The cult item Electra Glide in Blue is probably the best film ever directed by a music producer. Though, given that James William Guercio’s main competition is Lou Adler, that may not be much of a distinction. Guercio, whose chief claim to fame is his work with Chicago, got one shot at directing a movie. Fortunately, he had an ace up his sleeve: legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, who makes the film’s primary setting of Monument Valley look like a breathtaking slideshow. The desert is very much a character in Electra Glide in Blue, perhaps the main character or even the villain, a stark, hot environment that drives people to despair at best and murder at worst. Everyone in the film is dispirited and miserable; even its hero, highway motorcycle cop John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), has a tough time keeping a smile on his face.
An old man turns up dead in his desert shack. It looks like a shotgun suicide, but Wintergreen suspects otherwise: why would a man shoot himself in the chest and not the head? This mystery isn’t really the driving force of Electra Glide in Blue; this is more of a leisurely character study following Wintergreen as he works his ass off to get promoted to homicide. This case could do it for him, but increasingly he sees little point in rising in the ranks of the hopelessly corrupt. A detective (Mitchell Ryan) who hires Wintergreen as his driver is a violent, unstable wretch. Wintergreen’s cop buddy Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) is an asshole who likes to push hippies around and plant weed on them so he can bust them. The movie may take a cop as its hero — which cost it dearly at the box office back in 1973 — but its view of the police in general is quite skeptical.
The awful cover art for the DVD, which came out a week after Blake himself was acquitted in 2005 of the murder of his wife, sports the tagline “He’s taking justice into his own hands.” Well, not really. That tagline has the smell of tabloid opportunism on MGM’s part. Wintergreen isn’t a vigilante; he’s just a guy trying to do good, and Blake is low-key and likable. Wintergreen flirts with young women who tower over him; he does a fellow Vietnam vet a favor by not cutting him any slack; he dances around in a Stetson, a cream-colored jacket, and no pants. He’s supposed to be pushing forty, but a lot of the time he comes off like a little kid, or at least like an innocent. He doesn’t seem to have a violent bone in his body. He’s almost apologetic when handing out speeding tickets, and when he and the corrupt detective visit a commune in search of a person of interest, Wintergreen so desperately fails to exude any authority that the detective has to step in and kick some ass around.
The movie is a poetic meditation, cut from the same cloth as similar efforts around that time from Monte Hellman and Terrence Malick. It’s odd and pokey, sometimes overemphatic, sometimes quiet. Blake provides the still center, with a lot of overacting going on around him (Elisha Cook as a lonely old desert rat is probably the hammiest offender; Jeannine Riley as a bar waitress who gets a big speech about her dashed Hollywood dreams runs a close second). It’s far from perfect, but it’s often moving (and frequently gorgeous), and it offers a counterargument against the “never trust anyone over 30″ ethos of its day. Electra Glide in Blue was probably too complex to go over with either the Dirty Harry audience or the younger crowd who’d made Easy Rider a smash. It’s a real neither-nor film, which means there’s not a whole lot else like it (Tony Richardson’s The Border and Alex Cox’s El Patrullero come close), and its subsequent cult-flick status was inevitable. And that blanched, unforgiving desert comes to seem more integral and organic to everything that happens in the movie the more we think back on it. This is not a film that would’ve worked in Canada.