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Electra Glide In Blue (1973)

January 22nd, 2008 · 14 Comments

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Synopsis
John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) – a 5 feet tall motorcycle patrol officer somewhere in the vicinity of Monument Valley in Arizona – begins the day pestering his captain for a transfer to homicide. His imbecile partner Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) feels they have a good life riding motorcycles for a living, but Wintergreen dreams of “that brown suit, that Stetson hat and four wheels under me instead of two.” Zipper harasses a hippie they pull over, but Wintergreen is fair-minded and honestly wants to help people.

He gets his chance when the patrolmen come across a desert rat (Elisha Cook Jr.) babbling about his best friend killing himself. Responding to the scene of the crime, Wintergreen finds it odd that the deceased supposedly shot himself in the chest. A coroner (Royal Dano) doesn’t want to hear Wintergreen’s amateur theories, but homicide detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan) commends the officer. “Incompetence is the worst form of corruption. Glad there’s someone around here who understands that.”

Poole recruits Wintergreen to serve as his driver. The patrolman is so by-the-book that while searching a commune for their suspect, Wintergreen politely accepts everyone’s word that they don’t know anything. Poole is eager to transform his diminutive protégé into the best damn detective in Arizona, but when he discovers the local bartender (Jeannine Riley) he’s smitten with has slept with Wintergreen, their working relationship goes south. Meanwhile, Wintergreen develops his own idea of who their killer is.

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Production history 
James William Guercio was a session player and songwriter who ascended to stellar success in 1968 when he offered to manage and produce a band he renamed The Chicago Transit Authority, soon shortened to Chicago. The president of United Artists – David Picker – called Guercio and asked him if he’d like to make a film. Guercio was interested, and responded to a script by Rupert Hitzig and Robert Boris based on the story of a motorcycle policeman who’d been shot and killed in Phoenix.

Guercio was introduced to Conrad Hall, the cinematographer who’d just won an Academy Award for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Hall offered to set up interviews for a cameraman. With a budget of only $1 million and a single camera, Guercio planned on shooting the film non-union, loading up two stationwagons with equipment and driving to Monument Valley. Hall was intrigued enough to offer himself for the job. Guercio forfeited his entire director’s salary so he could afford to pay the renowned cinematographer.

Hall – who’d also lit In Cold Blood – had a repertoire of breaking the rules. This included overexposing film to get rid of saturation and take out as much color as he could. Guercio – on the other hand – saw his film as a western. Deep blue skies and bright vistas were exactly what he had in mind. He gave Hall the freedom to light the interiors any way he wanted, but insisted the exteriors look like John Ford. Hall relented and enjoyed a good working relationship with the first-time director.

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United Artists was enthusiastic about their 27-year-old wunderkind, trumpeting Guercio’s cinematic arrival in the summer of ‘73. Posters read: “An American Movie by a New Director. James William Guercio.” But when the film played the Cannes Film Festival, it was serenaded with boos and deemed fascist. Critics denounced it as “slick and exploitative.” 20 years later, Janet Maslin referred to Electra Glide In Blue as “the most overpromoted and widely reviled film of the 1970s.” Guercio never directed again.

Opinion 
Even if Electra Glide In Blue were not any good, the fact that it was made at all would be worthy of serious study. The manager of the rock/pop group Chicago is given $1 million to direct a movie, which – while civil protests still raged across the U.S. – asked audiences to sympathize with police officers. If that’s not counter programming, I don’t know what is. While not necessarily a great film, it was way, way ahead of its time, and has a lot in it to recommend.

While even Guercio admits the story was “a boring little mystery,” Robert Blake is terrific in it, playing a little guy who sticks to his moral code no matter how silly it makes him look. The scenes of his character ritualistically donning his work uniform cut glass, while Conrad Hall’s lighting is some of the most evocative of his career. Guercio indulges himself a bit too extravagantly with the musical score and a 6-minute long tracking shot that ends the movie, but does have something to say about morality that still resonates today.

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Frank Showalter at Frank’s Movie Log writes, “Electra Glide in Blue is a surprisingly good movie. Watching it, you’d never suspect that it was director James William Guercio’s first movie. From the opening shot to the final frame Guercio shows a lot of style. While the credit for much of probably goes to cinematographer Conrad Hall … If you’re a fan of Peckinpah, be sure and check it out.”

“Politically this is a hard film to call, being neither pro-cop nor pro-hippie, and stylistically it’s a mixture of traditional classicism and what was then cutting-edge technique. But as a fascinating one-off of its period, Electra Glide in Blue is well worth seeing,” writes Gary Couzens at DVD Times.

Mike Lorefice at Raging Bull Movie Reviews writes, “Whatever you think of Blake as a person, there’s no arguing he could be a very sincere and human actor. He does things real people do in times of turmoil; he thinks, hesitates, and then takes some action knowing it won’t be well received but doing so anyway because the option of looking on in silence isn’t acceptable.”

“This country is undergoing a precisely formulated conspiracy of police genocide.” View the dynamite 1973 theatrical trailer for Electra Glide In Blue.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Crooked officer · Forensic evidence · Master and pupil

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Jan 23, 2008 at 11:49 am

    As I recall, “Electric Glide in Blue” closed with the longest single, one shot take I think I’ve ever seen. Makes you wonder how long the audience that hung around still hung around waiting for more. Seeing it again, I kept waiting for Ferris Bueller to step into the screen with his shower towel wrapped around him and announce, “That’s it. Go home”. First time director did so many things right, these days, who can tell it was ever his first time?

    – Dad

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Jan 23, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Dad: That’s all this movie is missing; someone stepping out from behind a cactus telling the audience they can go home now. I clocked the closing shot at 5:50. It is definitely an indulgence, but I still think the movie overall is a terrific little gem.

  • 3 atticus // Feb 16, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    just saw Electglde in Blue. As a kid I always thought this was a film glorifying Harley’s which I went on to own, ride, fetishes, etc. Now that I’ve seen the film in entirety-I can see why it was so “reviled” in its time. It reminds me of the critics who were foaming at the mouth over the implicit and explicit fascism of Clint Eastwood and his Dirty Harry movies. I suppose things never change much. Knee-jerk reactions then still abound now. Dirty Harry is now seen as the incorruptible vigilante and while I dont know why critics thought elctragluide in blue evoked fascism [all I can think-is the way police were pitted against the hippie/hollywood left wing sympathizer culture. I agree with most recent reviews that the movie is better than it was received. I still loved the two Harley’s best Also liked the ‘hippie’ bikers and their bikes which were much more representative of what ‘hippie’ bikers would have ridden back in ’73. Forget those tricked out choppers from easy rider. magazine bikes. most kids rode old triumphs, bsa’s and the newer japanese bikes. The line critics quote from Blake that “I hate that bike they put me on” is trumped by the second sentence he uses to repeat: “i hate that white elephant they stick under me” A white elephant is exactly what the harley eg 1200’1340 is. Also-as far as the very long end shot: its all fine with me except fro the part where Blake/Winterbottom gets shot with a 12g shotgon and spills what looks like a sloppy mix of kids fire engine red play paint and some ketchup. yuck. Not realistic. A serious endinf marred by bad special effects. All the remarks about the subtle, gentle examination of cross cultures, cops/hippies, vietnam vets/cops—its all good.

  • 4 Chuck // Mar 2, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I’d watch just about anything with a motorcycle chase in it. I can see why this movie failed critical acclaim, the progress through the plot was jumpy, and more reliant on actor performances. Blake at the ice cream truck was believable, in a 70′ kitchy way and he gave the dimension to the role, which you would expect from his background as an actor. The chase was good laughs with a bike exploding into flames from a .38 bullet. The drunk bartendress scene had some good dialog and if you don’t want to ride through Monument Valley after seeing this movie, you ain’t right. beep! beep!

  • 5 Rupert Hitzig // Mar 6, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    This movie was stolen from me and ruined by James William Guercio. The cast, the storyboards, the locations had all been set when he pirated the job from me.
    What a mess he made of it.

  • 6 Warren Hackett // Apr 10, 2008 at 11:14 am

    I just saw a re-run of Electra Glide In Blue and it looked like some of the scenes were shot just north of Red Mountain on Arizona Highway 87 and some on the road going north through the canyon leading to Saguaro Lake just north of Mesa, AZ.

    Does anyone know if this is true?

  • 7 Harry Neeves // Jul 17, 2008 at 10:48 am

    I recall a song playing in the background during the film. It was a Country song, probably a waltz. It was eminating from a bar or roadhouse. It was sung by a female country singer. I have tried for years to find out the name of that song. If anyone has any information they would be willing to share I would appreciate it. Thanks.

  • 8 Manuel Morales // Dec 3, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    Rubert Hitzig, have ever thought of doing a remake of this movie in your own vision? If so drop me line..

  • 9 John Molina // Jun 7, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Mr. Hitzig, I like the film very much although it does have it flaws. I consider it to be the best film I have seen on power politics. (Isn’t Rip Torn in the cast? Uncredited?) I’d be interested to know how it was changed from your vision? Any links? Magazine articles? Maybe even a book? Your language is a bit strong, even after all these years. As a produced, though non-professional playwright, I understand the anger and frustration when others distort the meaning of one’s work.

  • 10 jay // Oct 13, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    … movie reminds me what trash was produced in the 60s and 70s. I’m so glad that era is gone.

  • 11 Allan // Feb 15, 2011 at 4:19 am

    What I like about this era of movie is that the USA roads still had an air of noir and nostalgia about them. MUCTD had just introduced it’s 1971 guidelines to repaint them all yellow, so in 1973, when this film was shot, most were still carrying the previous look so helping it to fit in with the late 60s hippie feel wasn’t going to be too difficult. The film really ended the era (bar the latter ‘Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry’) – beyond 1974, you entered this ‘Cannon ball run / Every Which Way’ feel – the 1970s road movie!

  • 12 Kevin // Jun 29, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Wheather you like the film or not I feel most people will agree it is a good example of how the real world works, no one can make on their own. No matter how good you are at your job you”ll need someone to help you sooner or later if you really want to climb the latter.

  • 13 M.E. CALDWELL // Nov 1, 2011 at 2:31 am

    SHOT LOCATIONS: 1: ICE CREAM TRUCK- SHEA BLVD AT SENIC OVERLOOK, FOUNTAIN HILLS 2: L.A. COP SPEEDING TCKT-CAVE CREEK RD. SO. OF CAREFREE HGHWY 3: ZIPPER PLANTS WEED ON FREAK-BUSH HGWY EAST OF SALT RIVER

  • 14 Donald // Oct 4, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    I loved these type of movies. The 70’s had such a diversity of genres that there was something for everyone. I like the strange and unusual, the experimental, unlike some that like the boring by-the-numbers films that dominate today.

    I remember watching this movie in my early teens (early 80’s) on one of the pay satellite channels and I knew immediately that this was my kind of movie. I think that to “get” movies like this and even more so movies like Easy Rider you have to have a higher level of sophistication and artful intellect.

    Remember that Bob Dylan was damned by the critics, the “morms”, early in his career. So many of the great ones are.

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