Electra Glide in Blue is the movie that almost made Robert Blake a star in 1973, not just of the talk shows where he was a regular known for bizarre, frequently disturbed rants about his miserable childhood and thwarted ambitions, but on the big screen where he had not been a stranger, but had also not broken through to the kind of household name status enjoyed by Robert Redford, his higher billed co-star in 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
As a child actor, Blake was one of the Little Rascals in M-G-M's Our Gang Comedy shorts, and shared the screen with such legends as Humphrey Bogart to whom he sold a winning lottery ticket in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. As an adult, he was one of the soldiers on trial for rape in Town Without Pity (with Kirk Douglas) and leader of The Purple Gang in an Allied Artists B flick starring Barry Sullivan.
His breakthrough to the A list should have came through In Cold Blood, the 1967 film version of Truman Capote’s much hyped “nonfiction” novel based on the pursuit, capture, and execution of two ex-cons who murdered a farm family in Kansas eight years earlier. As Perry Smith, the more thoughtful of the killers, Blake had the juiciest role and the most dramatic. The title had a dual meaning, referring both to the cold-blooded nature of the crime itself, as well as to the equally cold-blooded manner in which the state carried out the execution of the culprits. It was Blake’s hanging that the audience witnessed immediately before the final credits appeared while the death of his accomplice, Dick Hickok played by Scott Wilson, took place off-screen.
Blake’s performance was hailed by critics, but the rumored Oscar nomination did not result in a year when Rod Steiger was honored for In the Heat of the Night over Warren Beatty (Bonnie & Clyde), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), the late Spencer Tracy (Guess Whose Coming to Dinner), and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate). Blake may not have able to gain inclusion at the expense of those actors, all of whom appeared in more popular audience-friendly films, but any chance he had was hindered by Columbia Pictures’ advertising campaign for the film. The selling point was the book and the director (Richard Brooks, by then a “name” thanks to such earlier successes as Elmer Gantry and The Professionals), not the cast whose names were conspicuously missing from the posters and newspaper ads. The eyes of the actual killers, Smith and Hickok, were pictured but not the actors who played them.
Blake endured, getting cast opposite Redford in the aforementioned Western (albeit a Western with a “message” about race rather than the exciting shoot-em-up that might have succeeded at the box-office), and starring in a racing drama titled Corky.
It was Electra Glide in Blue, however, that seemed likely to give him the leg up he needed to join Jack Nicholson, James Caan, and Al Pacino, other actors in their early to mid 30s who were receiving the best roles in a decade that most critics now regard as Hollywood’s second golden age.
Blake promoted the film heavily on Johnny Carson’s show and elsewhere, boasting of its warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival where it was in competition for the Palm d’Or. That fancy title (which refers to a motorcycle that Blake’s cop rides when busting motorists for speeding) gave it a distinctly art-house feel, as did the trailer that hailed the film’s first time director, James William Guercio, previously a music producer best known for his work with the top 40 hit makers, Chicago, as a new voice in cinema, one to be reckoned with.
Once Electra Glide in Blue went into general release in fall 1973, United Artists clearly wasn’t aiming to attract an art-house crowd. They devised an ad campaign more suitable for an action film similar to the company’s two biggest hits of the previous summer, Live and Let Die (the James Bond flick) and the Burt Reynolds car crash smash, White Lightning. Artwork depicting Blake, gun drawn and knees bent, poised for combat beside his cycle, was surrounded by a montage featuring a scantily clad woman on one side and a motorcycle crashing through a restaurant window right below them. The tagline also promised action: “He’s a good cop, on a big bike, on a bad road.” The film failed, and after another UA cop movie, Busting, which teamed Blake with Elliott Gould, he retreated to television, where he did achieve true stardom as the tough talking detective of ABC-TV’s Baretta, a re-tooling of the earlier Toma, whose star, Tony Musante, bailed out after one season.
Electra Glide in Blue, it turns out, was more of an art-house film than the commercial fodder that UA tried, futilely, to sell to audiences. Artistic aspirations do not always result in art, however, and director (and composer of the score) Guercio’s aspirations are merely that, with the end result being mere pretension.
The opening pre-title sequence is effectively shot and brilliantly edited (by The French Connection Oscar winner, Jerry Greenburg). We are in what appears to be a shack, or a modest home so ill-kept that it might as well be a shack, as a man whose face we never see places pork chops in a frying pan, some tablets in a glass containing his dentures (uppers), and drops the needle on a vinyl record that plays an instrumental that sounds like something recorded in the 1920s, then goes about the business of dressing and loading a gun with Remington shells (the brand is clearly identified in a close-up). He turns the pork chops over, and after several more cuts back and forth to his various activities, we hear a gun blast followed by the sight of splattered blood.
This apparent suicide is actually a murder, and though it’s solved before the film concludes, it doesn’t add up to much. It’s significant only in that it gives Blake’s character, a motorcycle cop named John Wintergreen, his shot at the promotion to detective that he craves. Having exchanged sharp words with an easily enraged coroner (Royal Dano) about the true cause of death and been supported in his theory by the chief (Mitchell Ryan), Wintergreen gets his chance to prove he’s capable of solving crimes with his head rather than just arrest the suspect with a gun in their back. Wintergreen is impressed with the fancy suit he gets to wear, along with ruffled shirt and white Stetson, than he is with the more demanding intellectual requirements of the job, but his illusions about this seemingly more glamorous side of law enforcement are quickly shattered as he observes his boss, whom he tails during the investigation, come close to an emotional crack-up, when he learns that the barmaid whose favors he enjoys had been sharing them with Wintergreen. The scene in which this is revealed makes little sense, and is badly scripted and acted, especially by Jeannine Riley as the barmaid who dances about, taunting her lovers and lamenting the failure of her dreams of Hollywood stardom.
Wintergreen is soon back on his bike, stopping speeders and other petty criminals, alongside his partner (Billy Green Gush of Five Easy Pieces), a redneck who takes considerable pleasure in harassing hippies. Hippies, then still quite prominent in the U.S., are this Southern town’s idea of the worst possible offenders of civilized society since both cops use a poster of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on the road in Easy Rider for target practice. The memory of that 1969 film was still potent in 1973, and it inspired Electra Glide in Blue’s dramatic ending in which Wintergreen stops a van carrying two hippies, one of whom he recognizes as the hapless victim of his partners abuse earlier, and saying, “I owe you one, don’t I?,” lets them go without so much as a rudimentary search. Once they take off, Wintergreen realizes he has the driver’s license. He mounts his bike and tries to wave them down as he follows them on the road. These hippies are not the gentle souls who the song by Joni Mitchell described as having congregated at the Woodstock festival five years before, and as Wintergreen approaches on his cycle, a shotgun emerges from the van’s rear window to blast him into eternity. Wintergreen falls from his bike which rolls off the road, and his bloody body settles in the center lane as the camera moves on until he’s just a speck in the distance. The credits roll while a song penned by the director is heard on the soundtrack.
Electra Glide in Blue has some nice directorial touches, and Blake is very effective in an essentially nice guy role, but the film is a muddle with no discernible point. Conrad Hall’s cinematography is impressive, and some of the supporting cast, particularly veteran character actor, Elisha Cook, Jr., come close to approaching Blake’s sincerity in the lead, but Electra Glide in Blue is neither the artistic endeavor it tries to be, nor the action pic that the audience expected based on the ad campaign. Blake earned a Golden Globe nomination, but not stardom.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks