RIP Monte Hellman, patron saint of obsessional cinephiles

A cult legend for his counter-culture classic Two-Lane Blacktop as well as multiple early Jack Nicholson vehicles and further 1970s gems with Warren Oates, Monte Hellman found his filmmaking road as stark as any of his protagonists’.

21 April 2021

By Brad Stevens

Sight and Sound
Monte Hellman

Although Monte Hellman, who has passed away at the age of 91, was among the key figures of the New American Cinema, he never seemed to fit neatly into any movement, his work tending to fall through various cracks in the distribution system. What this meant in practice was that, at least during the pre-internet era, his films had to be actively sought out rather than passively consumed; finding one was usually the result of a search which ironically reflected the director’s focus on isolated individuals engaged in obsessional pursuits. In a very real sense, he was the patron saint of cinephilia.

Born in New York in 1929, Hellman moved to Los Angeles where he formed his own theatre company. His theatrical projects included one of the first US productions of Waiting for Godot, an experience which left its mark (“I think there is a little of Beckett in everything I have done”). Roger Corman, then near the beginning of his career as a producer of B movies, was among the investors, and when the theatre closed down, it was Corman who offered Hellman employment, resulting in his first directorial credit, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). Further assignments for Corman followed, including the task of completing The Terror (1963).

It was during this period that Hellman became friendly with The Terror’s co-star, Jack Nicholson, who subsequently acted in two war films Hellman shot in the Philippines, Back Door to Hell (1964) and Flight to Fury (1964), the latter also written by Nicholson. These films not only fulfilled the commercials demands of their financiers, with striking action scenes that made full use of the harsh locations, but also expressed a very Beckettian sense of futility, emphasising the ways in which mortality renders our activities absurd. “What difference does it make?” asks a character in Back Door. “We’re all gonna die anyway, tomorrow, next week, 30 years from now”.

Beast from Haunted Cave (1959); Back Door to Hell (1964); Jack Nicholson with Boris Karloff in The Terror (1963), and in Flight to Fury (1964), The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966).
Beast from Haunted Cave (1959)

At Corman’s suggestion (and with his unofficial financial backing), Hellman then shot two westerns, The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), back-to-back in Utah. Jack Nicholson was again the star (as well as Whirlwind’s screenwriter), with Warren Oates joining him for The Shooting. According to Hellman, “We thought they would be a couple more Roger Corman movies that would play on the second half of a double-bill somewhere.” But although these films were barely released until years later, when Nicholson’s star status resulted in renewed attention, critics quickly picked up on their ambitions. The Shooting, in particular, with its anti-narrative techniques, was heralded as the work of a director to watch.

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Hellman’s next project is perhaps the one for which he will be best remembered. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) focused on two road racers played by singers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, involved with a teenage hitchhiker, Laurie Bird, and a chameleonic driver (Oates), and was obviously expected to appeal to the same young viewers who flocked to see Easy Rider (1969). Yet the result was another study of existential despair which, as one of the few American films to criticise the hippie movement from an explicitly leftist perspective, refused to satisfy the demands of the very audience it was aimed at.

His career as a commercial filmmaker over before it had really begun, Hellman would spend the following years developing projects that were never made while taking whatever jobs came his way. These included two more collaborations with Warren Oates: Cockfighter (1974), another portrait of an obsessive which reunited Hellman with Corman, and China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), a western shot on location in Spain. The almost nihilistic Iguana (1988) was poorly distributed even by Hellman’s standards, but nonetheless impressed a young Quentin Tarantino, who asked Hellman to direct his screenplay Reservoir Dogs (1991), and, when the opportunity to direct it himself came along, retained Hellman as executive producer.

By 1989, Hellman was reduced to making Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! The result was far more impressive than it had any right to be, and Hellman always spoke of the film with pride.

Warren Oates in Cockfighter (1974); Jenny Agutter and Fabio Testi in China 9, Liberty 37 (1978); Everett McGill in Iguana (1988); Bill Moseley in Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989); Tygh Runyan in Road to Nowhere (2010)
Cockfighter (1974)

Two decades were to pass before he raised the money for Road to Nowhere (2010), a late masterpiece about a director with the initials M.H. who becomes obsessed with an actress. An endlessly fascinating puzzle which seems to have no possible solution, Road to Nowhere repays multiple viewings, yet was again barely distributed, becoming the last of Hellman’s maudit works.

In his final years, Hellman’s income came mainly from running an airbnb in his Laurel Canyon home, a fate which eloquently testifies to the impossible demands American culture places on its maverick visionaries.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

Get your copy