentieth century as a boosterish kind of libertarian humanism. For artists and writers, though, the desolate inner terrain and lonesome metaphors were what contemporary life was really all about, give or take a trend or a technology, and the bleak light of that notion still burns, and may be our deathless birthright. For Hellman, the American project, exemplified by the wanderings of the western expansion and its mythopoeic thrust, was authentically a matter of Godot-waiting—searching for a mirage and lost on the edge of the abyss. (The appalled innocence of these westerns turned into modern catatonia in Two-Lane Blacktop.) Rarely, before 1966, had American movies, much less low-budget indies, so holistically conjoined their forms with their thematic substance, or done it with so little bullshit.
This modest double bill also almost got lost. After a splashless debut at the nine-year-old San Francisco International Film Festival and appearances at other festivals, no American distributor, in those free-flying days of speedy Corman trash and drive-in fodder and Ray Dennis Steckler, would take on Hellman’s Camusian deuce. Not even Corman could make money from them. Time passed, and only in 1968 did low-budget fringe distributor Walter Reade Jr. buy them, sending them straight to television syndication. According to Hellman, The Shooting had a long and beloved run in Paris some time after that, but otherwise, in the U.S., the two movies entered the vast slipstream of forgotten and mostly unseen and rediscoverable cinema, bobbing up every now and then on some local TV station late at night, and then more frequently as Nicholson became famous. Throughout the heyday of VHS home video in the eighties and beyond, they were available only in crummy public-domain copies ripped from neglected TV prints.
It’s a strange story, given the films’ confidence and arresting ingenuity, not to mention the casts’ nascent star power. But it also suits their air of terminal edge-of-civilization aloneness, just as many Beckett texts—Waiting for Godot and the novels, of course, but I’m thinking mostly of the chilling BBC short version of Ghost Trio, from 1977—seem not to be works of mass culture but solitary blasts of despair, intended only for the void. The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind could both be set on a post-Armageddon plain, and their characters could be the last people on earth. But they’re westerns. Our absurd lostness, like most things, is what it was and will be.