To Hellman and back

The cult director comes to town with his latest, plus some of his greatest

Two-lane journey to the unknown: a scene from Monte Hellman's noirish latest, Road to Nowhere.

FILM "Legendary" is a term often applied to artists distinguished by either ubiquity or scarcity. Monte Hellman definitely falls in the second camp — nearly 80, he's just made his first feature in 22 years, causing a flurry of interest in the sparse 10 he made during the prior three decades he was, relatively speaking, active — movies hardly anyone saw when they came out since none were more than a blip on the commercial radar.

That of course aided his reputation as a fascinating oddball working — when allowed — on the B-movie margins of mainstream entertainment, yet never quite at home there. Presumably this status, and the small number of projects he's realized (let alone had a satisfying amount of control over), has been a cause of some frustration. Yet the laconic distance from emotional display or anything else that might pander to the audience's easier responses — even in genres as typically uncomplicated as the western or horror movie — suggests a filmmaker who might well enjoy being perceived as the rugged, tether-resistant outsider. Lord knows it's impossible to imagine him directing something brash, accessible, and popular.

Not that his interview quotes have ever revealed a willfully elusive nature. Hellman appears at the Roxie Friday, July 22 (and at the Smith Rafael Saturday, July 23) when his new Road to Nowhere opens, so you can gauge for yourself just how the man does or doesn't feed the enigma his films have built around him.

After that night, the Roxie plays Road on double bills with the four movies that most shaped his cult following, offered in a mini-retrospective called "Monte Hellman: Maximum Minimalism." They're all road flicks in one way or another — the typical Hellman film, if there be such, is a one-way trip of some urgency but no certain destination save oblivion. Its protagonists' circumstances may be desperate, but they themselves ruffle an outwardly sardonic, existential cool as they ride into the incinerating sunset.

Hellman got into the business via Roger Corman, Hollywood's all-time greatest nose for cheap young talent from Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Martin Scorsese to James Cameron. His first directorial job was 1959's The Beast From the Haunted Cave, about a giant spider — a movie notable for being better than it needed to be, since it didn't need to be any good at all, though no indicator of a distinctive sensibility. Nor were two 1964 action movies shot back-to-back in the Philippines, Flight to Fury and Back Door to Hell, though they commenced his brief but key collaboration with Jack Nicholson (who wrote the first as well as acting in both).

The next year they did another two-for-one deal for Corman, Nicholson now producing as well. Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting were low-budget westerns shot in Utah, intended for the bottom half of drive-in and grindhouse double bills. As Hellman later said, the expectation that they'd fly so far below radar was freeing: "Any thoughts about doing something different were for our own satisfaction. We never thought that anybody would notice."

Evidently Corman and/or distributors noticed, because these two idiosyncratically spare Old West odysseys into ever more desolate (and deadly) terrain wound up being sparsely released around the globe as a seeming afterthought over the next many years, then falling into public domain limbo. (You can still find cheap dupes on fly-by-night labels in $1 bins.) The Nicholson-penned Whirlwind has him, a young Harry Dean Stanton, and Rupert Crosse (1969's The Reivers) as itinerant cowhands mistaken for killer bandits, chased into the desert by vigilantes who'll shoot first and hear claims of innocence later.

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