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MOVIE REVIEW

Retrospective to Salute Monte Hellman

September 09, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque at Raleigh Studios presents "3-Card Monte: The Films of Monte Hellman," a most welcome in-person tribute-retrospective of one of America's most resolute filmmakers, a spinner of existential, often allegorical tales and most recently, the executive producer of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

The Hellman retrospective, which will be presented the next two weekends, commences Friday at 7 p.m. with "Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971), which remains Hellman's most widely known film. In telling a tale about people who cover a lot of territory without really getting anywhere, Hellman risked making a movie that also ends up not going anywhere itself. Even so, it exudes the appeal of the open road, of speeding, of being constantly on the move, of putting one's skill--and perhaps manhood as well--to the test and comes across strongly in a hypnotic way as Hellman captures a panorama of sometimes beautiful, sometimes trashy rural America.

James Taylor and Dennis Wilson play a pair of monosyllabic street racers--driver and mechanic, respectively--who pit their expertise and specially modified primer gray '55 Chevy against Warren Oates, never better, as an aging, garrulous playboy, the owner of an orange Pontiac GTO. Beginning in Santa Fe, the race is to end in Washington, D.C., with the competitors' pink slips at stake. The race becomes an existentialist metaphor, the one thing that seems to give meaning and definition to the racers' lives--until they start losing interest in the competition. It will be followed at 9:30 p.m. with "Flight to Fury" (1965), a jungle thriller written by and featuring Jack Nicholson, the first of Hellman and Nicholson's four collaborations.

It's not too much to say that "The Shooting" (Saturday at 7 p.m.) and "Ride in the Whirlwind" (Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.) were the two major lost American movies of the '60s, not surfacing until January 1972 at the Royal Theater. Filmed back-to-back in the summer of 1965 with financing from Roger Corman--each film cost $75,000--both were directed by Hellman and were produced by him and Nicholson, who appears in both pictures. Nicholson also wrote "Ride in the Whirlwind," in which he stars with Cameron Mitchell. Adrien Joyce (Carol Eastman), who was to write "Five Easy Pieces," scripted "The Shooting," which features Oates.

They're both westerns, but Hellman is more closer in spirit to Ingmar Bergman than to John Ford. His is, again, an existentialist vision in which man is but a pawn of a capricious fate. He tells us precious little more than what his characters can know themselves; his is the art of the maximum effect achieved by a minimum of means.

Although both are austere and demanding in the extreme, "The Shooting" may well be Hellman's masterpiece, profound in its ambiguities, whereas "Ride in the Whirlwind" is no more than ironic. "Ride" tells of cowhands Mitchell and Nicholson, who are mistaken for members of a gang of stagecoach robbers in their flight from vigilantes and who take refuge from a settler and his family, whom they hold hostage. It is a moment of calm before the storm, and through the cowhands we experience the meaning of friendship.

"The Shooting" can be taken as allegory or suspense drama or both. Oates plays a gold miner who returns to camp to find one partner killed and his twin brother gone. According to the dazed fourth partner (Will Hutchins), the brother had to flee because he killed someone in town, perhaps a child. Just as Oates is wondering what to do, an imperious woman (Millie Perkins, who is the settler's daughter in "Ride") demands to be escorted across a vast desert for a price. Oates reluctantly agrees. Eventually, they're overtaken by a man (Nicholson) in natty black leather.

Hellman and Joyce, who allow us to make connections for ourselves, unfold their eerie story in such a fashion that it can be interpreted in several ways and on several levels, even as a Cain and Abel parable. "The Shooting" is also a striking study of a man (Oates) who eventually cannot distinguish between fears real and imagined.

Other series highlights include a full-length version of the 1974 "Cockfighter" (Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.) and the U.S. premiere of the 1988 "Iguana" (Sept. 21 at 7 p.m.). For full schedule and information: (213) 466-FILM.

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