It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that Electra Glide in Blue is a forgotten film. This is a movie that still has a certain cult cache, after all. But it’s not a film that gets mention in the same breath as other examples of late Sixties / early Seventies counter culture cinema – and there are good reasons for that. The most obvious is that despite the time it was made, the hippy characters and the American independent vibe that the film has, this is the story of a cop – a good cop at that – and told from his viewpoint. The criticism the film received at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, where it was accused of being a fascist film, is of course ludicrous – but this is a film that sits uncomfortably within the counter culture, road movie scene of the era. It’s been called – lazily but understandably – an anti-Easy Rider, and certainly there are points where the film itself seems to be aiming for that – early on, we see our lead character John Wintergreen (played by Robert Blake) using a photo from Easy Rider as target practice, immediately bringing to mind the conflict between the hippies and the squares, and placing Wintergreen, unfairly as it turns out, in the latter camp. It’s no wonder some people immediately assumed this would be a right wing reaction to that film. That Electra Glide in Blue ends with a moment that is the mirror image of the final scene of Easy Rider – only with hippies replacing rednecks and a cop as the person needlessly gunned down – simply reinforces the uneasy connection between the two films.
This connection seems to reflect the problems that Electra Glide… has as a movie. It’s not Vanishing Point and it’s not Dirty Harry. The film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. That lack of identity is what stops this from being one of the great films of the era – it’s too even handed in its criticisms to have an identity, painting both the establishment in the form of cops and the counter culture in the form of drug dealing hippies in a negative light. This nihilistic tone is both the strength and the weakness of the film.
Wintergreen is the Arizona motorcycle cop who dreams of being a detective, swapping the uniform and the bike for the suits and stetsons that he finds so appealing. He’s a decent cop, fair and polite to everyone he meets, cutting no slack for other cops pulled over for speeding and being clearly embarrassed when his lazy, redneck partner Zipper (Billy ‘Bush’ Green) hassles a hippy kid for kicks. His disillusionment has already set in, and he hopes a promotion will change things, and when he comes across an apparent suicide that he suspects is murder, he has his chance. Detective Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan) is impressed enough to take Wintergreen on as a driver, but soon proves to be another disappointment. An old-school hard ass, Poole is given to conspiracy theories about people who cry ‘police brutality’, yet is happy to engage in just such brutality when trying to get information out of a group of hippies, undoing Wintergreen’s efforts to gain trust by beating and threatening them. Relationships further sour between the pair when it becomes clear that they’ve been involved with the same waitress (Jeannine Riley in a role that seems somewhat crowbarred in to give the film a female presence), Poole being definitely the lesser of the men – a hard pill to swallow, especially as Wintergreen is so short (the film makes so many references to his lack of stature, it’s amazing that Blake came out as a stable and… oh…). In the end, Wintergreen’s eyes are opened to the fact that detectives like Poole are not the heroes he had imagined, but as petty, thuggish, insecure and corrupt as anyone else he has to deal with.
In many ways, Electra Glide… is very much a film of its time. The sense of cynicism and disillusion is certainly one that pervades throughout 1970s American cinema, and the societal conflicts that dominate the film were very much to the fore in real life at the time. You could argue that by making a cop the hero, the film is actually more subversive than many of the counter culture movies of the era – after all, what could be more controversial in what was ostensibly a film aimed not at the mainstream but at the indie crowd? And there is much here that is impressive. The opening and closing shots, both long shots of the endless highway stretching through the desert, are impressive – the film’s final moments especially remain amongst the most iconic in cinema. The fact that the film sets itself up to be a murder investigation and then casually, deliberately throws that aside is also pretty admirable – the killing ultimately means nothing beyond being a catalyst to bring Wintergreen and Poole together.
However, there’s something about the film that doesn’t quite click. For all his admirable qualities, Wintergreen feels like an under-developed character, and the fact that he is willing to simply observe other cops behaving badly does little to endear him to us. Blake doesn’t give the character much of a personality, and when we finally see him getting angry, it seems a little forced. In a film where everyone else is shown in a negative light, we need someone to relate to, but Wintergreen seems rather too lacking in personality.
There are very impressive action scenes – a chase sequence has remarkable stunts and genuinely startling moments of violence. But moments like this seem at odds with the rest of the movie, which is far more contemplative. As with its portrayals of the hippies and the cops, it feels like the movie is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Still, there is a lot about Electra Glide in Blue that is good. The film certainly deserves to be better known than it is, and James William Guercio, who came to this via record production (members of Chicago, who he worked with a lot, have roles here, namely Peter Cetera as hippy murder suspect Bob Zemko), really should’ve had more opportunities – this is his only film, and to come up with something as accomplished as this first time round suggests he had greater things in him.