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lf I had to pick the five greatest western directors of all time, the problem wouldn’t be to pick five, but to figure out how many westerns a director had to make to be considered a western director. Does one film do it? Can I make a case for Marlon Brando, since One-Eyed Jacks is one of my five favourite westerns? How about Philip Kaufman? Can I with good conscience put him on the list above King Vidor, Henry Hathaway and Sam Peckinpah, on the strength of The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (the best of the Jesse James movies with Robert Duvall, the scariest and most psychotic Jesse on film), and writing the script (and directing about a week) of The Outlaw Josey Wales.

This dilemma solved itself when I came to Monte Hellman. There’s no way in hell Monte ain’t going on the list. I don’t care if he’s only done three, but two of them – Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting – demand that honour. Monte also made me come to grips with the whole Marlon Brando/One-Eyed Jacks problem, because much as I like The Shooting, had he never made it, just doing Ride would have been enough for me.

Producer Fred Roos, who would later produce Apocalypse Now, had a deal to do two films in the Philippines to be shot concurrently. He had seen Roger Corman’s The Terror, starring Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson, and had heard that two young directors had shot the majority of it. Their names were Monte Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola. Roos’s response was “send me either one”. Monte got the job.

The deal was simple. Roos had to make two cheap action-adventure film set in the Philippines. He had the script for one, a war film called Back Door to Hell, but the second one was open. Monte suggested that they use the young actor from The Terror, Jack Nicholson, who he knew was also a screenwriter. The idea was that Jack would act in Back Door to Hell, write the script for the second film, and act in that one as well. The script Nicholson wrote was Flight to Fury.

Dewey Martin in Flight to Fury (1964)

Monte’s first film, Beast From the Haunted Cave, written by the great Charles Griffith, was a lot of fun. Back Door to Hell is pretty good, but Flight to Fury was the first of the great Monte Hellman pictures, and Little Shop of Horrors aside, the first film in which Jack Nicholson came into his own as an actor. Nicholson, in a part he wrote for himself, finally had the assurance, the experience, the words and the director to deliver the performance that bad eluded him up to this point.

The film’s other lead was Howard Hawks’s regular Dewey Martin (The Big Sky, The Thing), an underrated actor who should have done better in the 50s than he did. Nicholson’s feral, hip, cerebral, 60s style of acting plays well with Martin’s hardboiled, tough 50s cool-guy style. (On a personal note, I get a special kick from watching them because Martin resembles Michael Madsen in my movie Reservoir Dogs, and Nicholson resembles actor Steve Buscemi.)

The teaming of Hellman and Nicholson played well too. As can be seen from the film l made, I like what l call ‘kitchen-sink movies’, which means ‘there’s everything in it but…’, and there are about four movies crammed into Flight to Fury.

The first 15 minutes are an action adventure murder mystery full of exotic locations (the Philippines), a rugged hero (Martin), a sexy Oriental femme fatale (who will be dead by the fourth scene), and shifty characters who are not what they appear (Nicholson at first appears to be a likeable nerdy guy, but then is quickly revealed to be an ice-cold killer with a hidden agenda).

Then Martin and Nicholson hop on an aeroplane, where we’re introduced to a whole new batch of interesting and suspicious characters. After flying the friendly skies with them for about 20 minutes, as they sniff each other out and philosophise (Nicholson’s conversation about death with a fellow passenger, the late Jacqueline Hellman, seems to come straight out of a Hal Hartley movie), in what plays like the oddest and greatest Airport movie ever made, the plane crashes. Which turns the film into a skewed version of Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber, as the survivors stranded in the jungle fight to stay alive, fight bands of marauding pirates, and fight and kill one another.

Hellman and Nicholson made a terrific little film and a terrific team, so a partnership between the two was struck. Nicholson wrote a script for a western that the two could do cheap, and they took that script, Ride in the Whirlwind, to Roger Corman.

Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson in The Shooting (1966)

Corman liked Nicholson’s script very much and agreed to do it. Then added, in that way that has made the man a legend, “Since you’ll be out there on location, why don’t you do two movies?” So the two partners repeated the duties they had just done with Fred Roos in the Philippines: shooting the two movies concurrently with the same crew, Nicholson writing and starring in one, acting in the other and Hellman directing both. However, this time Nicholson would produce both films as well.

The other film was The Shooting, starring Warren Oates, Millie Perkins, Will Hutchins (then star of the television show Sugarfoot) and Nicholson as a Jack Palance-inspired gunfighter named Billy Spear. The script was written by a friend of Nicholson’s from Jeff Corey’s acting class, Carole Eastman, who would go on to write for Nicholson Five Easy Pieces, The Fortune and Man Trouble. Her script, written under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, is like a metaphysical version of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome. Corman apparently hated it, but proceeded anyway because it was the only one ready to go, and at that price he couldn’t lose.

The Shooting (1966)

Today The Shooting is widely considered the masterpiece of the two. Kevin Thomas, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “The difference between the two [Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting] is the difference between the definitely good and the arguably great.” Most critics in France and the US agree (with Michel Ciment an important exception), and Monte himself prefers The Shooting.

But for me, it’s the simplicity, the naturalistic tone, the awkward-sounding (because it’s so authentic) cowboy vernacular, the feeling of sadness that’s between every line, the burst of ridiculous comic moments, the beautiful underplaying of Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell, all wrapped up in a wing-ding plot, that make Ride in the Whirlwind one of the most authentic and brilliant westerns ever made.

Monte made westerns unlike any before or since. He slowed down all the action so the scenes play at a real-time pace unheard of in a western. The effect is almost as if Monte were in the projection booth, grabbing a fistful of film as it passes in front of the bulb and yanking it down, so each frame is illuminated longer for better examination. The film opens with a stagecoach hold-up that produces giggles due to the lazy, laconic manner of the robbers. It’s the exact opposite of the snappy action scenes we’ve become accustomed to (a robber gets a laugh from me every time for the way he unhurriedly moves a log out of the stagecoach’s way). In direct contrast with Monte’s tone is Nicholson’s plot, which is far from existential. In fact, it could easily be a great rip-snorting episode of Bonanza.

From innocent to outlaw

Three cowhands riding together, Wes (Nicholson), Vern (Mitchell) and Otis (Tom Filer), come across a gang of desperados holed up in a shack. The desperados have just robbed the local stage and are hiding out. The outlaws figure these saddle tramps want nothing more than to bed down (they’re right), so they oblige them. The cowhands put two and two together real fast and figure out these are bad men and “look forward to partin’ company with them fellas” in the morning; however, morning brings a posse hellbent on shootin’ and hangin’ everybody. Filer is shot, and Nicholson and Mitchell escape with the posse hot on their trail. The two men, scared and sorrowful (because of the death of their friend, beautifully conveyed by the way Nicholson just folds up in grief after dismounting from his horse) must now make their way out of the territory on foot, all the while trying to keep two steps ahead of the ever-approaching posse. “lf we get some horses we’re out of it”, Nicholson says.

Millie Perkins in Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

So to that end they commandeer a ranch tended by an old man (George Mitchell) and his wife (Katherine Squire), and their 19-year-old daughter (Millie Perkins). Holding the family hostage and stealing their stock turns the two innocents into the outlaws the posse believes them to be.

One of the truly brilliant things about the movie is Nicholson’s sparse and authentic western dialogue, taken from letters and journals of that time. These are inarticulate people living in simple times using a spare vocabulary. Sometimes this language is funny, as when the three cowhands come across a hanged man and, after looking at him a good long while, Nicholson responds, “Man gets hanged”. At other times, it’s moving, as when instead of going on and on about how they’re innocent and it ain’t fair, or how scared they are, Nicholson says to Mitchell on the run, with just the right touch of emotion, “No one’s gonna put a name to me and that’s it.”

Attempts to explain their innocence to the family fall on deaf ears. This family’s existence seems to be a hand-to-mouth one: they live on an ugly, barren piece of dirt away from any other people (when anyone approaches their world, they become threatened). The old man doesn’t work a farm, he just chops monotonously all day at a tree stump with an axe. The women just seem to cook grub.

Harry Dean Stanton as Blind Dick in Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

These people have nothing and then these two dangerous outlaws (as they’re told earlier by the posse) take what little they have… the old man’s dignity (he runs the small shack like a king, but now must let two other men dominate him in his kingdom and rule over his women), and what little they own of value, their stock (horses). It is in the attempts of these two non-verbal men to articulate their innocence and desperation to their innocent and desperate hostages that the film achieves a rare sorrow. As Mitchell and Nicholson sit at their table after eating their food, and play checkers, as the old man whacks away outside at the formidable stump, Mitchell says, “We borrow their checkers, we steal their horses, there just don’t seem to be no end to it.” “No use to that,” Nicholson replies.

The acting has a strangely eccentric quality. Harry Dean Stanton as the outlaw leader Blind Dick, and Squire and George Mitchell as the old folks, are right as rain. When I met Harry Dean Stanton I told him how much I loved Ride. He said, “That’s the best western I was ever in, and one of the best I ever saw”. 

But Peter Cannon as a hotheaded outlaw and Millie Perkins give some eccentric line readings. Cannon’s voice has a strangely effeminate quality, “I shoulda picked them off original”: Perkins’s performance is an oddball classic. Her “Yes, we do” when they ask if she has any checkers has affected the way I say “Yes, I do”. But Hellman built the film around the performances of Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson, and it’s easy to see why… these two men are terrific.

To see Cameron Mitchell do the subtle, unmannered, personal work he does here is to shed a tear for all the wonderful actors in film who never had the opportunity to fly where their talent could have taken them.

To see Mitchell, who has since unfortunately gone the way of Aldo Ray (another talented actor of the 50s), appearing in anything, including porno movies, that will pay his price, do the subtle, unmannered, personal work he does here is to shed a tear for all the wonderful actors in film who never had the opportunity to fly where their talent could have taken them. When a fine actor, who has managed to keep his instincts even after appearing in junk for a long time, gets a real role with something to play, a special light goes on in his eyes. You can see it in Martin Landau’s performances in Tucker, Joe Don Baker’s scene-stealing turn in The Natural, and Richard Crenna’s menacing dinner table conversation in Body Heat – all performances in big pictures that stopped or saved those actors from plunging into an exploitation movie hell. That same light shines brightly in Mitchell’s eyes throughout Ride in the Whirlwind, and it’s that light that accounts for what must be the finest performance of his long career.

Star in the making

Jack Nicholson as Wes in Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, went on to become one of the biggest stars in the history of movies. Both a great star and a great actor, but more than that, Nicholson has passed over into cultural-icon status like Bogart, John Wayne, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna (witness the references to him in Disney’s Aladdin, and Christian Slater’s homage in Heathers). Anybody who tunes into Ride in the Whirlwind as a curiosity to see the work of a star-in-the-making will be shocked.

Nicholson’s work in Ride ranks as one of his finest performances, as Robert De Niro’s work in Mean Streets is one of his finest performances. Not only is Nicholson wonderful as Wes, but he does the kind of no-nonsense meat-and-potatoes work I’d love to see him do again (the closest he’s come recently is his work in the much-maligned The Two Jakes, which I, for one, loved). Seeing Nicholson play small, after a decade of playing large, reminds us that Nicholson became the icon he is not just by being a great Nicholson, but by being a great actor.

Jack Nicholson’s work in Ride in the Whirlwind ranks as one of his finest performances

If ever a director was due for critical rediscovery, it would be Monte Hellman. With his naturalistic style and pace, his invisibly punchy editing rhythms, and the journeys his characters inevitably set sail on, his influence can be found in the work of such directors as Hartley, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, and Terrence Malick (as Pauline Kael noted, though unfavourably, in her review of Badlands). This year Monte starts a new film, Dark Passion, based on the Lionel White novel Obsession, which Godard used as his jumping-off point for Pierrot le fou. Movie theatres would be much happier places with a new Monte Hellman movie playing in them.

Further reading

RIP Monte Hellman, patron saint of obsessional cinephiles

By Brad Stevens

RIP Monte Hellman, patron saint of obsessional cinephiles

“Every movie is in some way a road movie”: Monte Hellman looks back

By Matthew Thrift

“Every movie is in some way a road movie”: Monte Hellman looks back

Hollywood icon/oclast: the art of Jack Nicholson

By Leigh Singer

Hollywood icon/oclast: the art of Jack Nicholson

“American audiences’ greater education seems to have evaporated”: Jack Nicholson interviewed in 1974

By John Russell Taylor

“American audiences’ greater education seems to have evaporated”: Jack Nicholson interviewed in 1974

Sight and Sound November 2021

50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…

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Originally published: 21 April 2021