The Shooting Review
Bounty hunter Gashade (Warren Oates) returns to camp to find that his partner has been killed. He and his none-too-bright friend Coley (Will Hutchins) are hired by a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) to search for Coin, a man who has killed a small boy. Trailing them is a hired killer, Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson). Together they trek across the desert in search of Coin…
The Shooting was shot on location in the Utah desert back to back with Ride in the Whirlwind. Monte Hellman had directed three features before this, the ultra-rare items The Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and two war films shot back to back in the Philippines, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury (both 1965). Of the two westerns, The Shooting in particular established his reputation, especially in Europe. However, in the USA both films were denied a cinema release and were sold directly to television, hence for many years were very difficult to see. Partly for their rarity, but also for their quality and uniqueness, both films picked up sizeable cult followings – especially The Shooting, which is quite unlike any other western ever made. (For further details of Hellman’s wayward career, see my review of Two-Lane Blacktop.)
Hellman’s films feature characters on existential quests. They feature characters whose searches lead nowhere except maybe self-destruction. The Shooting is at one level a road movie (with horses), where the object of the journey is less important than what happens along the way. Written by Adrien Joyce (the pseudonym of Carole Eastman, who later went on to write Five Easy Pieces), The Shooting features four characters on just such a quest: as time goes by, arguments break out, their horses die, and they lose sight of the reason why they set out in the first place. Hellman’s west is a bleak, infertile land whose inhabitants have their brains fried (to paraphrase Nicholson’s character) under a baking sun. But what lifts The Shooting out of the ordinary are its offbeat characters and well-written dialogue, and excellent performances from the cast. Oates (who made four films with Hellman) is simply one of the great American screen actors, and he gives an excellent performance here. The rest of the cast are also very good, though Nicholson’s performance (complete with arrogant smirk) may look a little familiar in the light of some of his later films.
Adjustment will need to be made to the film’s measured pace, but it’s worth sticking with. The film ends with a very cryptic ending. Looking forward to Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman doesn’t so much finish the film but slow it down to a halt; Blacktop goes a step further by having the film appear to burn up in the projector.
For VCI’s DVD releases of the two westerns, Hellman himself supervised the digital remastering and transfer. The anamorphic picture is in a ratio of 16:9 rather than the 1.85:1 of the cinema release, but as this would seem to be the director’s preference, I can’t quibble. (Hellman also supervised Anchor Bay’s DVDs of Cockfighter and Iguana, which are also in the narrower ratio.) Gregory Sandor’s cinematography looks better than it ever did, with its use of natural lighting and deep focus, and only some dubious day-for-night sequences let it down. There’s some grain, but like the day-for-night sequences, this is a feature of the original material. The Shooting was shot on a very low budget, which gives it a gritty look that’s well suited to it. The sound is the original mono, and it’s this, more than the picture, that betrays the circumstances of the film’s making. Some of the dialogue is roughly recorded and a little hard to make out. It’s a pity that there are no subtitles on this disc. There are twelve chapter stops.
On to the extras, and first of all is the commentary. This features Hellman and Millie Perkins, in conversation with Steven Bartok, programmer of The American Cinematheque. This is consistently interesting and entertaining, with a good rapport between the three of them. The commentaries for this and Ride in the Whirlwind were recorded on the same day, and Hellman makes a point of relating the story of how the two films came to be made only once, in the Shooting commentary. As almost everyone likely to buy this disc will want to buy Ride in the Whirlwind as well, this is one reason why I question VCI’s decision to release the two separately. The two films are short enough to fit on a double-sided or dual-layered disc, which would have avoided duplicating certain extras. There are four trailers: full-frame ones for The Shooting (running 3:04) and Ride in the Whirlwind (2:48), a 16:9 anamorphic trailer for Cockfighter (2:32) and a TV spot (in anamorphic 4:3) for Cockfighter, under its alternative title of Born to Kill. All well and good, except that all four are on the Whirlwind DVD too. There are eight biographies, six of which (Perkins, Nicholson, Hellman, Sandor, assistant director Gary Kurtz and production manager Paul Lewis) are also on Whirlwind. The two others on The Shooting are of Oates and Hutchins. Whichever disc you read them on, they are more detailed than the usual DVD biographies. There is also a gallery of black and white stills, which in a nice touch come with captions and credit the cameraman (Charles Eastman, husband of Carole, who also has a small role in The Shooting).
A lot of care has gone into the production of this DVD. The film now looks better than it ever did, and is now more widely available than it has been before. The sound is probably as good as is possible to make it. It’s a pity that a little more thought might have made The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind one excellent DVD instead of two good ones.