Deader Than a .357 Magnum: Electra Glide in Blue and the Noir of the Road

When people think of noir and neo-noir, the name Robert Blake does get bandied about periodically. After all, he has either been the star of or a rather central figure of two very interesting films in the genre: In Cold Blood (1967) and Lost Highway (1997). However, I would like to posit that there is a third film in his repertoire that would fit the bill: James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973).

On the 15th of January, I originally had other plans. I waited around for a while, but when those appeared not to be happening, I hopped on my bike and raced down to LACMA for one of the double features that they were having as part of their “True Grit: The Golden Age of Road Movies” series. Although I had missed nearly the whole series, I wasn’t that heartbroken as I had seen many of them on the big screen before. These two films, however, were different. It was Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and Scarecrow (1973).

My ticket for Electra Glide in Blue, the first film in the double feature that night

The first film, Electra Glide in Blue, was a film a friend had told me about ages ago, whilst jamming the cassette into her car stereo and chatting excitedly about how much she loved the film. Ever since then, I had always associated it with her. Looking back now, however, I realize that I had seen images of the film poster and ephemera previous to that, and always imagined it to be a great deal more fetishistic, due to the imagery surrounding it. In truth, I had always associated it with Cruising, and this was due, quite simply, to 2 things: both films being made in the 1970’s and having what seemed to be high leather content in the costumes.

And I am not completely deficient in noting that Electra Glide is a film about fetishes and fetishizing. Looking at the poster one can see the basic authoritarian visuals mixed with a flourish in the font and colors that make it less threatening and more sexually charged:

And the trailer…well, that just speaks for itself.

What I was incorrect about was the subject of the fetish. And how that was to play out. Even upon seeing the trailer the first time, I may not have caught the simple beauty that is this film’s nasty, biting reality. But I think that’s what I love about films in this time period. Biting, nasty things are often the most beautiful. Thus, Electra Glide.

Electra Glide is what I would also call a Weirdo Noir. It’s not Neo Noir, as it doesn’t necessarily play by the rules as set out by all the academics and scholars who have written about that part of the genre. But what I love about film noir is that, from its genesis, it involved politics, nihilism, sexuality, and violence. If Electra Glide in Blue isn’t based on all of those things, I’ll eat my heels.

In the first place, the production and cast is a big part of our Weirdo Noir argument. We have three major figures: Robert Blake, Conrad Hall, and Elisha Cook, Jr. All three of these men were well versed in the film noir world, and are well-known within the noir canon. Who could forget the infamous poisoned glass of water that Elisha Cook Jr drinks in The Big Sleep? Or his other various roles in things like The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, or The Killing? I sure can’t! And Blake’s role as Perry Smith, the cold killer that director Richard Brooks revealed to have at least a somewhat human side in In Cold Blood will forever give me chills.

Then there’s Conrad Hall. Hall and Blake had worked together once before on In Cold Blood, and getting Hall was quite a coup, since the man had just won an academy award for shooting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even more interesting than that, Electra Glide was a labor of love. As Joe Valdez states in his brilliant piece,  not only did the film have a small budget, and a first time director, but the shooting plans were non-union and incredibly bare bones . More importantly, even with all of those restrictions, Valdez notes, “Hall was intrigued enough to offer himself for the job. Guercio forfeited his entire director’s salary so he could afford to pay the renowned cinematographer.”

Electra Glide in Blue was a true noir chemical experiment. By adding each element into the “beaker,” the result was an explosion of epic proportions. One would have to assume that there would have been at least some familiarity with each of these characters past works. They hadn’t been that long ago. Therefore, they each brought with them a certain noir sensibility to a film which defies categorization. According to William “Bill” Blick, writing for Senses of Cinema, Electra Glide is not the conventional 70’s Easy Rider-type film, nor is it a simple cop drama. It almost seems to occupy an ambiguous area in-between. He writes, “Using the structure of a murder mystery, the film reveals more than just conventional mystery plot twists. Blue unpeels layer after layer of its complex characters. While primarily a character study, the film also deals with the struggle for understanding between the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out generation and the older established order represented by the police.”

One of the best things about noir is its elasticity and tendency towards the ambiguous, whether that is in morals, sexuality, or otherwise. People will argue until the cows come home about putting hard dates on when actual film noir starts and stops (“It ends with Touch of Evil, dammit!”), and when neo-noir begins, but what I enjoy is that these arguments exist. What this means is that there is room to discuss. Therefore, a film like Electra Glide, which has been projected in a road movies film fest, shelved in the “cult movies” section of a DVD shop, and otherwise discussed in 70’s film terminologies, can also be seen within the noir lens.

JOHNNY: Did you know that me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height? Right down to the quarter-inch? Did you know that?…Did you know that he was so short that they used to have to dig a ditch for the girl to stand in to kiss him? You didn’t know that, huh?

Johnny Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is more than slightly obsessed with Alan Ladd. He sees things in him that are the same and things that he would like to be. When we meet him, he is simply a Vietnam vet who is not only the shortest cop on his highway patrol team, but seems to be treated as though he is “small.” But Wintergreen does not see himself as small. He has ambition. Thus his interest in Ladd. To Wintergreen, Ladd is still relevant and sexy, therefore making him relevant and sexy. He approaches some girls at a sandwich bar, and uses his “Ladd lines” to flirt with them, only he takes it even further. He not only makes Ladd’s physicality specific to his own, he also references a particular film which, in a way, also mirrors his own life.

JOHNNY: I remember one time I heard somebody say “Do you know what was Alan Ladd and William Bendix’s first movie?” and just like that, I said The Blue Dahlia.

In Blue Dahlia, Alan Ladd plays a character who is an ex-navy man. The story itself is a peculiar one that also lends itself to Electra Glide and potentially Wintergreen’s own relationship with his partner, Zipper, and his relationship to the public. Although Raymond Chandler’s book was much more explicit about the details and the Breen Office essentially forced the film to be quite neutered (to Chandler’s great displeasure), the film focuses on war’s intense ability to turn human beings into killers past the point of being on the battlefield. In a sense, Blue Dahlia, like many other noirs, was about how the war came home. And this is different from Vietnam in what way, pray tell? There are several instances within the film where Wintergreen’s identity as a Vietnam vet exhibit themselves. And while it is not explicitly stated that Zipper was in Vietnam, it is clear that the way that the war has “come home” to their particular community (corruption-wise, economy-wise, politics-wise) makes him analogous to any of the other figures from Dahlia, even if it is only tangentially.

Wintergreen, however, wants more. He wants to be the heroic figure out of it, and not the one who ends up spiraling downwards. Thus his strong desire to align himself with Alan Ladd, the hero of Dahlia and, indeed, the unblemished symbol of tough-guy perfection. As Foster Hirsch noted about Alan Ladd, he looked “like what a mogul’s idea of what American movie stars should look like.” (Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, 147).

Johnny Wintergreen cannot stand being a highway cop. He wants to be a homicide detective. And he actually makes it…sort of.  But, as in any noir, things go awry. And, like in many noirs, it is actually partially over a woman. Then he is returned to his “small man” status, and must cope with that. However, this is not how it ends. Electra Glide in Blue aligns with the existentialism and nihilism that is so prevalent in film noir as a whole. Just when you think it might be ok, it’s really not. But there are reasons for that which have been meticulously lain out for you within the last few reels. As a kicker, Hall’s cinematography in the last 10 minutes certainly packs a solid one-two punch to the skull.

Robert G. Porfirio wrote,”what keeps the film noir alive for us today is something more than a spurious nostalgia. It is the underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapist fare many were intended to be.” (“No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the film noir,” Sight and Sound, Autumn, 1976, vol.45, no.4) While Porfirio was talking about what we generally refer to as “traditional” noir fare, this quote could not be more perfect than for the category of Weirdo Noir, and thus Electra Glide in Blue. beyond all of the connections and the references, the mood of the film is what drives it towards the categorization. You could show this with The Killers, and be set. In fact, that would be a great double.  At the end of the day, when you think about it, you can’t get much more pessimistic than Wintergreen’s line in the middle of the movie, “Did you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a .357 Magnum?” If your mood wasn’t already on its way by then, there was your one-way ticket.

Book ’em, Noir-o!: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key

On February 9, I traipsed down to my local movie theater, The New Beverly Cinema, notebook in hand, excitement in heart. There was a double feature of two films that I had never seen in my favorite genre: film noir. At first, I thought I had seen This Gun for Hire, but as the film opened, I realized that I hadn’t. The opening sequence is so very memorable that there is no way I could have forgotten that!

Double your pleasure, double your fun at the New Beverly!

The beginning, in a San Francisco flophouse, made me think it was going to be a San Francisco noir (always fun! Who doesn’t enjoy seeing shots of Fisherman’s Wharf in the ’40’s?). But I was dead wrong. After Alan Ladd has an entertaining and violent run-in with a maid, tender moments with a kitten and a handicapped child, and commits the crime that the narrative of the film is based, the plot, like Ladd’s fate, heads south to Los Angeles.

These geographic locations, while endemic and indeed fundamental to the film noir genre, were my first clues that there might have been some “work done” on the original material. The opening credits are superimposed upon a leather-bound edition of the book with the author’s name prominently featured: Graham Greene. My familiarity with Mr. Greene first came as it did with many other people who I know through the film The Third Man. Although the stars of that film were as American as apple pie, the film is as British as tea and crumpets. Knowing this, having Veronica Lake utter massive pieces of dialogue at Alan Ladd about being an American patriot struck me as more than a little bit odd.

So I did what I normally do in this case: a bit o’ research. What I found was that, indeed, it was just as I thought: the source material had been tampered with, but for quite fascinating reasons. I am someone who loves to look into adaptations. I have written and spoken about them, and think that finding out the “story behind the story” is always fun- it’s the olive in my martini. This film was greenlit, essentially, after two things occurred. Most importantly, crime fiction had become an excellent area for the studios to develop scripts from. They were striking gold left and right in that arena. In addition, Graham Greene’s position within the literary community had achieved some notoriety.  This Gun for Hire, purchased by Paramount in 1936, was only developed as a script in 1942, after Warner’s remake of The Maltese Falcon did quite well. It was clear that This Gun could be risked at this point. And it was a good risk.

The original title of Greene’s work was A Gun for Sale, but published in the US as This Gun for Hire. But the title was not the only thing that they changed. Alan Ladd’s villainous character, Raven, is supposed to be hare-lipped and quite disfigured according to the literature. Up on the big screen, however, it became a bad wrist due to some nasty child abuse, thus bringing up both Freudian issues and incurring more sympathy for Ladd’s anti-hero/villain.

However, none of this is quite as intriguing as the political alterations that were made. The writers of the film, as keenly noted by Rose Capp, “embellished Greene’s left-leaning political thriller with some definitively American elements, not the least of which was the incorporation of prevailing American propagandist sentiments…Tellingly, the American script also transforms Greene’s wealthy industrialist Sir Marcus into a monstrous figure of capitalist corruption.” Not that big of a deal, right? That happened fairly often. It was 1942. It was wartime. Pumping a bit more propaganda in there was no big deal.  What I noticed that was a big deal was the person who put all of this together: Albert Maltz. Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten.

12 Dec 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Cited for Contempt. Los Angeles: Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered. They are (left to right), Robert Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Lawson, and Ring Lardner, Jr. Dalton Trumbo is scheduled to appear shortly. These are the men who refused to state whether or not they are Communists when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington recently. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

This Gun for Hire is the first thing on his list of credits, but…there is something unusual about the way that the material was translated. The “gung-ho spirit” was strange and forced. It seemed misplaced, even for a genre and a time that centered upon a certain amount of patriotic “umph.” When Veronica Lake makes her plea to Alan Ladd’s character to “do it for the cause” of America, it still seems that “the lady doth protest too much.” There is also something very significant in the main villain, Brewster. He is, as Capp points out, a figure of Capitalist corruption. Was Maltz still able to keep his (and Greene’s) voice within the material? As many of us know, the Hollywood Ten were not un-Patriotic. But they were critical of certain elements of the system that made it unlivable for the everyday man, much as Greene was. We may never know the answers to these questions, but watching the film, I did find this element fascinating.

The next film up was The Glass Key. Someone had tweeted on the New Beverly twitter feed that those who were going should look for similarities between this film and Miller’s Crossing. Being a HUGE fan of that film, I was even more excited to see The Glass Key than I had been in the first place. As the credits went up, the first thing I noticed was that, similar to This Gun for Hire, it was ALSO a film based on a book. So I was quite intrigued to see the transition from Dashiell Hammett to Coen Brothers and everything in between! To write that I was stunned is an understatement. There is more than a passing similarity.

When discussing Miller’s Crossing in his book, More Than Night, James Naremore notes that “the Coen brothers mix together ideas from The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Maltese Falcon, all the while carefully avoiding direct quotation from the novels. Although their film involves a certain amount of burlesque, it is in one sense deeply true to the imaginative world created by Hammett.” (Naremore, 214) Admittedly, I have not read all the originating source material, but I cannot help but feel that Naremore’s analysis is correct. When you watch Miller’s Crossing, it has elements of Falcon as well as Key but done in such a way that it falls into a category of films that I have dubbed Cinematic Cover Songs. The basic theory behind this holds that what we love about a good cover song is that it maintains the tune (thus we have recognition) but it spins it in an entirely new way so that we can enjoy it as though it were a new piece of media entirely. Thus Miller’s Crossing from the Dashiell Hammett literature as well as, I would argue, the films made from that material.

The Glass Key is a bit complicated, material-wise. The Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film from 1942 was not the first film adaptation. In fact, the first time this Hammett-penned story hit the silver screen was when Paramount filmed it in 1935. It was a property that had been owned since 1931, but due to the now heavily-enforced Production code, it had been going back and forth in order to deal with the more “unsavory” elements within the script; in particular, the corruption within government figures and authority figures.  This version of the film, was directed by Frank Tuttle (who also directed This Gun for Hire, by the way), starred George Raft and Edward Arnold, and didn’t seem to garner as much critical acclaim as its sibling film from 1942. James Naremore noted that it stayed closer to the Warner Gangster cycle of films, but made major alterations to the plot and characters in order to make nice with the Production Code Administration. (Naremore, 57)

The Glass Key, dir. Frank Tuttle, 1935

The Glass Key, dir. Stuart Heisler, 1942

The first Glass Key was left alone and would have probably stayed exactly how it was, a somewhat minor film, remembered only for being a Hammett adaptation and for having PCA issues. However, due to the same film/literature adaptation gold rush that gave This Gun for Hire a shot, Key was given another life. With the success of  1941’s Maltese Falcon (a piece that had two previous versions in its own right- the 1931 film of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady), Hollywood decided that perhaps Hammett’s writing had finally come of age, and they would try it again. Thus they remade Glass Key. Of course, Alan Ladd had just come off of This Gun for Hire. He had been remarkably successful in that breakout role as Raven, and his chemistry with Veronica Lake was undeniable, so they snatched him up, paired the two of them up again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All in all, it was a great night at the movies, I would say. Two brilliant films with some fascinating connections. But noir is like that. Misty, murky and secretive. Gotta walk down that alley, talk to the detective, chat up the girl, do the research. Never know what you’ll find…