Dir:- Monte Hellman
Starr:- Jack Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell, George Mitchell, Harry Dean Stanton, Millie Perkins
Genre cinema, when done effectively, cuts straight through the need for complex character arcs and intricate plotting. One of the most efficient genre stylists of the sixties and seventies was Monte Hellman, an acolyte of Roger Corman’s ‘pulp’ cinema factory and a populariser of Beckett in America. Together with a young Jack Nicholson, Hellman put together two spartan mid-sixties westerns that seem imbued with an existential angst that comes straight off the pages of Kierkegaard’s diary, or more fittingly Andy Adams’ The Log of a Cowboy. Hellman and Nicholson were working together on a Corman vehicle called The Shooting and Nicholson suggested that they utilise much of the same cast to produce a script, he himself had devised, on the cheap. Star and director stumped up their own cash to ensure that Corman greenlit the movie and having wrapped The Shooting they quickly set about Ride in the Whirlwind’s painfully simple premise.
The plot is a perfectly self-contained mechanism, that starts with a stagecoach robbery and ends with a shoot-out. For much of the film’s 78 minutes the protagonists are holed up in a settler’s cabin, desperately trying to evade the vigilante posse who wrongly believe them of having played a part in the robbery. The key narrative twist is that the three cowhands played by Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell (Buck from The High Chaparral) and Tom Filer get mistaken for the highwaymen that they have inadvertently camped up with for the night. From this slightest of narratives Hellman spins out a frantically tense and claustrophobic western, that simply refuses to fall into predictable cliché.
Hellman was responsible for one of my favourite films of the seventies in Two-Lane Blacktop and with Ride in the Whirlwind he utilises a similarly minimalist aesthetic to maximum effect. It helps that Nicholson’s script (following on from Corman features like Flight to Fury, also alongside Hellman) is both witty and world-weary, making the dialogue some of the bleakest and most engaging in any western pre-High Plains Drifter. The movie opens on the operations of Blind Dick’s (a brief Harry Dean Stanton performance) gang as they pull off the stagecoach robbery. The next sequence cuts between the vigilante posse tailing Blind Dick’s gang and our three protagonists Wes (Nicholson), Vern (Cameron Mitchell) and Otis (Filer) setting out on the cowboy trail. In a remote cabin in a deep valley, Blind Dick’s gang attempt to lay low, only for the three cowhands to turn up looking for a bit of food and a place to sleep for the night. Both of the groups are deeply mistrustful of each other, but based on the relative cordiality of their interactions, they maintain an uneasy peace through the lonesome night. It is this last detail that Hellman evokes particularly effectively, as he uses the atmosphere of fear and mistrust, as well as the desolate and rocky desert landscapes, to highlight the loneliness of such frontier existences. Late on in the movie Vern, whilst talking with Catherine (the mother of Millie Perkins’ Abigail), makes explicit the loneliness that he feels, suggesting that even in company he is cut adrift from the rest of humanity.
At daybreak, the following morning, the film brings all three of its plot strands together in the valley, as the vigilante posse, who know the terrain far better than either the gang or the cowhands, surround the cabin and force their ultimatum upon those that they have assumed are responsible for the stagecoach robbery. In Nicholson’s wild west the outlaw lawlessness is met with a blind vigilante justice, which further underscores the deep pessimism of the film’s main themes (imprisonment, injustice, loneliness and violence). The three cowhands are trapped in a predicament not of their own making and which prevents them from proclaiming their own innocence. The only option left open to them is to flee, but to do that on foot would seem like nothing more than a prolonged suicide.
This is really the first movie in which Nicholson’s future star-power begins to emerge. As the youngest of the three cowhands he is the keenest to experience the thrill of danger and clearly has longterm ambitions for his frontier life. In this way Cameron Mitchell’s Vern is really a surrogate father figure, breaking the newbie into the world of the saddle sore and weary range rider. Filer’s Otis is perhaps the weakest of the trio of protagonists, seeming unable to adequately define his role, or deliver the lines he has been given at all convincingly. Thankfully Filer fades from the film fairly quickly, and it is when Vern and Wes strike out on their own that the film ups the ante and makes a bold bid for ‘classic’ status. The huntsman like way that the vigilante posse close-in on the two innocent men, moving them deliberately into areas of the valley that it is almost impossible to climb out of, is an exercise in genuine horror, as there is nothing more frightening than the gradual realisation that you have all but run out of options. The cruelty of the landscape plays a significant role here, with pathways frequently leading to dead ends, leaving both men having to claw their way along treacherous cliff-edges and crevices.
Having surmounted the seemingly impossible odds of escaping the valley, Wes and Vern then find themselves in a similar situation to Blind Dick’s gang, having to find a place to lay low till their trail goes cold. The final third of the film takes place on an isolated horse ranch where Abigail and her elderly parents are held captive by Wes and Vern (something that clearly goes against both men’s moral codes). Millie Perkins brings an inscrutable sexuality to these final scenes, where she will not meekly do Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell’s bidding. In a sequence where Nicholson’s Wes looks at the horses, there is the pronounced undercurrent of sexual threat, which is almost solely as a result of Perkins understated turn, particularly as both Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell are clearly honourable guys. Perhaps the most telling detail in the closing stages of the movie is the brief sequence when Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell play a game of chequers as they wait out their time on the ranch. There is a heartbreakingly elegiac quality to this childish pursuit, which Hellman juxtaposes against the discussions of the vigilante posse, who are about to give up their search after just one last look at that isolated ranch house. It’s hard to find another western that thinks of the big existential questions, whilst deploying such an economical narrative. With Ride in the Whirlwind Hellman and Nicholson have produced a lean and devastatingly effective suspense-thriller and a philosophical rumination on the terrifying inevitability of the western frontier.