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Monte Hellman’s Sly Humor and Existential Dread

The Daily — Apr 22, 2021
Monte Hellman

In 1965, Monte Hellman took a cast and crew to a desert in Utah and shot two westerns back to back. With The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman introduced an existential dread and a Beckettian sense of the absurd to the quintessential American genre. A few years later, Hellman made Two-Lane Blacktop, which as William Grimes points out in the New York Times, “has been called the ultimate American road film.” But recognition for Hellman, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of ninety-one, rarely extended beyond cult favorite status until 2010, when he received a Special Lion for his body of work in Venice. He’d come to the festival with the first feature he’d been able to complete in over twenty years, Road to Nowhere, an enigmatic neo-noir about the making of a thriller. “It’s my favorite genre,” Hellman told Fernando F. Croce in Slant the following year. “If I could, I would do nothing but film noir.”

Monte Jay Himmelman was born in New York, and when he was five, the family moved out to Los Angeles. He studied drama at Stanford, then film at UCLA, but in 1955, before completing his second degree, he took a job as an editor at ABC Studios. In his free time, he founded the Theatergoers Company and staged the Los Angeles premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—as a western. Brad Stevens, the author of Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, quotes Hellman in his tribute for Sight & Sound: “I think there is a little of Beckett in everything I have done.”

The production of Waiting for Godot was financed in part by the indefatigable producer Roger Corman, who encouraged Hellman to try his hand at directing a film. When Corman headed to Deadwood, South Dakota, to shoot Ski Troop Attack, he lent his cast and crew to his brother, Gene Corman, who oversaw Hellman’s first feature, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959), the story of a band thieves fleeing a spidery monster. Writing at his own site, Croce notes the contrast “between the existentialism of Monte Hellman’s direction and the cartooning of Charles B. Griffith’s screenplay,” and “the setting gives the filmmaker the edge—snowy South Dakota slopes stand in admirably for the void of human struggle.”

Corman’s stable of budding directors already included Francis Ford Coppola, and it would eventually expand to take in Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, and Joe Dante. In Hellman, Corman “recognized a kindred spirit,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “Together they fueled each other.” Hellman once told Kent Jones that shooting extra scenes for Corman productions to draw out their running times so that they could be sold to television “was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.”

While editing The Wild Ride (1960) and directing a few sequences for The Terror (1963), Hellman became friends with Jack Nicholson, and in 1964, producers Fred Roos and Robert Lippert sent the pair to the Philippines to shoot Hellman’s next two features. Nicholson had written Flight to Fury, a stolen-jewels thriller, and Back Door to Hell featured Nicholson as one of three soldiers who team up with guerrillas fighting the Japanese during the Second World War. For Hellman, shooting and editing two movies at once made for a tough year. He described his daily routine to Tafoya: “Get up at five a.m., have breakfast, sleep while being driven to the set from six to seven, shoot until six p.m., sleep while being driven home from six to seven, have dinner, edit from nine p.m. to two a.m., sleep from two to five. Repeat.” And then typhus put him in the hospital for three weeks.

But the following year, Hellman and Nicholson were eager to head out to Utah. When they pitched Ride in the Whirlwind, Corman, ever one to squeeze as many bangs out of as few bucks as possible, told them that if they were going to shoot one western out there, they might as well shoot two. Nicholson had already written the screenplay for Whirlwind, so they turned to Carole Eastman, who would write Five Easy Pieces a few years later, for a second story. The Shooting tracks a bounty hunter (Warren Oates), his sidekick (Will Hutchins), a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins), and an oddly threatening drifter (Nicholson) into the desert, and as Quentin Tarantino wrote for Sight & Sound in 1993, it’s “widely considered the masterpiece of the two.”

But for Tarantino, who’d had Hellman on board Reservoir Dogs (1992) as an executive producer, “it’s the simplicity, the naturalistic tone, the awkward-sounding (because it’s so authentic) cowboy vernacular, the feeling of sadness that’s between every line, the burst of ridiculous comic moments, the beautiful underplaying of Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell, all wrapped up in a wing-ding plot, that make Ride in the Whirlwind one of the most authentic and brilliant westerns ever made.”

With these two films, Hellman “was effectively reinventing the western,” writes Michael Atkinson in the essay accompanying our release. “Hellman’s De Chirico–like compositions, unorthodox framing, abrupt contrasts between pregnant close-ups and vast, patient long shots sans dialogue, 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.”

And yet neither of them was picked up for theatrical distribution in the U.S. Instead, they were tossed into a package sold to television broadcasters, which, over time, led to their rediscovery as Nicholson’s career began to take off. And both films were hits in France. In 1969, The Shooting played in theaters in Paris for a solid year, and Whirlwind screened for six months. “At that time in Hollywood, there was a kind of aura about being a celebrity in France,” Hellman told an audience in Los Angeles in 2006. “So suddenly, I was besieged with offers. I had about ten minutes of celebrity.”

Another celebrity of the moment, James Taylor, released his second hit album, Sweet Baby James, early in 1970, and when Hellman saw the singer-songwriter’s face on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard, he knew he had to cast him as The Driver in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). With The Mechanic (Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) and The Girl (Laurie Bird), Taylor’s Driver races a ’55 Chevy across the American West. “The Girl loves The Driver,” Hellman said in an interview included in a paperback tie-in. “The Mechanic loves The Girl and The Driver and he can’t decide between them and can’t accept his love for either. And The Driver wants to love The Girl but can’t.”

All three first-time actors “stay off-kilter but fresh, maintaining a Bressonian early-morning clarity,” as Kent Jones phrases it, and along the way, they meet a “nameless would-be hipster” played by Warren Oates and referred to simply as GTO, a reference to his Pontiac muscle car. For the screenplay, Hellman turned to novelist Rudy Wurlitzer because, as the Los Angeles TimesMark Olsen quotes him as saying, Wurlitzer “was interested in the same things I was: Man’s relationship to the universe as opposed to man’s relationship to society. The beauty and the horror of existence—how’s that! I guess ‘beauty and terror’ is better. Anyway, the existential dilemma.”

Esquire published the entire screenplay in its April 1971 issue, announcing on the cover that Two-Lane Blacktop was the magazine’s “nomination for the movie of the year.” But Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal, took a deep personal disliking to the movie and refused to promote it when it opened on the Fourth of July weekend. Again, though, Hellman’s movie was a hit in France, championed by the likes of Bertrand Tavernier and critic Antoine de Baecque, who wrote: “Sobriety is brought to its rudest completion and the quality of the silences is incomparable. Cinema as the supreme art of ‘almost nothing.’”

Hellman reteamed with Warren Oates on his next two features. In Cockfighter (1974), “probably the most underrated work by Monte Hellman,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum has suggested, Oates “wrings more from his silent performance than many actors could manage from a sheaf of Shaw and Wilde,” wrote Keith Phipps at the A.V. Club in 2002. “Roger Corman chose to bring pulp master Charles Willeford's novel Cockfighter to the screen because it exploited a sport whose worldwide popularity nearly matched its notoriety. What he got instead (as happened remarkably often with directors used to working the margins) was an off-kilter, unforgettable art film created from equal parts celluloid, philosophy, and blood.” China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) is a western shot in Spain and Italy by the late Giuseppe Rotunno, and it features a rare onscreen appearance from Sam Peckinpah.

Ten years went by before Hellman directed another cult favorite, Iguana (1988), set in the early nineteenth century and starring Everett McGill as Oberlus, a disfigured harpooner on a whaling ship. “Hellman initially envisioned the film as a take on The Phantom of the Opera, with Oberlus as the repulsive but pitiable creature who declares revenge on the world that ostracized him,” wrote Jake Cole for Slant in 2014. “But the finished product is something altogether stranger and harder to pin down, less a portrait than a panorama of madness.” The following year, Hellman took on Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!, a slasher movie dismissed by most critics. But in 2008, Hellman told an audience in Austin that, while it may not be his best movie, “I did my best work” on this franchise entry.

Perhaps more than most directors, Hellman talked openly throughout his career about the projects he worked on that were never seen through to completion. In the 1970s, he was working on an adaptation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La maison de rendez-vous when the producer pulled the plug. He was lined up for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) but was replaced by Sam Peckinpah. In the 1990s, he worked with Tarantino on an Elmore Leonard adaptation, Freaky Deaky, and with Coppola on a project that never got past the writing stage. He was set to direct Buffalo ’66 (1998) before Vincent Gallo took over. Even after Road to Nowhere, he was telling Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the Notebook about his hopes to make two more films, “a supernatural, ticking-clock time-bomb romantic thriller” and a fresh take on Obsession, the crime novel by Lionel White that Jean-Luc Godard had turned into Pierrot le fou (1965).

By the 2000s, Melissa Hellman, the director’s daughter, was determined to see a project through. She teamed up with screenwriter Steven Gaydos to coproduce Road to Nowhere, “a dazzling puzzle of a film,” as Adrian Martin wrote in 2012, “impossible to understand in one (or even several) viewings, and disquieting in virtually all its superbly realized details—but not without that dry, sardonic humor that has always been the director’s trademark. Oddly enough, it also returns Hellman to the kind of dark, existential vision of human folly that first peeked out amidst the cheap sets and fake-looking monsters of Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)—a vision of the world that is not exactly radically political (in the way his champions sometimes claim), but which certainly serves to puncture many sentimental, humanist illusions in a salutary fashion.”

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