Director: James William Guercio
Shout! Factory

The cult classic ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE revs up in HD on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray edition.

Arizona motorcycle cop John Wintergreen (Robert Blake, IN COLD BLOOD) yearns to be a detective, one of the “glamour boys” in a Stetson, a white suit, “and that badge that ‘Boy, you’re getting paid to think, not get calluses on your ass’.” When he is first on the scene of an apparent suicide by shotgun of local hermit Frank, he is convinced that it wasn’t a suicide despite the medical opinion of the local budget-minded coroner (Royal Dano, THE KILLER INSIDE ME). Wintergreen is vindicated when an autopsy reveals that the man had been shot in the head by a smaller caliber weapon before the shotgun blast to the chest. He impresses detective Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER) who takes him on as his new driver. Poole takes Wintergreen under his wing and teaches him his philosophy of detective work in practice as they discover the motive for Frank’s murder in a stash of secobarbital that suggests the old man was a drug pusher. Town drunk Willie (Elisha Cook Jr., MESSIAH OF EVIL) also tells them that Frank had $5000 hidden away. Fingerprints at the scene point to biker Bob Zemko (singer Peter Cetera), and Wintergreen witnesses the uglier side of Poole’s investigative techniques as he rousts hippies in his search for the suspect. Poole and Wintergreen fall out over the revelation that they share a lover in bartender Jolene (Jeannine Riley, THE COMIC) – or rather her intimations of Harve’s impotence – so a disillusioned Wintergreen goes back on patrol with his buddy Zipper (Billy Green Bush, FIVE EASY PIECES) and manages to capture Zemko himself; however, he realizes that the real solution to the murder is more complex and despairing than greed.

A better cinematic showcase for a pre-BARETTA Blake than the following year’s BUSTING (which was more of an Elliot Gould vehicle with Blake as the buddy cop), ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE is also an overindulgent example of auteur filmmaking masquerading as a character study (whatever it is, it certainly isn’t what director James William Guercio calls a “modest police story”); as mesmerizing as it is frustrating. Gorgeously photographed by Conrad Hall (THE DAY OF THE LOCUST), the film is so over-contemplative that it feels more like a parody of the French New Wave than an example of the American New Wave; and its general unevenness – including a lengthy motorcycle chase that seems like it was lifted from a more straightforward exploitation movie – makes the bleak ending seem obligatory rather than resonant despite the growth in character shown by Wintergreen’s fateful decisions. There’s a good character study in there somewhere as well as a “modest police story” but it is muddled by director’s desire to say something profound and all-encompassing about the American experience, and to sum it up with a self-penned seven minute song performed by Terry Kath; the effectiveness of which becomes diminished by the Guercio’s added remarks on the commentary track (see below).

Blake gives an understated but effective performance as a character often given the choice of either passively observing (Harve’s treatment of the hippies) or leaving situations (Zipper’s decision to bust a van driver with planted pot). He’s seemingly at home in his own skin, a health nut, sexually-assured, and uses jokes about his height to flirt with girls. The first time he seems to come to life in the film is when he’s “playing” a cop to get the jump on Zipper (who exercises his own imagination by reading comic books on his extended breaks), so much so that it is easy at first to think he is trying to make a murder out of an obvious suicide to prove his mettle as an aspiring detective (despite visual evidence to the contrary in the pre-credits sequence). His disillusionment is effectively conveyed in his childish “all that matters is you were wrong” rant to Harve, suggesting a sort of subconscious “coming of age” aspect to the character whose ideals are perhaps too naïve for the grey areas of both professional and civilian life. Ryan is even better in an appropriately barnstorming performance, but the first time director’s inexperience doesn’t allow for an effective use of usually enjoyable bit players like Cook and Dano. Bush and Riley fare better in the only other significant parts.

The film was released in mono as well as four-track mag stereo, and MGM’s 2005 DVD featured the multi-channel mix in matrixed Dolby Digital 2.0 surround encoding. Shout! Factory’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded disc features the same track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The track comes impressively to life during the musical passages (Guercio’s score, the source music, and the concert scene) and the motorcycle scenes (particularly the chase). The Blu-ray and MGM’s DVD seem to use the same HD master (2.35:1), but the Blu-ray lacks the application of edge-enhancement evident in the DVD version. On the commentary track, Guercio reveals that he and cinematographer Hall intentionally used diffused lighting in the interiors (which were pushed in post) as a contrast to the crisp and clear desert exteriors which were meant to emulate Ford’s THE SEARCHERS. There are no subtitle options (odd since most of Shout’s releases have had SDH subtitles, and the MGM disc did have subtitles in English, French, and Spanish). Although the Blu-ray was announced with some new extras featuring Blake, the finished copy only carries over the director’s commentary, introduction, and trailer from the DVD edition.

Guercio goes solo on the commentary track. It’s not the most interesting or informative, and Guercio does admit a third of the way through that he’s not good at talking about the film; as such, the track is more illuminating on the shooting experience itself than his overall thematic intentions. Apparently the film’s use of Monument Valley locations was the result of the Scottsdale police pulling out their support when they got ahold of the script, which seems to have resulted in a more unscripted approach (despite a screenplay credit for producer Rupert Hitzig [WOLFEN] and later director Robert Boris [FRANK & JESSE]) on stolen locations; but he gives credit to Blake for knowing his character in-and-out, and makes only scant reference to the real life inspiration for the story (well, the ending at least). More interesting is his explanation of his heavy use of long takes and no other coverage as a way of preventing the film from being messed with in the editing room, and the composition of sequences in series of close-ups (without master shots) being as much a storytelling innovation as it was due to the lack of complete interior sets (these sequences were meticulously storyboarded). Of his influences, he cites John Ford and points out that one of the veteran supporting actors lost a thumb working on a Ford movie, the close-up of which will tip off those in-the-know to the identity of the killer. Besides Cetera as the biker, Guercio also mentions that the actor playing hippie van driver David J. Wolinski was also a member of the band Madura who perform in the concert scene late in the film. He closes the track discussing the meaning of the end titles song and refuting the perception of European critics that the film is a fascist statement. The introduction by Guercio was optional before the film on the DVD, but is presented here in the extras menu. He discusses his musical career in the 1960s and the offer from United Artists to direct a film, and his concerns about creative freedom. He again talks about his collaboration with Conrad Hall, who was paid with Guercio’s own director’s salary, and their clashing over Guercio’s admiration of and intention to emulate the look of THE SEARCHERS. He also points out the presence of Nick Nolte in the commune scene, and nixing the romantic subplot because they fell behind in production (he would then spend roughly eight months editing the film himself). The film’s trailer (3:19) closes out the package. Although there are no new extras, the Blu-ray format will make it an irresistible purchase to the film’s fans. (Eric Cotenas)