Sunday, October 20, 2013

Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

          An intriguing film loaded with offbeat characters and stylish moments but lacking a clear storyline, the crime drama Electra Glide in Blue was the first and (to date) last directorial endeavor by successful rock-music producer James William Guercio, who oversaw the first several years of the band Chicago’s ascension. Starring diminutive Robert Blake as a Southwestern motorcycle cop who dreams of becoming a plainclothes detective, the movie tracks a murder investigation connected to stolen loot, hippies, and crazy old hermits. There’s also a subplot involving a swaggering detective whose confidence disguises embarrassing inadequacies. This characterization epitomizes this film’s modus operandi, because Electra Glide in Blue is about the gulf between how people present themselves and what they actually have inside them.
          Blake is cast perfectly here. Setting aside his subsequent real-life legal troubles, Blake was a unique onscreen force back in the day, a muscular badass crammed into a tiny body. The role of Officer John Wintergreen fits the actor beautifully not only because Wintergreen has a massive inferiority complex but also because the role allows Blake to convey innocence and sweetness, qualities that later disappeared from the actor’s screen image.
          When the story begins, Wintergreen is a by-the-book beat cop who won’t let any violator get away without a ticket, and who barely tolerates the poor work ethic of his partner, Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush). When Wintergreen discovers a dead body that’s arranged to look like a suicide, his ambition compels him to find clues suggesting murder. Identifying a crime scene gets Wintergreen a gig as the temporary sidekick of Detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), a grandstanding investigator with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and an ever-present cigar. In a strange way, the introduction of Poole is both the moment when Electra Glide in Blue gets really interesting and the moment when the movie runs off the rails. The middle of the picture gets lost in a morass of meandering character scenes, all of which are filled with insights and surprises, but the murder mystery becomes hopelessly obscured. Then, once the movie drifts into a final act defined by multiple tragedies, Electra Glide in Blue assumes the shape of a Big Statement but doesn’t actually make a Coherent Statement.
          Still, the ride is worthwhile, partially because of the vivid performances—Ryan is especially good, conveying the fragility hidden behind a he-man’s façade—and partially because of the spectacular cinematography by Conrad Hall. A master at creating both evocative indoor environments and sweeping outdoor panoramas, Hall runs away with the movie, since his photographic style is more consistent than Guercio’s scattershot directorial approach. Fans of world-class movie imagery can happily groove on this film just for the compositions and movements that Hall applies to every scene. There’s also something to be said, no surprise, for the eclectic rock-music soundtrack, which culminates in a powerful original song, “Tell Me,” which plays over the final scene. Unfolding in tandem with one of the most fabulously pretentious closing shots in all of ’70s cinema, the tune features orchestral sweep and a titanic vocal by Chicago’s Terry Kath.

Electra Glide in Blue: GROOVY


Tommy Ross said...

Great review Peter, I got turned onto this gem a few months back from another movie blog and took a chance on it and was glad I did. Best thing Blake did since In Cold Blood.

Heli0tr0pe said...

"P-P-P...Proper Police Procedure!"

jf said...

One of my all-time favorite exchanges:

Wintergreen has pulled over a truck driver. The trucker is nervous. Says he's had nothing but bad luck since recently returning from 'Nam. Wintergreen says he too is a vet.

Trucker: "Ah, it's good to find you, brother. I can't tell you how good."

Wintergreen: "Well, you don't know how good it is. You see, you been back only six weeks, and I'm gonna do for you what it took somebody six months to do for me."

Trucker: "Yes, sir, what's that?"

Wintergreen: "Nuthin'."

Hobbes said...

I saw this movie when I was nine and always remembered only the ending, that it was sad, and that there was weird stuff about hippies in it. Which is pretty good, because I can't remember most of the movies I saw when I was nine.