I had never heard of this movie, but it turns out that “Electra Glide in Blue” is the flip-side of “Easy Rider.” Instead of hippies on hogs searching for the real America, it’s biker cops patrolling the American wilderness looking for anyone who steps out of line. And that includes people who choose to grow their hair long and paint their vans to look like billboards for flower power. In fact, there’s an astonishing scene where Arizona Motor Officer “Big John” Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is practicing his handgun skills at a target range by shooting at a picture of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in their “Easy Rider” duds. And there’s another memorable shot where a helmeted police officer has his bike squad at full military attention so that he can “train” them by calling them every name they’re likely to hear from people attending at a rock concert that’s coming to the area. No wonder “Electra Glide in Blue” was perceived as a fascist film making a fascist statement when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
If you rent or buy “Electra Glide in Blue,” be sure to choose the option to watch the film with director James William Guercio’s introduction, in which he talks about his surprise at the “fascist” comparisons. His remarks are so lengthy that clips from the film are cut into shots of Guercio talking on camera. Pay attention. One of those clips shows the first movie footage in which Nick Nolte appears. Don’t look for him in the credits. He’s not there. But you will find singer Peter Cetera, who plays Bob Zemko, a long-haired suspect that Wintergreen is seeking. Chicago guitarist Terry Kath plays his gun-toting sidekick, while fellow band members Lee Loughnane and Walter Parazaider also have small parts as scruffy motorcycle riders. It turns out that Guercio used to manage Chicago in the days when they were known as Chicago Transit Authority—the name of the city’s bus and elevated train system.
The diminutive Blake did such a good job in his role as a motorcycle cop yearning to become a detective that TV granted him his wish several years later. He was rewarded for his Golden Globe-nominated performance with the promise of a detective show, on deck to take over as plain clothes cop Toma. And when that show was dropped, ABC gave him the role of Baretta—an unconventional cop with a cockatoo and a cheery motto: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” or something to that effect.
In terms of structure and plot, there are plenty of similarities to “Easy Rider.” Instead of a pair of hippies, it’s Wintergreen and his bike-riding cop partner “Zipper” Davis (Billy Green Bush), who happens to be a bit more sadistic and corrupt. Instead of smoking dope, Zipper plants it on a hippie they’ve stopped because he doesn’t like the guy’s attitude, and he’s not above grabbing evidence for himself as an on-the-job perk. After we watch the pair stop just about every car that tries to traverse this desolate wilderness, Wintergreen finally gets the shot he’s looking for. He finds an apparent suicide in an isolated cabin and gets into a shouting match with the coroner, who wants to declare the case open and shut. But Wintergreen’s remarks are overheard by the force’s lead plain clothes Stetson-wearing detective, Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan), who instantly recruits Wintergreen for his team. As he takes off on his own, like a lone Texas ranger, he finds more than he bargained for.
Even if Guercio hadn’t explained in the commentary and introduction how he had wanted to pay tribute to legendary filmmaker John Ford, the average film-lover would have noticed the homage. “Electra Glide in Blue” was shot in Monument Valley in Panavision, and it’s exceptionally cool to see the same shots John Ford included in such films as “The Searchers” with a single highway running through it. Guercio plays it like a modern western, with the lawman on bike instead of horse. And he can’t resist a few scene-homages to a film he says he watched 200 times as a youth. When Wintergreen interviews the half-crazed local hermit Willie on a porch, it’s framed almost exactly like a scene from “The Searchers” where John Wayne as Ethan Edwards talks with the mentally challenged Mose (Hank Worden). In the commentary and intro Guercio talks about how he got veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall to come onboard (basically giving him his director’s salary) with one interesting condition: Hall could do anything he wanted with the interior shots (and he does so many unusual things that “Electra Glide” has the feel of an art-house or foreign film), but the exteriors were all Guercio’s. He wanted to make a western John Ford style, and the exteriors are indeed reminiscent of Ford’s style.
Western parallels also abound. Instead of a saloon, for example, in this lone bar state there’s a road house run by proprietess Jolene, whom we learn is Harv’s girlfriend . . . but only after we see her having sex with that little guy with the big attitude. Blake’s height is the brunt of more than a few jokes throughout the film, the most engaging when he’s standing in line at a desert lunch-wagon and turns to two tall and statuesque young women with perhaps the funniest pick-up lines in cinematic history, “Did you know that me and Alan Ladd are exactly the same height?” Beat. “Did ya know that he was so short that they had to dig a ditch for the girls to stand in to kiss him?” Ba-bump! And yeah, the women look interested.
But tone is a problem, and perhaps one reason for the film’s detractors to label it “fascist.” When Wintergreen dons his plain clothes duds for the first time, prom music plays in the background, and the scene ends with a shot of him touching a photo of a ’50s rock ‘n’ roll group hanging on his wall. But that ironic, witty, and self-referential humor is offset by segments which romanticize the law enforcement officer with long and lingering up-angle shots, cheesy music, and American flags draped all over the background. Those two tones mingle with a third: a gritty realism that works its way into the film like sand in the shoes. “Electra Glide in Blue” was based, in part, on a true story of a motorcycle cop who was killed outside Phoenix, Arizona. But the tone keeps shifting among these three styles, with the result being that the film doesn’t come together as cohesively and powerfully as it otherwise might have. Then too, Blake’s character is the only one with any three-dimensionality. His partner, the saloonkeeper, the lead detective, the crazy man, the bikers—all of them are stock characters. Westerns, of course, used stock characters as a matter of course, but “Electra Glide in Blue” seems far too savvy in spots for us to sit back and enjoy the stereotypes.
Video: This road picture wasn’t shot as cheaply as “Easy Rider” and the film stock has held up really well. Though there’s no mention of restoration, the quality is superb for a film released in 1973. “Electra Glide” is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 ratio, though on my screen it appears closer to 1.85:1 and fills out more of the screen than the typical 2.35:1 picture) with color by DeLuxe.
Audio: The audio seems to be Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with the front main speakers getting just as much of a workout as the front center speaker. The sound quality is natural and free of hiss, crackle, and pop. No complaints here.
Extras: Aside from Guercio’s introduction there’s an audio commentary by the director, which is nice to have but pretty average.
Bottom Line: Sawed-off Robert Blake gets the Big John Wayne treatment in this homage to John Ford and American Westerns. Despite cardboard characters all around him, Blake’s performance as a motorcycle cop is strong, the script plays out with the same interest as “Easy Rider,” and the cinematography is by turns artsy and stunningly naturalistic. In fact, the photography is one of the reasons to watch this film. But don’t go into this expecting an action film. There’s action, but there’s much more meandering drama.