On Monte Hellman

A master of the Alternative Western.

Full Disclosure: This Author has written about Hellman’s films before, and even guested on Devin’s very own podcast, The Canon, defending his masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop. He is one of my favorite filmmakers and I’ve had the pleasure of drinking his margaritas, eating his flapjacks, petting his sheepdog and being fired by him.

It’s tough to read about Monte Hellman’s films without the word “existential” popping up within the first paragraph. His films have a consistent drive to examine the loneliness of modern man, a Sisyphean journey, the mouth agape question of what the fuck we are doing here and why. It’s no wonder that during his heyday, his work of the ‘60s and ‘70s, those were common quandaries. While Hellman made a lot of Westerns, even his present-day films, like Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, used the tenets of the genre in a contemporary setting. He helped establish what we call the Modern Western, Existential Western or, case-in-point, Alternative Western. The distinction between the traditional Western of Ford, Tom Mix or Boetticher and the “Acid” Westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s is where Hellman lived and worked, and what continues to be mined today. He managed to maintain a traditional aesthetic while still being of his time. The ability of a filmmaker like Hellman in speaking to his audiences’ empathies, their current mood, with certain hallmarks, is what keeps his work consistently within the sub-genre. It is as if he distilled the philosophy of the Western, its sparseness, solitude, its contrast, into a language that could be spoken under any circumstance.

Hellman straddled the American New Wave and yet never achieved the monetary success or acceptance into the cultural consciousness that his peers did. Peckinpah, Penn, Hill and Hopper weaved their way into iconic representations of cinema and, until recently, Hellman’s films were relegated to a status just above underground. To cinephiles, his work was just as influential as Easy Rider or Bonnie and Clyde, and yet it took the digital revolution to make it as accessible. Hellman was often just ahead or behind the curve, or perhaps his movies were simply positioned left of center, making them that much more important to inspire and stand staunch next to the films that were more popular. Over the last decade, his films have been rediscovered, distributed by prominent keepers of the flame like Criterion, and his impact is now undisputed alongside other masters of this specific sub-genre.

By 1965, Monte Hellman and his pal, screenwriter and aspiring actor Jack Nicholson had already made two films together, back-to-back, in the Far East. They worked for independent producer Roger Corman, whose brand was youth-oriented movies, often subversive, and consistently within the confines of specific genres, ranging from War to Horror to Western. Hellman had met Corman years earlier and was familiar with his penchant for making back-to-back genre films in the same location with the same cast and crew. It stretched their budget and indemnified one production from failure if the other could make a fair profit. Having made two War pictures in the Philippines a couple years before, getting an order for two Westerns to be shot in Utah over the course of six weeks wasn’t particularly daunting. Nicholson wrote one script while Hellman asked another pal, Carole Eastman, to write the other. Eastman would later write Five Easy Pieces and The Fortune while Nicholson would unfortunately never find much success as a screenwriter and slummed it as a thespian for much of his career. Hellman cast friends from his and Nicholson’s acting class, including prominent character actor Warren Oates, who Nicholson had seen recently in a production of a small play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and found to be incredibly compelling. While the movies were a huge strain on Nicholson’s friendship with Oates and Hellman, Oates would go on to become Hellman’s most frequent collaborator over most of his films.

The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind predate their comparisons in the American New Wave, generally though to have started somewhere around 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and surely to have been kicked into gear, literally, by Easy Rider in 1969. They’re quiet films, limited in scope by their budget, but also in their stories. Both films are about interpersonal relationships between a few people, and the risks that they take by having faith in one another. There’s a journey, road trips that become common themes in Hellman’s films and in Westerns alike, and while the characters depend on one another, they are very much singular, alone, often selfish. Within his confines, Hellman speaks to what would have been a growing sense of change, being out of time, both culturally and literally. Like most Westerns, everything is tenuous, a major potential for failure, along with the yearning for survival, a drive to simply exist.

Both films pose a question about whether their characters are running away from or towards their destiny, and there’s no preciousness as to how it ends. Sentimentality and honorariums, strong hallmarks of traditional Westerns, are eschewed, and Hellman utilizes cinematic tools that would soon become common in the genre, such as slow-motion, realistic violence and limited score. He often introduces us to the bad guys first, and mutually assured destruction between characters takes precedent over who’s right and wrong. Unlike many of the genre, the conflict is not whether good triumphs over evil, but rather forcing the audience to decide which is which. Between the two films, our protagonists are forced to make decisions for their own self-preservation, their allegiances to friends, family and women. In a very youthful, modern take, they accept their impending resentments.

After the two Westerns, Hellman made what is considered his most influential film, Two-Lane Blacktop, casting again Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. It’s a contemporary movie about a road-trip, a never-ending race, that could easily have traded muscle cars for steeds and found itself in the Old West. Like so many homesteaders and cattle-punchers who never had a home, its characters keep moving simply because they’d die standing still. The movie is about movement, the definition of driving. Similarly, his lesser-known but even more existential film, Cockfighter (also produced by Corman), is a modern-day trope about a cowboy without a horse, desperately hanging on to his drive. He had Warren Oates star in his adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel about a man so obsessed with his passion that he takes a vow of silence as penance and traverses the country in search of redemption from his failure. Oates’ performance outpaces a similarly terse and laconic icon, Eastwood’s Man With No Name, by giving the stoic cowboy pathos and vulnerability to drive him forward, as opposed to simply being a badass. These are films that use America, its landscape and ethos of freedom and potential for success, to illustrate just how solitary we all are. They are Westerns at their heart, standing on the shoulders of similar stories told about a time a century earlier.

Hellman returned to the “true” Western in 1978 with China 9, Liberty 37. It was his last collaboration with Oates before the actor’s death, and, as is Hellman’s way, utilized both the contemporary temperature and traditional styling to speak within the genre. After spinning the orthodox Western in his first two attempts and then using the genre’s foundation to build two contemporary films, Hellman found himself, an American, making a Spaghetti Western. By the late ‘70s, a full decade after Leone and Corbucci solidified the sub-genre, Westerns (of any variety) were waning. Little is known about the production of China 9, Liberty 37, other than Hellman’s pal, Sergio Leone himself, showed up on set occasionally, and it was barely distributed by the fly-by-night “Poverty Row” production company that handled its American release. Larger in scope and scale than Hellman’s Corman Westerns, China 9, Liberty 37 maintained the foundations of the Spaghetti Western, namely technical aspects like limited/low-quality live sound (resulting in overdubbing), widescreen aspect ratio and brilliant artists slumming it. In Giuseppe Rotunno, he had one of the greatest cinematographers ever, Federico Fellini’s cameraman. His star, Fabio Testi, was the kind of boring bohunk that had become common in EuroCrime and Spaghetti Westerns, continuing to keep it consistent within the sub-genre. It was Oates’ performance and Hellman’s drive to existentialism that still allowed the personal brand to overtake the limits of the style. Using the common tropes of “one last gig”, the impending industrialization of the railroad (such as in Once Upon a Time in the West) and sheer revenge, the film paints a picture of a cuckolded, reasonable older man, played by Oates, who engenders sympathy in spite of being a curmudgeon. Like another one of Oates’ characters, in Fonda’s The Hired Hand, he’s a man trying to find identity in his relationship. It makes him vulnerable and sympathetic when his rival steals his girl, and later, when they’re forced to team up, still has you rooting for him. It’s a very fitting end for both Hellman and Oates in their Western careers, operating in a sub-genre that’s paying homage to the types of films they had made a decade earlier. These days you’d call it “meta”, which inherently, the genre has always been. It is a style that requires a certain cynicism, acceptance of the way things were and how they’ve been spun, shifted and changed, which they were doing more in the '60s and '70s than ever before in the history of cinema. With that, Hellman’s Westerns were truly a sign of the times, representative of the shifting cultural and political dynamics through the lens, pun intended, of a genre that was all about it to begin with.

These days, Hellman enjoys his status as the most accessible of the New Hollywood Masters. He teaches frequently, does not shy from public appearances, and even has been known to rent out parts of his small estate in Hollywood to guests, students and colleagues. He’ll even make you flapjacks if you stay the night. He’s constantly got something in development, and has no compunctions about discussing his body of work and the roundabout way his idiosyncratic career has played out. Much like the cowboys in his films, both of their time and in anachronism, he doesn’t bullshit, doesn’t limit and remains firmly staunch while always friendly. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if Monte ever realized the qualities he shares with the archetypes he makes movies about, but he wouldn’t be the type to admit it. He’s a firm believer in letting films speak for themselves. Like the stories he tells about the men not terribly unlike him, he wouldn’t be apt to discuss it, but rather show you.

It’s been years since I’ve seen or spoken to Monte, but in my limited personal experience with him, he’s just as mercurial, deep and personable as the challenging stories he tells. Often, when I’m feeling a little lethargic creatively, I’ll flip through one of the biographies I have of his, that he signed to me when I met him the first time, and I’ll look at the inscription. It’s one of his favorites to write for fans, a motto from Two-Lane Blacktop, “You can never go fast enough.” In true spirit of the Western, so many of his films are about a journey as opposed to its destination, and I take that tagline as advice on how to travel, through cinema and maybe a bunch of life.