tom moody

monte hellman quest

Monte Hellman teaches film at Cal Arts when he's not making movies, which is often, through no fault of his own. Or perhaps it is his fault, if sticking to safe subjects is considered a virtue. From a 1988 interview:

Kris Gilpin: After Easy Rider, the industry was selling Two-Lane [Blacktop] as the second coming, what with the screenplay publication in Esquire and all. Do you think it was a case of over-hype which caused its initial “failure” at the box office?

Monte Hellman: No, it was a case of a different philosophy. I think Easy Rider was a film which was not offensive to the status quo because what it put down was a part of the status quo that everybody condemned. It wasn’t critical of the way studio executives live their lives; it was critical of Southern bigots, so everybody could get behind that. Two-Lane Blacktop was critical of middle-class morality – for want of a better term – it was critical of the way the average person lived his life, and the studio executives were offended by it, and they killed the film. It didn’t die a natural death, it was murder.

Anti-bourgeois themes, socially unacceptable subject matter (e.g., cockfighting), willingness to sign onto crap projects to "keep working" (while at the same time struggling for authorial control), inspires a corpus that's both intriguing and tragic, a de facto avant garde variation of a "directorial career" in a hugely dysfunctional system.

Hellman is known principally for Two Lane Blacktop and, even after it was "murdered" by the suits, it was slow to be recognized in the VHS/DVD era because the copyrights to certain songs kept it out of circulation. Other projects have bubbled to the fore from various rights and production hells (hmm, "Hell-man"), so that a picture emerges of an auteur who didn't deserve his fate, regardless of whatever "attitude" he may have had, especially when a total hack such as Steven Spielberg gets to indulge every crappy cinematic whim. Below is the Wikipedians' raggedy compilation of Hellman's work, with one consumer's viewings (mine) being updated in bold.

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) [uncredited post-production footage; for some reason the Wikipedians omitted this film while including other second-unit-type work by Hellman --tm]
The Terror (1963) (uncredited; with Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, and Jack Nicholson) [Hellman says: "I made the last version of the movie; there’d been several versions before but I made the one that finally got released." --tm]
Back Door to Hell (1964)
Flight to Fury (1964)
The Shooting (1966)
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) [some thoughts on Shooting and Ride are here --tm]
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Cockfighter (1974)
The Greatest (1977) [uncredited; post-production "doctoring" after director Tom Gries died --tm]
China 9, Liberty 37 (1978)
Inside the Coppola Personality (1981) (short)
RoboCop (1987) (uncredited second unit director) He directed several action scenes.
Iguana (1988)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)
Reservoir Dogs (1992) (executive producer only)
Trapped Ashes (2006) (segment "Stanley's Girlfriend")
Road to Nowhere (2010)

Road to Nowhere joins the films-about-films canon that includes Irma Vep, Mulholland Drive, Living in Oblivion, and Shadow of the Vampire, with its own brand of angst stemming from Hellman's fifty years' personal experience with snafus, compromises, and unfinished projects. The somewhat lame actor who plays the "inner" film's director is of a piece with Hellman's checkered career; in fact, almost any flaw could be said to be intentional, feeding back into the continuum of low budget reality that Hellman massages into fine art. Shot when Hellman was 78 years of age, Road makes an excellent career bookend to his first film, Beast from Haunted Cave, a horror cheapie where the characters wax philosophical on themes of compromise and life-accomodation (the costs and benefits of gangster molldom, urban rapacity vs. the self-employed life in a South Dakota cabin) while being stalked across the Badlands by a giant hairy cobweb creature.

Update: Am*zon has a terrible print of Cockfighter that appears to have been rendered from an old VHS tape. This fits the subject matter, a Southern almost-mockumentary depicting an activity that is currently a felony in 33 states. Hellman names it the least favorite of his films, not because of the bloodsport but because Roger Corman didn't give him enough time to rework the script completely.

Update 2: More bookends: The Terror and Stanley's Girlfriend each feature a supernatural femme fatale and a pair of men attracted to her against their better judgment.

Update 3: Another sexual triangle occurs in China 9, Liberty 37. The numbers refer to mileages on a directional road sign in the old (Spaghetti) west, not a sports score. Handsome gunfighter Fabio Testi vies with grizzled homesteader Warren Oates for the affections of Jenny (Logan's Run) Agutter. Very engaging story and moving (pun intended) ending. Music by frequent de Palma collaborator Pino Donaggio. Seeing a good print is a crapshoot but for some reason Am*zon streaming has one at the moment. As noted by commenter M. Britton:

Its UNCUT and anamorphic widescreen!!! Been looking for this version for years!!!! Great film from Monte Hellman.

NOTE: THIS REVIEW IS FOR THE AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO STREAMED VERSION (there are a few so make sure you choose the correct one). This is the uncut longer version (not the shortened 93 minute version) us fans have been looking for!! It is anamorphic widescreen 2.35 and looks pretty good (compared to copies and dupes of the pan and scan version) but could look better with a proper restoration from the likes of Criterion (who love Monte Hellman films). This is a cult classic starring the wonderful Warren Oates, Fabio Testi and Jenny Agutter (her scenes are back in!) and has some great cinematography. Just wished Amazon offered this version to purchase instead of renting. I have been waiting a LONG time to finally see the uncut version of this great western and would kill to have this in my video library! This is the only version you should seek out and not the others (since there seems to be no legit widescreen DVD of this cut).

- tom moody

May 4th, 2017 at 6:24 pm

Posted in films