If you haven’t yet come to understand what makes Monte Hellman the American New Wave’s most beloved auteur maudit, now’s the winter of your impending contentment. Fresh on the heels of Anchor Bay’s release on tape and DVD of Hellman’s chilly, Bresson-on-the-fire-roads masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop comes VCI Home Video’s overdue restoration and optimum transfer of his legend-making westerns Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. Shot together for Roger Corman in 1966 with scripts by Jack Nicholson and Carol Eastman, the two movies reimagine the western—heretofore a prairie-justice debate squad arena, black vs. white refereed by gray—as ultraphysical, authentic no-exit existentialism. In that, Hellman trumped Peckinpah, Boetticher, and Mann. Cheap programmers or not, these are genre movies whose every image and word reverbs between Beckettian desolation (according to a must-read survey on Hellman by Chuck Stephens in the March-April ’00 Film Comment, Roger Corman lost money on the staging of Waiting for Godot that Hellman had fashioned into a western) and you-are-there frontier windburn.
As a result, they were shipped off to Europe, and neither film was released or even copyrighted in this country until the ’70s, when Nicholson’s star had ascended. If Whirlwind is the lesser of the two, it may be because Cameron Mitchell is no Warren Oates, and the cornered-dog story line (Nicholson’s, in which wrong-man cowhands are stalked by a posse) is burdened by conventional chords. But the patois and tangible grit are startlingly convincing, and the sense of rat-maze doom unforgettable.
The real world-beater, The Shooting takes the promise of mythic nihilism all the way to the cliff edge; if Hemingway and Camus had decided to spend a week in Utah making a western, this is what they’d have come back with. Oates as a hardscrabble trailsman, Nicholson as a serpentine assassin, Millie Perkins as a hateful, moneyed Eastern bitch with Penélope Cruz eyes, and Will Hutchins as the blathering innocent earmarked for brutality (not unlike Keith Carradine in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, five years down the road)—four figures running headlong into a hall of mirrors amid the most intimate and lyrical use of landscape in the history of the genre.