“Incompetence is the worst form of corruption.”
— spoken by detective Harvey Poole (played by Mitchell Ryan) in the 1973 movie Electra Glide in Blue
The 1973 motorcycle film Electra Glide in Blue reviewed by Everard Cunion in January, 2017
This cleverly crafted visual narrative features, at its start, what at first appears to be an elaborate suicide in progress. It is filmed in extreme close up, so you do not see who is involved. Many good stories return to the place where they start or they return to a similar situation. The latter applies here. Near the end of the story a suicide occurs, although that is not what it looks like. The victim is a man who, in his own estimation, is living an ideal life. That is, he was leading his ideal life until his line of work subjected him to a temptation that, in the heat of the moment, he could not resist. Finding himself in a situation in which he sees no way out, his subconscious mind engineers his own death at the hands of a friend and colleague.
It is also a story about a small town detective in the US state of Arizona, who, like under-educated provincial folk everywhere, is his own judge and jury. The problem is magnified when such an individual is surrounded mostly by others who agree with him, as is the case here. (Indeed, it is true of many of us until we are exposed to criticism, ideally constructive criticism.)
The close up treatment at the start continues in the next scene, in which Arizona motorcycle patrolman John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) and his girl Jolene (Jeannine Riley) are introduced. Unlike the zoomed-in look of that other early 1970s motorcycle movie Little Fauss and Big Halsey, where it is overdone, the effect works well in this instance. For example, you see Wintergreen down two raw eggs out of a glass in one go. Well, you don’t see it, but it seems like you do. (According to a version of the film narrated by producer and director James William Guercio, supplied as an extra on the 2005 MGM DVD, actor Robert Blake actually downed those two raw eggs…)
According to James William Guercio in the narrated edition, the crew was ‘kicked out’ of the town in which they wanted to film. The blond woman in the accompanying screenshot drove by where they were filming in the desert and they asked her if she would like to be in a movie. (Try to imagine how such a conversation might go nowadays…)
Billy ‘Green’ Bush is outstanding as patrolman Zipper, the tall guy on the right in the accompanying screenshot. That indoor firing range scene, where Wintergreen and Zipper acknowledge their differences, is prescient of a scene near the end of the story where Wintergreen uses his marksmanship with fatal consequences.
Like all good stories, the characters are complex enough to lend a feel of reality. This screenshot is from a scene in which megalomaniac Harvey Poole (played shockingly realistically by Mitchell Ryan) demonstrates his experience as a detective.
The band Chicago (including its road crew) joined a group of real bikers whom the makers of the film came across at a semi-abandoned pig farm. They all got to play hippies. (The bikes include a couple of moto-crossers, one of which looks to me like a Husqvarna.) The pig farm reminds me of the same thing (long gone) half a mile from where I live in southern England. Even the surrounding scenery is not that different, just ‘bigger’ and sunnier. We had mildly insane folk living in caravans and shacks nearby. (The character of that type in the film at first appears to be not a very good actor…) I often felt that, much like that character, some of those locals exaggerated their apparent insanity for purposes still unknown to me.
The story tells of people stuck in lives they would not choose. None more so than Jolene, who relates the tale of her life to great effect in this low budget film that became a ‘cult classic.’
The chase scenes are not particularly spectacular, but they are thoroughly real looking. According to James William Guercio in the narrated version, the actors did all their own riding except for some crashes.
According to research, music has an effect on the way we think, and it seems likely that drumming in particular can trigger certain kinds of subconscious reasoning. (As can a few good nights’ sleep.)
The accompanying screenshot is of the moment, immediately after the concert, when Wintergreen takes detective Poole’s advice and ‘listens to his inner self.’ And he suddenly realizes who the killer is.
Scenes fade from black-and-white through sepia to full colour. The end still — another wide angle desert landscape — fades the other way. It is an interesting effect in that many photos of the early 1970s were black and white, yet this film recalls the period, one small aspect of it anyway, in full colour.
Like most films made at that time, it does not move quickly enough to keep one’s attention in today’s world of opportunities and demands vying for one’s attention. Maybe we should slow down just enough to appreciate a classic movie like this once in a while.
Although the film contains a crime mystery, that is not its main point. It is a visual portrayal of western USA, both in physical terms and culturally in the late Vietnam War era. No single scene stands out to me as particularly great, but when I have watched the whole film, I feel I have seen an exceptional visual story.
The narrated version supplied on the DVD demonstrates just how low budget was the making of this film.
Related (internal link)
20th century Fauss — my review of the 1970 motorcycle racing movie Little Fauss and Big Halsy