As John Wintergreen, the diminutive motorcycle cop of Electra Glide in Blue, Robert Blake reveals dueling forces of masculine assurance and short man insecurity with such kindhearted peculiarity, you feel both charmed and embarrassed for him. It’s familiar and, yet, curious – off – there’s something different about this guy. And strangely, it feels different because he seems a nice person. Imagine that? A nice person. Cop. A moral person. It’s almost, oddly, creepy. But it’s lovable and disarming and a little threatening in that specific way that only Robert Blake, the actor, exudes. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role.
Wintergreen is ambitious but he also seems a little lonely, a little sad, frequently sweet, and at times, perceptive when he sees through bullshit. Knowing how tough the world is out there, he also seems, in moments, a little stupid. And all of this is gonna hurt him in the end. Not just because he’s too nice of a cop, but that seems too obvious a reading for this beautifully made, wonderfully idiosyncratic picture (by one-time director James William Guercio). Instead, he just feels doomed. You look at him riding around the expansive, gorgeous John Ford-Monument Valley and you think… eventually he will fade into this landscape, or he’ll wander the place on his motorcycle, writing up speeding tickets until he’s turned to dust. You feel this before the picture’s unforgettable ending and he feels it – he worries about it. What kind of life is this? How will he leave his mark? As a speck on the landscape hassling motorists, saddled up on two wheels next to his goofy jerk-off partner? He wants to use his brain, to be respected. He also wants to be a big man, he wants to be something like a famous person, he wants to wear the right getup, that big hat, and that fancy suit – he wants to stand out. In the end, he both stands out and fades into the landscape, violently in death – but in a simultaneously ignoble and gorgeous way. Fragility and misunderstanding and cruelty and death in one six-minute reverse tracking shot that’s so moving and so gorgeous, he becomes one with the blacktop and the sky. It’s not the way Wintergreen would want to go, and it is indeed tragic, but it’s one of the most beautiful moments in 1970s cinema – a shot to watch and ponder, your emotions and thoughts moving to mysterious places. Electra Glide in Blue is a picture about the ugliness of human nature, but the beauty of it too, expressively and aesthetically – right down to the glory of Robert Blake’s pint-sized body, zipped up in his motorcycle gear, chomping gun, walking in those boots in the heat, the leather rubbing up against itself – that delicious sound of leather. You can practically hear Lou Reed singing, “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…”
And Blake (however you feel about him personally -- I am speaking of him in this movie and others) has his own kind of beauty and eccentricity (watch his Perry Smith from In Cold Blood and take in his stirring soulfulness as a child actor, as well as other roles, Busting, Baretta oh dear lord, Lost Highway). He can play the tough guy as terrifying, or as a touching act of overcompensation. In Electra Glide in Blue, he’s a tender macho man who uses his stature as a sort of characteristic attraction, a selling point – he tells the pretty ladies about it right away and compares himself to Alan Ladd. As Wintergreen, his introductory scene is all sex and strength. He’s satisfying a woman named Jolene (Jeannine Riley) and she is clearly happy about it. The camera moves to shots of his body – the image lingers on his back while he works out in his underwear. Already in the process of some serious masculine validation, by her and by the camera, he’s all muscled-up; barely breaking a sweat as he performs the pull-ups he likely does every day (or every time he steps into his little abode). He’s proven to be a wonder in the sack and, ever virile, he’s ready to go at it again. No rest for “Big John” (as she calls him). It’s a lot of showboating and swagger and Robert Blake burying his face in a woman’s breasts (he calls them his “Valley of the Dolls”). I watch this and think, this should play so silly, but instead it seems intriguingly amused, self-conscious on purpose, and poignant. Right away one feels Wintergreen needs that validation – it’s not merely the strutting display of a cool ladies' man – it feels deeper than that, thanks to both Blake’s offbeat charm and guilelessness and Conrad Hall’s inimitable, often sexy cinematography that uses Blake’s short stature as part of the picture’s visual style. Electra Glide in Blue is indeed a movie about cops, about the clash between 1970s counterculture with the cop culture, but it has also been called everything from fascist (I'm open to argument -- but I don't think it is) to the anti-Easy Rider (it’s not that either – not really, even when we see Wintergreen target practicing on a poster of Easy Rider). When I watch it, I’m struck by how much it observes masculinity – in all of its toxic, loving, sexual, fetishistic, and friendless manifestations – and how much being emasculated or alone can break one down. And how it can break one down within a close-knit corrupt cop culture -- that doesn't jibe with independent thinkers like Wintergreen. So, Blake’s Wintergreen -- this is a lonely man.
One very desperate, lonely creature is played by Elisha Cook, Jr. (the king of the emasculated, the double-crossed, the patsy, the recklessly overcompensating), as Crazy Willie, a loony old man, hysterically scuttling through the Arizona heat like a bug about to be smashed. Crazy Willie informs patrolman Wintergreen and his partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) of his friend’s death – a suicide. When Wintergreen observes the scene of this dead hermit – his detective skills kick in and he views this not as a guy who offends himself, but as a homicide. He’s adamant about it and maybe a little too overexcited. He’s at first scoffed at – just a dumb patrolman who should stick to his bike and shut up — but the big man, Detective Harve Poole (a fantastic Mitchell Ryan), agrees with Wintergreen’s original supposition. In an amusing scene in which the coroner (Royal Dano) leans over the body, pulling out a .22 bullet from a skull, a cigarette dangling from his mouth (ashes likely dropping into body cavities – eh, he’s dead), an investigation begins. Money is missing from the victim too – $5,000 – who stole it? This could all be left as is, and you sense cases like this often are, but Poole gets on top of it, really, it seems, to fuck with hippies. But Wintergreen doesn’t know this at first – he’s just thrilled he’s been transported to homicide to ride along and observe Poole. And he gets to wear that hat.
That hat. This makes for another standout moment involving attire, mirroring the picture’s credit sequence, which soaks in close-ups and freezes on Blake’s almost fetishistic dressing in leather. We see that beautiful ruffled white shirt laid out on Blake’s bed – Doo Wop music playing in his little house as he dance-dresses into his new important clothes. The ruffled shirt seems a bit much, but Wintergreen clearly loves the flair, and who can blame him? No shame in looking good while using your mind. He puts on his hat, and his head bobs to the music, and places a cigar in his mouth. He’s smiling, so happy that his life means something as defined by these clothes. It’s joyful and ridiculous – poking fun at the male peacocking, but knowing everyone does shit like this. It ends with Robert Blake walking out into the hot night, realizing he’s forgotten to put on his pants. Amused with himself, he dances back inside. It’s a lovely, cool/uncool moment. And endearingly embarrassing.
But Wintergreen knows this job is about more than his clothes –though he’s not quite prepared with just how awful Poole is. Harassing hippies, without care if they’re innocent, Wintergreen can’t stomach the treatment – he feels more akin to the outsiders (we learn earlier that Wintergreen is also a Vietnam vet) and he observes Poole’s methods with concern and disgust. Why anyone at the time of this picture’s release thought it was pro-cop, I have no idea. Even if it’s pro-good cop (and just the one), that doesn’t mean much of anything either in this film’s existential universe -- up against that kind of system. Being a "good" cop is met with no rewards, nothing, it even seems a bit idiotic, at least in terms of having any kind of a fulfilling life. When you see how Wintergreen’s giggling, numbskull partner Zipper lives (and cracks up), lazing about reading books for a paycheck and then stealing the missing $5,000 to buy a new bike, he just seems insane. Not happy. Is anyone happy in this movie? Crazy Willy is upset his hermit friend was mingling and working with younger people – left out of his friend’s affection and perhaps… love? Everyone else is grimly getting by while Wintergreen’s squareness is so square, he’s actually the most rebellious. It’s not a movie where tough guys gleefully hate hippies, even if, by film's end, two hippies turn vile but… human beings can be vile. The movie does not play as an indictment on the longhaired – it’s more meditative and mysterious than that, more randomly absurd.
What makes sense (it’s not right, it just makes sense considering how important potency is in this picture – two legs straddling a bike, big hats over long hair on men and, of course, girls) is what really gets to Poole, what really breaks up his partnership with Wintergreen: a woman. And his sexual prowess. It all returns back to Wintergreen’s introductory scene and those “Valley of the Dolls.” Jolene.
Poole wants to introduce Wintergreen to his sexy lady friend – Jolene – the hot number who works in the town’s popular watering hole. But Jolene is more than just a piece of ass – and the picture (scripted by Robert Boris from a story by Boris and Rupert Hitzig) – nicely gives her a big moment in which she proves as much. She also seems to hate Poole, whom she is indeed sleeping with. But as Poole learns (and as we know), she’s also sleeping with Wintergreen. Jolene unleashes not just her rage at Poole, but her anger that all of her dreams as a dancer, of making it in Hollywood or making it anywhere, are done for, and here she is tending bar. She lost a husband because she wanted a career (imagine!) and now she’s stuck. Enflamed with her sexual power over these guys with guns, she can abuse this man (and perhaps, men) by … emasculating him. She’s nasty and sad and sympathetic all at once with Jeannine Riley giving her moment tremendous humanity, even if she’s overacting a bit. She seems like she would really act up this moment – in real life – this bar, with just the two men present after closing time, is her stage. She reveals that she’s not only just fucking Wintergreen, but that he’s better at it than Poole. Far better at it. She shames Poole so much that the two lawmen just sit there awkwardly, stone-faced. And when Poole finally, nearly hits her – she laughs in his face. Wintergreen sits knowingly, understanding it’s over. He’s not rising in the ranks.
Given the way Robert Blake (the real man) writes about this movie, he’s as disenchanted with so-called bullshit artists and something small (in this case, the picture) not succeeding, as much as Wintergreen is about his position in the police force and the corruption therein. The movie comes with interesting, troubled production history and suffered an overhyped release (the publicity of the film was just too much – both mirroring and opposing the film’s study of masculine overcompensation: “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio” the ads blared – the original New York Times review is as snarky as something from a Gawker column). But whatever happened in terms of the making of the film, Electra Glide in Blue is an extraordinary picture, both of and out of its time, and shot, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen. A merging of a John Ford western – the endless vistas and loneliness of Monument Valley with the personal, at times, kinky details and close-ups of faces, guns, meat, black leather, breasts and Stetsons – it feels old school and experimentally modern. And Robert Blake, a weird kind of square is the perfect protagonist for this kind of vision. All leather-clad and Blake-speak, he’s almost a hipster – he’s something, that’s for sure. But he’s by the book, a square, and yet, anti-authority when authority is proven corrupt, which it seems to always be. He walks through these frames with such a potent combination of vulnerability and morality, and with such weird style, aided by the brilliance of Hall (who had also worked with Blake, exquisitely, in In Cold Blood), that both of them seemingly know they’re breaking rules of expectations. They’re terrifically in unison here. But Blake was heartbroken about the movie. In his autobiography, he devotes an entire chapter, not-so-subtly called, “Electra Glide in Bullshit,” in which he doesn’t hold back with his contempt for Guercio, citing much more directorial credit to Hall and himself. And he ends the chapter like the dying Wintergreen on the road. This is Robert Blake (think what you want) but this shit is personal And lonely: “And as for the character, I played… I love you and goodbye for now. And so long, sweet little film, I’ll see you on the other side.”
originally published at the New Beverly