|This is the day/your life will surely change...|
"Somebody died over lonelines. Sometimes it’s just that simple."
1) Even if I didn’t know the back story about how James William Guercio came to make this movie, it would be obvious that this was made by a musician. The way the film is paced, the way it’s structured, and the choices that Guercio makes in telling the story make it clear that this is someone who is more interested in making a symphony than telling a story--and for most of the film, that approach works....
2) ...however, there is a downside to having an artist who isn’t a filmmaker making your movie--namely, even for a 70‘s movie, there are stretches where this film drags to a halt. It’s not so noticable in the first act, where we’re getting to know Robert Blake’s John Wintergreen and the other characters...but the way the second act meanders is almost deadly to the viewer, and the way the film spools out for another fifteen minutes past the obvious coda (four of which is a still shot of the Arizona skyline)....well, it can wear on you.
3) Let me say this now--man, could Robert Blake act. We’re so used to thinking of him as this strange and sad figure who most likely killed his golddigging wife, but in this movie he brings John Wintergreen to vivid life. And the best thing about Blake’s performance is how Wintergreen is never too bad or too good to be believed--he’s literally a normal guy, and he is able to do both bad and good things believably without us losing respect for the character. Comparing him to the much broader Billy Green Bush’s Zipper makes you understand how deep Blake gets into his role.
4) I find it fascinating how there is much made of Blake’s shortness visually--but outside of a scene where he flirts with a girl while waiting for ice cream, neither Blake nor any of the characters make much out of it. Guercio seems to make more out of it as a contrast with everyone else, and maybe using Blake as a ‘little man’ who stands up to those people who have been badly used by the authority figures around him.
|You want proof that this is a 70's movie? Well, here you are!|
5) Guercio makes an interesting choice as to the color palette of the film. Interiors are always semi-dark and emphasizes reds and brown, making every scene seem to take place in a murky back room. Exteriors, on the other hand, are brightly lit and emphasizes blues and yellows, as if the world is open and full of promise. The contrast between these two palettes are furthmore used to startling effect in key scenes, particularly when Wintergreen discovers the dead body that he is convinced was murdered.
6) Elisha Cook’s Willie is a very compelling character....Cook makes him nearly non-verbal, frequently stretching out his sentences to become howls and screams in protest of his own isolation. And even though Willie does horrific things, he’s more a pathetic, sad figure than anything else.
7) There is only one real action sequence (I find it amusing that the closing credits refer to it as simply 'The Chase’)...but man, is it violent, full of crashes, burning cops and bloodied riders. Even if you begin to drift during that second act, this lengthy pursuit will snap you out of your lethargy.
|Sometimes you need to listen to someone no matter how|
primal their cries seem....
8) Once again, this is a film that could not be remade today. Not only do you have a glacial pace, not only do we have an ending that unspools over twenty minutes and two ‘false’ stops, but the ultimate fate of Wintergreen comes off as so arbitrary that I can easily imagine modern viewers booing it off the screen. Never mind that that fate is thematically consistent with what Guercio is doing...
9) And speaking of arbitrary, there are some things in the story that are presented and dropped suddenly (supposedly these plot threads were resolved in ten pages of script Guercio tossed out when the shoot got behind schedule). This may seem weird at first, but actually helps to build the sense that this is just a typical few days in this highway patrolman’s life, which allows us to then accept the abrupt and arbitrary nature of Wintergreen’s fate.
10) At its core, the best thing that can be said about this film is that Guercio creates this wonderful film about a character who feels real. Wintergreen may be the protaganist of the film, but he is not a hero. He does heroic things in investigating this murder case, but he does so for selfish reasons. He does try to be a decent person, frequently acting as a calming influence when his partner behaves like a douche, but he can also be a douche himself. And at the end of the day, it is his decency that seals his fate, which is why the film works with all its flaws.
Overall...an unjustly forgotten film that proves why the 70‘s were the last great decade of American movie making. Beautiful to look at and compelling to watch, this is essential viewing. And it’s bound to look good on Blu-ray, which is forthcoming from Shout Factory.