Electra Glide in Blue Review
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 he is forced to confront rapidly disillusions him…
Electra Glide in Blue is the only film directed by James William Guercio. (The IMDB only has one other credit for him, as producer on the 1981 film Second Hand Hearts.) 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. Some of his musical colleagues have small roles in the film. 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 Kenneth Anger’s short Scorpio Rising, but without the overt homoeroticism of that film. 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 tall 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, who effectively worked for free. (As it happens, Guercio gave him his director’s salary, not being able to afford Hall’s usual going rate.) Guercio’s inspiration was the Westerns of John Ford, particularly The Searchers, which he saw some two hundred times as a child. Guercio and Hall reached a compromise: Hall could do what he liked in the interiors, such as pushing the film stock, filming in low light so that the windows blow out. On the other hands, the desert exteriors (shot in Ford’s trademark setting of Monument Valley) were shot in a more classical style in bright light, with William Clothier’s work on Ford’s film a clear influence. Even so, Hall often shoots against the light, throwing the actors’ faces into shadow. This film dates from the era when you could shoot in Scope with anamorphic lenses and not have to compose every shot so that it could be panned and scanned into 4:3 for TV showings, a practice that became universal in Hollywood at the end of the decade. I’ve not seen Electra Glide in Blue panned and scanned, but I’d imagine it would suffer quite badly. Original aspect ratio is definitely the way to go here.
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 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 traditional 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.
MGM’s Region 1 release is generally very good, though it has a couple of drawbacks. In his commentary, Guercio implies that he wasn’t involved in the picture and sound transfer (he says at one point that he doesn’t know if this edition is his cut or not). As it happens, this DVD is the version that was released with a PG rating in the United States, though even in this version the MPAA’s idea of a PG is more lenient than the BBFC’s, given some beatings and gunshot wounds. The BBFC gave Electra Glide a X certificate (over-eighteens only) in the cinemas, and maintained an 18 for a video certification in 1988. As it happens, overseas we had a version with an extra couple of shots, side views of a bullet impact and blood spurt in the final sequence, which Guercio was obliged to cut as it was considered too violent. I suspect this version would earn a 15 from the BBFC nowadays.
As I say above, the film was shot in Scope, which gives a ratio of 2.35:1 (often cropped slightly top and bottom in cinemas to 2.40:1 to avoid splices and framelines appearing on screen). The DVD transfer measures to 2.39:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. Given the age of the film, I doubt that it could look any better than it does. Hall’s penchant for putting faces in shade will test your playing equipment, though it looks just fine on my PC monitor. Colours are solid and blacks look true.
On to the soundtrack, and another potential drawback is that the English soundtrack has been remixed. Like almost all films of the period, Electra Glide in Blue was shown in cinemas in mono. However, the soundtrack here is Dolby Digital 2.0, surround-enabled. Much of the film is actually still mono, especially the dialogue, with left and right and surround used for Guercio’s score and some directional effects. Given Guercio’s presence on the disc (although he doesn’t mention anything about remixing) I’ll give this track the benefit of the doubt, though in general I disapprove of remixing mono soundtracks into Stereo Surround (worse still, 5.1 or even 6.1) without the director’s authorisation. There is a mono track included, but it’s a French dub. Subtitles are available in these languages and also Spanish, but for the feature only. There are no subtitles for the extras. There are sixteen chapter stops.
You can play the film with or without Guercio’s introduction. This should not be viewed before a first viewing of the film, as it contains a number of major spoilers. The introduction shows Guercio talking to camera, with a number of extracts from the film. Guercio’s commentary tends to be sparse with long gaps, as he says early on that he’s not a very verbal person and would prefer the film to speak for itself. At 9:33, his introduction is much tighter. Maybe a longer introduction with some of the extra material that is in the commentary, would be better. The introduction is in 4:3, with the film clips in non-anamorphic 2.35:1.
The remaining extra is the theatrical trailer, which runs 3:17 and is anamorphic. It makes the film look more of an action thriller than it actually is, and contains a number of spoilers.
Electra Glide in Blue is an unusual film, a cult item from the early 70s. It looks as good as it could do, although the soundtrack remix is a possible issue, not to mention the slight toning-down of the ending. Given that this is MGM, and their Region 2 releases tend to be bare-bones and sourced from the USA, I don’t expect a better version from the UK any time soon.