Ride in the Whirlwind

The Shooting
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Carole Eastman
Stars: Warren Oates (Willett Gashade), Will Hutchins (Coley Boyard), Millie Perkins (Woman), Jack Nicholson (Billy Spear), Charles Eastman (Bearded man), Guy El Tsosie (Indian at Cross Tree), Brandon Carroll (Sheriff), B.J. Merholz (Leland Drum), Wally Moon (Deputy)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: U.S.
Ride in the Whirlwind
Director: Monte Hellman
Screenplay: Jack Nicholson
Stars: Cameron Mitchell (Vern), Jack Nicholson (Wes), Millie Perkins (Abigail), Katherine Squire (Catherine), George Mitchell (Evan), Rupert Crosse (Indian Joe), Harry Dean Stanton (Blind Dick), John Hackett (Winslow), Tom Filer (Otis), B.J. Merholz (Edgar), Brandon Carroll (Quint Mapes), Peter Cannon (Hagerman), William A. Keller (Roy)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: U.S.
The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Just a few months after the release of his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino wrote an essay for the British film magazine Sight & Sound in which he tasked himself with determining “the five greatest Western directors of all time,” an issue he immediately problematized by asking what, exactly, makes one a “Western director?” “Does one film do it?” he asks, citing Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961) as an example. Interestingly, Tarantino never actually gets around to creating the list, although he drops a number of well-regarded names in the opening paragraph, including Sam Peckinpah, King Vidor, Henry Hathaway, and Philip Kauffman.

Instead, his essay turns by the second paragraph into a lengthy appreciation of Monte Hellman and, in particular, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, two esoteric mid-’60s Westerns Hellman shot back-to-back for independent producer Roger Corman. At the time Tarantino was writing, the films had been largely forgotten, as neither had been given a significant theatrical release in the U.S., and they had survived only on sporadic late-night television airings and in cheap public-domain home video copies. Even though Hellman is not thought of as a “Western director,” Tarantino makes the case that these two films (the latter of which Tarantino prefers even though he concedes that most critics agree the former to be the masterpiece of the two) should be considered among the pantheon of great Westerns and, therefore, Hellman has to be included on any list of great Western directors.

It’s hard to argue with Tarantino’s logic, as both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, which were shot with overlapping cast and crews in Kanab, Utah over a six-week period in 1965, both reify and redefine the most iconic aspects of the fabled Western genre, turning certain conventions inside out while still maintaining a sense of mythic grandeur that is made all the more mysterious when Hellman filters it through the aesthetic conventions of European art cinema. The Shooting, in particular, feels like an B-movie oater fed through the sensibilities of Michelangelo Antonioni or Ingmar Bergman, although there is something distinctly American about it, as well. Hellman, who got his start directing cheap horror films for Corman and would go on to helm the generation-defining cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) a few years later, had a way with drawing out time and space, in the process remaking the familiar into something slightly abstract, but never unreachable. While some art films sink into their own metaphysical haze, Hellman keeps these Westerns engaging even as they flaunt convention and refuse to supply the kind of easy answers that made the genre such a robust hit during the golden age of Hollywood cinema.

With multiple viewings of each film, I feel myself drawn toward the critical consensus that The Shooting is the superior film of the two, if only because it feels so distinct in its uniqueness. I’ve seen a lot of Westerns and a lot of art films, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the two merged in such a compelling fashion, and it’s something of a miracle that Hellman managed to get Corman to finance the production (according to Tarantino, Corman hated the script but greenlit it anyway because it was ready to go and could be made so cheaply). Both films were co-produced by rising star Jack Nicholson, who has a starring role in each and wrote the script for Ride in the Whirlwind. Nicholson and Hellman had already proved themselves to be a productive team, having collaborated on two low-budget action films set in the Philippines, Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell (both 1964), for casting-director-turned-producer Fred Roos, who went on to produce virtually all of Francis Ford Coppola’s films since The Conversation (1974).

The ShootingThe Shooting, which was scripted by Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, centers on a trio of characters that eventually grows into a quartet. The protagonist is Will Gashade (Warren Oates), a stoic former bounty hunter who is now trying to make a living as a miner. When he returns to his small mining operation, he discovers that one of his partners has been shot dead in his absence, leaving only Coley Boyard (Will Hutchins), a rather awkward and cowardly young man to explain what happened. A mysterious young woman (Millie Perkins) with flinty eyes and a dirty face later shows up and hires them to lead her ... somewhere. She tells them one story, but it eventually becomes obvious that she is tracking someone and using Will as her guide. Halfway through the journey they are joined unexpectedly by Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), a vicious gun-for-hire who rarely speaks, and when he does, it usually carries some kind of threat of death.

Hellman and cinematographer Gregory Sandor work genuine magic with light and dust, which makes the film’s imagery both painterly in its raw beauty and oppressive in its depiction of heat and desiccation (at times the film feels visually more like a moody postapocalyptic thriller than a Western). Sandor’s work here rivals some of the greatest cinematographers of the era, including Nestor Almendros and Vilmos Zsigmond, and it’s a shame that he never broke out of the low-budget exploitation ghetto, (his most prominent works after his collaboration of Hellman was Brian De Palma’s Sisters in 1973). Nevertheless, he and Hellman display an almost virtuosic knack for landscape, as the arid Utah desert becomes its own tyrannical character, beating down human and animal alike and turning the journey into an arduous slog that becomes very nearly mythic in its physicality alone.

The acting, in this regard, is crucial as well, as the characters, however radically different in temperament and intent, are eventually drawn together by their exhaustion and dehydration. Oates conveys a sense of world-weary resignation (one of his specialties), which contrasts with Hutchins’s boyish goofiness (one of the film’s greatest shots is also one of the funniest, with the camera tracking around Oates as he sits perfectly still after hearing a gunshot while Hutchins awkwardly sprints up the hill behind him, trailing a cloud of flour from a torn bag; it’s a visual gag worthy of the greatest silent comedians). Perkins, who was still trying to break free from her career-defining role as the title character in George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), has an indelible sharpness that makes her character both malicious and intriguing. Her lack of a name is drowned by her intensity and relentless pursuit of whomever it is she is pursuing, a questions that is more or less answered at the end, but not in a way that is conventional or expected. And, finally, there’s Nicholson, who doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie, yet leaves an indelible impression of soulless professionalism. Nicholson was still considered a supporting character actor at the time, his resume filled primarily with Corman-produced cheapies, but it isn’t hard to see that he was already a star just waiting for his break.

Ride in the WhirlwindNicholson has a much different and much more prominent role in Ride in the Whirlwind, which shares with The Shooting a sense of existential dread even though it replaces that film’s narrative ambiguity with a more conventional plot and sense of historical realism. If The Shooting feels like a fever dream or a fable, Ride in the Whirlwind feels like an ironic morality play, with a small group of characters fighting for their lives after being inadvertently caught between two opposing forces. That one of those forces is on the side of the law and the other is decidedly lawless does nothing to reinforce easy concepts of good and evil, as both groups are vicious and relentless, which connects the film thematically with The Shooting. Like the landscape itself, the characters know only their own sense of survival and justice.

Nicholson plays Wes, one of three cowhands on their way to Waco when they come across a group of bandits holed up in a small cabin in the mountains. We’ve already seen the bandits at work robbing a stagecoach in the film’s pre-credits sequence, although the laconic manner in which they go about their crime suggests that Hellman is again working in a different register than we’re typically accustomed in a Western. The bandits are led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), who recognizes that the cowhands are no threat to them and invites them to stay the night just outside the cabin.

The next morning the cabin is besieged by a posse, and because Wes and the others are nearby, they are assumed to be part of the gang, all of whom are to be either shot or hanged. Wes and another cowhand named Vern (veteran B-movie and television actor Cameron Mitchell) manage to escape into the mountains, but the posse continues to track them, setting up a game of cat and mouse that eventually winds its way to a small homestead that Wes and Vern forcibly make into their hideout. A significant portion of the film is spent with the rather despondent family there, which includes the gruff patriarch Evan (George Mitchell), the always patient mother and wife Catherine (Katherine Squire), and the shy teenage daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins). Not a whole lot happens in the conventional plot sense, but Hellman keeps the tension high by always reminding us of the posse’s search and the grim irony that these otherwise innocent men could be hanged for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Again lensed by Sandor, Ride in the Whirlwind is a beautiful-looking film, and unlike The Shooting, it contains more conventional action setpieces, especially when the posse lays siege to the cabin in the woods. Hellman keeps the action taut, with a great deal of emphasis put on the physical realities of having bullets shot at you in the unforgiving wilderness. Nicholson and Mitchell convey a sense of both desperation and frustration, as their lives are being put on the line through no fault of their own and they are being forced to behave like the criminals they are assumed to be in order to stay alive. Their performances are also shot through with genuine sorrow about the loss of their friend, which helps humanize what could otherwise be overly simplified characters. The dialogue is often sparse, but it always conveys just the right emotional tenor, even when we don’t fully understand the jargon (Nicholson apparently spent a great deal of time research the period through journal entries and letters).

Despite the fact that they fell under the mass cultural radar for so long, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are nevertheless crucial films of their era, evidence of how creative artists working with a bare minimum of resources and support could create indelible works whose impact have faded not a bit over the ensuing decades. They remain beautiful, compelling, sorrowful, enigmatic, and endlessly fascinating. Watching them now, especially back to back, provides a jolt, a stark reminder of a different era in Hollywood film history when striking young talents like Hellman and Nicholson were just emerging from the crumbling remains of the old studio system, eager and willing to put their stamp on American cinema by both celebrating and deconstructing the cinema of their youth.

The Shooting / Ride in the Whirlwind Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 (both films)
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (both films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentaries on both films, featuring director Monte Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas
  • Video interview with producer Roger Corman
  • Video interview with actors John Hackett and B. J. Merholz
  • Video interview with actress Millie Perkins
  • Video interview with actor Harry Dean Stanton
  • Video interview with assistant director Gary Kurtz
  • Video interview with chief wrangler Calvin Johnson
  • Conversation between actor Will Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin
  • New video appreciation of actor Warren Oates by critic Kim Morgan
  • Essay by critic Michael Atkinson
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 11, 2014

    Given that the films were barely seen in theatrical distribution outside of a few film festivals in 1966 and have languished on late-night television and unwatchable public domain video copies, there is no doubt that Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation of The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind is the best these films have looked since Nixon was President. Both films were transferred under the supervision of director Monte Hellman from the original camera negatives and digitally restored in 4K, and they look amazing. Given their low budgets, I imagine that the film stock used was not of the highest quality, which is why both films have such a thick, grainy texture, which to my eye works perfectly with their tones and themes. Gregory Sandor’s impressive cinematography, much of which uses natural light and captures the ethereal essence of magic hour, is beautifully rendered with excellent color and contrast. The Shooting, in particular, is dominated by gray and brown and reddish earth tones, but there are moments of brilliant color, such as a dusty ride-into-the-sunset shot that may be my favorite image from any Western ever. There are such moments in each film that make you want to just pause the player and admire. The monaural soundtracks were transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks and digitally restored, leaving the audio clean and clear.
    Monte Hellman is involved in virtually every supplement included on the disc, and one gets the feeling that the thoroughness of this edition is his attempt to make up for the films’ having been marginalized for so long. Each film boasts an audio commentary in which Hellman discusses the production with film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas. Both commentaries are extremely informative and brimming with attention to detail and historical anecdotes that further enhance one’s appreciation of the films. In addition to the commentaries, Hellman appears in six separate video interviews with people involved in the production of one or both films: producer Roger Corman (6 min.), actors John Hackett and B. J. Merholz (17 min.), actress Millie Perkins (16 min.), actor Harry Dean Stanton (3 min.), assistant director Gary Kurtz (18 min.), and chief wrangler Calvin Johnson (17 min.). The only supplements that don’t feature Hellman are a 15-minute video conversation between actor Will Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin and a 14-minute video appreciation of actor Warren Oates by critic Kim Morgan.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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