To Hellman and back - Page 2

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.

In The Shooting, Nicholson doesn't appear until midpoint, joining Millie Perkins as a second black-hatted angel of death hiring two cowboys (Warren Oates, Will Hutchins) to lead them on a trek whose slowly revealed actual intent turns the guides into captives. That film, written by Carole Eastman (who later cemented Nicholson's post-Easy Rider stardom with 1970's Five Easy Pieces), not only introduced Hellman to his acting muse Oates but attracted enough stealth attention as a strikingly stark genre statement that it was shown out of competition at Cannes.

His mythos already growing in inverse proportion to his films' popular exposure, Hellman found himself one of the more experienced directors to benefit from the major studios' early 1970s panic — the old system having largely collapsed, and no clear roadmap to the future in place, they greenlit anything that seemed like it would appeal to the fickle new "youth" audience. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was one of many fascinating commercial flops that resulted, a cross-country race with a stubbornly detached, becalmed pulse, Oates wryly chewing scenery that included rock stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (as "The Driver" and "The Mechanic" respectively). The two had never acted before, and never would again — indeed you could say Taylor never has, since Hellman's cryptic communication on set left Sweet Baby James stiff as a board. This effect winds up seeming part and parcel of the film's droll in-joke tenor; it's an action movie about extreme acceleration, yet one that absolutely will not get agitated.

There was even less hope of commercial benefit from Cockfighter, a 1974 adaptation of a Charles Willeford pulp with Oates — one actor who never needed being told what to do in the claustrophobic Hellman universe — perfect as the mute loner drifting through an unlovely small-town America of sleazy small-time operators, wayward wimmen, and bloody gambling "sport." It's the last film in the Roxie's mini-retro, alongside the Corman westerns and Blacktop.

Hellman's subsequent career has largely been off the map — as a director and editor for hire, often fixing problems (like directors who die mid-production) without screen credit. Among films with his name on them, 1978's China 9, Liberty 37 was an Italian-produced, internationally-cast western that's okay but uncharacteristically driven by sex and sentiment. (Oates' rancher says "There ain't no soft-hearted gunfighters," but that's exactly what impossibly handsome Fabio Testi plays.) Direct-to-video killer Santa Claus sequel Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (1989) shoehorns just enough eccentricity into the slasher formula to be bearable for Hellman completists.

But the prior year's Iguana is something else: Shakespeare's Tempest (with a little Robinson Crusoe) in reverse, a willfully misanthropic castaway adventure in which the facially deformed Oberlus (Twin Peaks' Everett McGill) avenges himself on lifelong tormentors by escaping his 19th-century whaling ship and ruthlessly ruling his own "kingdom" of enslaved castaways on an uncharted isle. Its Canary Islands shoot apparently an off-screen form of torment, Iguana was (natch) barely released and remains undervalued, but it's as uncompromising, bitterly humorous and assured as anything Hellman's done.

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