Electra Glide in Blue Review

This review is a shortened and revised version of the one I wrote in 2005 for the Region 1 release.

Arizona. John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is a motorcycle traffic cop who aspires to be a detective. When he rightly changes the investigation of a seemingly open-and-shut suicide to one of murder, John is hired as assistant to Detective Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan), but the endemic corruption rapidly disillusions him…

Electra Glide in Blue is the only film directed by James William Guercio. His day job was in rock music: he was manager of Chicago for a number of years, and he wrote the music score for this film as well as directing and producing. Although it has a long-standing cult following, Electra Glide in Blue is a film that probably could only be made for a major studio around the time it was made. Like Dirty Harry a couple of years later, the film was described by some as “fascist”. You can see why: the film is very much on the side of a cop trying to do what is right by his own principles, and if that involves arresting hippies, so be it. But he’s just as liable to book an out-of-state detective for speeding and certainly disapproves of his colleague Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush) planting drugs to incriminate someone he takes a dislike to. It’s because John is unwilling to bend, or to take kickbacks, that leads him into trouble. Even more so, the film fetishises uniforms and motorcycles in a way hardly seen since Scorpio Rising, but without its overt homoeroticism. The opening credits play over a series of tight shots of the gleaming leather and metal of Wintergreen’s uniform, a sequence mirrored forty minutes in as he dresses in a detective’s suit and shirt and tie.

John Wintergreen is a natural underdog, something Guercio and scriptwriter Robert Boris play on by emphasising his lack of height: a pan across a row of helmeted cops which has to tilt down when it gets to John; John’s chat-up line about how he’s the same height as Alan Ladd; by frequently placing John next to women who tower over Blake’s five feet four. Wintergreen is one of Robert Blake’s finest leading roles, next to his killer in In Cold Blood. He’s so engaging in the role that the ending (which I won’t reveal, except to say that it is more typical of its era than nowadays) comes as an abrupt shock. Billy “Green” Bush is fine as the much more venal Zipper. The presence of Elisha Cook Jr is a nod to Guercio’s John Ford influence, and Nick Nolte appears uncredited as a member of a hippie commune.

The other star of the show is Director of Photography Conrad Hall, In the interiors, Hall frequently pushed the film stock, filming in such low light so that the windows blow out. On the other hands, the desert exteriors were shot in a more classical style in bright light, with John Ford's films (The Searchers especially) a clear influence. Even so, Hall often shoots against the light, throwing the actors’ faces into shadow.

Electra Glide in Blue is an unusual film, a good example of the 70s penchant for mixing (or if you prefer, undermining) established genres. For a film with a reputation as a violent action thriller, there’s only one real action sequence – a motorcycle chase an hour and a quarter in, featuring some excellent stuntwork – before the very end. Cop thrillers later in the decade tended to be grittier and grimier and more morally complex, not to mention more foul-mouthed. In fact, it’s a lot more character-driven than most thrillers, even allowing space for a scene featuring a virtual monologue from Jeannine Riley, who turns out to be sleeping with both Wintergreen and Poole, which brings Wintergreen’s dream of being a detective to an end. Politically this is a hard film to call, being neither pro-cop nor pro-hippie, and stylistically it’s a mixture of 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.

The Disc: Optimum's Region 2 release seems to have ported over the transfer as well as the extras from MGM's Region 1 release, with some slight differences. This is the version of the film that was slightly cut (a couple of bullet impacts in the final scene) at the time to obtain a very lenient MPAA PG rating. In the UK, the film played with an X certificate for over-eighteens only, and in this cut version it still earns a 15.

The transfer is in 2.40:1, with strong colours, but just as important is the shadow detail, which comes up fine. There is evidence that Electra Glide played in some venues blown up to 70mm with a six-track stereo soundtrack (which in those pre-Dolby days would have comprised five front speakers and a mono surround, with no bass enhancement). The IMDB claims there was also a 35mm version with a four-track (left, centre, right, surround) magnetic stereo soundtrack – though undoubtedly most people would have heard the film in mono. That four-track mix appears to be the basis of this DVD's Dolby Surround soundtrack – pretty much mono anyway with the surrounds given over to the music score. Unfortunately, unlike the Region 1, there are no subtitles available, which is Optimum's regrettable policy for their English-language DVDs.

The extras are: an optional introduction from Guercio (9:33), which contains some major plot spoilers, and also a less useful and rather sparse commentary from him. The final extra is the trailer (3:08), which also has its share of spoilers.

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