Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting

In the Spring of 1965, when a struggling young director named Monte Hellman, a rag-tag group of actors, and a small production crew ventured into the Utah desert to film a pair of low-budget westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, no one expected that the results would turn out so marvelously. Both films would be shot simultaneously and both would be financially backed by B-movie mogul Roger Corman, with whom Hellman had previously worked as director (The Beast from Haunted Cave in 1959, Flight to Fury and Backdoor to Hell both from 1964) and as editor (for numerous Corman productions). The Shooting would be lensed first, with an 18-day shooting schedule. After that, there would be a week of prep-time for Ride in the Whirlwind, then another 18 days to get it in the can.

It is difficult to imagine two finer films being made under such a schedule. But both came equipped with tight scripts, accomplished actors, and a fresh approach to the postwar American western genre. These films were haunted by JFK’s assassination and the subsequent Lee Harvey Oswald shooting. These films were suffused with the American love of firearms and the violence meted out in the name of justice, by men who were proudly and defiantly men of action. But ironically, Hellman’s films do not identify with either the gunslinger or the idealistic hero. In keeping with the climate of the tumultuous early-1960s, Hellman’s main characters are men of confusion and quiet desperation. Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) in The Shooting and the cowboys Vern (Cameron Mitchell) and Wes (Jack Nicholson) in Ride in the Whirlwind all seem to regard their predicaments with an existential scream of why?

Will Hutchins, Millie Perkins, and Warren Oates in The Shooting.
The Shooting is by far the more enigmatic of the two films. Scripted by Carole Eastman (who would later pen the screenplay for Five Easy Pieces in 1970) under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce, the film is a leisurely-paced psychological western about an aging ex-bounty hunter, Willett Gashade, and his young partner, Coley (Will Hutchins, in a wonderfully comic performance), who are hired by a mysterious woman to track a man through the desert.

From the moment that the woman (never named in the film) arrives on the scene, a fierce power play develops. Played by fresh-faced Millie Perkins, the woman is a cipher – pretty, yet dressed like a gunslinger; quick with a smile and girlish coquetishness, yet equipped with a steely glare that is purely sociopathic. She is the center of the storm, but screenwriter Eastman does not paint her character as merely a vamp or a femme fatale. That would be too neat and tidy. Perkins’ character, like everyone except possibly Coley, is shrouded in mystery. She is unreadable. One of the most telling and wonderfully cryptic of all her scenes is when she takes Gashade to retrieve her belongings from her dead horse. She says she shot the horse after it stumbled and broke its leg. Gashade inspects the horse and angrily tells her there was nothing wrong with the creature. Perkins passively stares at him for what seems an eternity. But then her mouth betrays a faint smile, though one as ambiguous as that of the Mona Lisa’s.

DVD cover artwork for The Shooting.
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The woman’s partner, Billy Spears (Jack Nicholson), is an equally mysterious figure, though one who is more easily categorized as a "bad guy." There is no mistaking Billy’s penchant for gunplay and rowdiness. What intrigues us -- what keeps us watching, studying such a familiar western figure -- is his relationship with Perkins. Are they brother and sister or lovers? Or both? They dress alike and it's obvious that Perkins looks up to him. At times Perkins seems to envy Billy’s lack of conscience. But she still fights her emotions, her empathy. During the scene when Gashade is digging a grave in the sand with his bare hands, she watches him hunched over his work. "What are you doing?" she asks, barely masking her contempt. Billy watches also -- his face remaining impassive, even though he was directly involved in the death. Billy has already lost his soul. Perkins’ anger, on the other hand, seems to almost be self-directed. Angry with herself for caring.

But the biggest mystery of all is that of Gashade. Warren Oates supplies the role with a quiet dignity and uncertainty that remains truly haunting. From the opening credits, when we first see the ex-bounty hunter kneeling by a pond drinking a cup of coffee to the film’s finale atop the craggy rocks where Gashade comes eye to eye with his prey and his fate, the man’s actions are rarely understandable. We know little about him during the film, and by the ending we feel certain that we do not know anything. From Gashad’s slicing of the flour bags on his horse which leave a trail back to his camp (so that the woman will follow him?), his acceptance of the woman’s offer to track down the man in the first place (does he need the money that badly?), to his persistence in completing the job to the bitter end (Gashade tells Coley he has his "own reasons" for doing so), his true motivations remain obscure.

Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shooting.
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There is no denying the deftness of Hellman’s direction and Eastman’s wonderfully organic and brave screenplay. Yet much of the film’s strengths also reside in Gregory Sandor’s dusky cinematography -- riders captured against the encroaching sunset or dwarfed by the noonday’s sun, a man lying beneath an umbrella in the middle of nowhere, the final eerie image of a wounded Billy staggering in the desert. Sandor would go on to lens Ride in the Whirlwind, as well, and evoke the sadness and desolation of life in the wild west even better.

The Shooting arguably benefits from it ambiguities. The power contained within lies not in its answers, but within its many questions.

Ride in the Whirlwind, on the other hand, strips away the former film’s sometimes surreal edge and existential preoccupations, though it retains much of its irony. While The Shooting evokes Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and the assassinations of JKF and Oswald, Ride in the Whirlwind lives in the shadow of the country’s history of vigilantism and lynch mobs. The film is also a more straightforward affair. But don’t mistake Whirlwind’s direct style for a lack of ambition. If anything, the film is even more powerful, since it evokes the ghosts of the western genre to an even greater degree than The Shooting. The west of Ride in the Whirlwind is the west of John Ford, the Duke, and Remmington paintings -- though seen with an unflinching eye and hard-edged cynicism. This is not a land of black and white, only grey. There are no bad or necessarily good men here. Just men who want to survive and who will do anything to survive.

DVD cover artwork for Ride in the Whirlwind.
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The film’s plot, like that of The Shooting, is simple. Three cowboys on their way back to Waco, Texas inadvertently find themselves in the company of five outlaws who are being hunted by a local posse. After spending the night alongside the cabin where the outlaws are holding out, the three cowboys wake up the next morning and find themselves in the middle of a fierce gun battle when the posse makes a surprise attack. The cowboys make a run for it (they have already laid witness to the lynch mob’s form of justice), deciding that they will at least have a fighting chance at survival if they flee. If they stay, they will most certainly be strung up with the rest of the outlaws. Only two of the cowboys get away -- Vern (Cameron Mitchell) and Wes (Jack Nicholson) -- and soon they are not only fighting to stay alive, but fighting to make sense of an increasingly more absurd and horrifying situation.

Mitchell’s and Nicholson’s performances are beautifully understated and quietly mesmerizing. Nicholson never indulges his own forceful cinematic personality. But the film’s greater performance comes from Cameron Mitchell. Though he appeared in countless B-movies, as well as Hollywood and Broadway productions (he originated the role of Happy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), Mitchell rarely had a chance to really shine in a role. In Ride in the Whirlwind, he certainlly does.

Jack Nicholson in Ride in the Whirlwind.
Like Gashade in The Shooting, there is a quiet dignity burning within Vern. But there is an infuriating aspect to his and Wes’ personalities as well. They are both men of few words, and because of that, they are unable to articulate their predicament to the only people who can help them -- a farmer and his family. Even when Vern and Wes are alone with the farmer's wife Catherine (Katherine Squire) and her daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins), the two men are unable to explain the situation. Though perhaps that is because neither one of them truly understand the situation. If there is any existential residue left from the previous film’s cinematic delirium, then it certainly resides in Vern and Wes’ distressing predicament.

Where much of The Shooting’s power came from its mystery, much of Whirlwind’s power comes from its love of detail and authenticity -- the cowboys’ lilting vernacular is pitch perfect, the dirtiness of the clothes, the dreariness of the outlaws’ cabin as the men drink from a whiskey bottle, the everyday drudgery and routine of the farm. The lonesomeness of the old west has rarely been so beautifully evoked. Much of this is due to Nicholson’s excellent and thoroughly researched screenplay.

Unlike the Hollywood westerns that came before Hellman’s, which were enamored with the myths of the old west, or the Italian westerns of the 1960s which were in turn enamored with the myths of Hollywood, Hellman’s film attempts to strip away all simulacra and forge a new identity. The iconic images of the old west are not merely turned on their head; they are reconfigured and reimagined for their own time and place. Imagine a western seen through the eyes of an Italian neo-realist.

But Hellman’s films were not meant to overthrow the status quo, unlike many revisionist westerns that came after. Hellman’s films -- despite their ambition to stand alone artistically, while at the same time make some money -- still felt a kinship with the westerns of yesteryear.

Unfortunately, Hellman’s films were never released theatrically in America. They were eventually sold to television as a package deal in the late-'60s, where their cult status began to be forged. The films furthered their reputations on videocassette, though they were only available on various public domain labels.

Thankfully, VCI’s DVD releases have changed all that. Both films have been digitally restored and have been letterboxed to their proper aspect ratios of 1.85:1, as well as enhanced for 16X9 TVs. Director Hellman and actress Millie Perkins have contributed commentary tracks for both discs, moderated by Dennis Bartok, who is programmer for The American Cinematheque. Their commentary tracks offer plentiful background information and add considerable enjoyment to these landmark cult films. Hopefully, in time, these films will break free of their cult status and simply join the pantheon of other great films.


Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting are now available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. Both DVDs feature fully restored transfers from 35mm inter-positive prints. These transfers were supervised by director Monte Hellman and enhanced for 16x9 TVs. In addition, both discs include a photo gallery and an audio commentary track featuring Hellman and Millie Perkins. Suggested retail price: $29.99 each. For more information, check out the VCI Entertainment Web site.