Monte Hellman began his career as a film director in the late 1950s on an exploitation film entitled Beast From Haunted Cove. The film was produced by Gene and Roger Corman as one amongst their stable of steady exploitation and horror output, and Hellman was one minor name amongst a group who would later refer to themselves during this time as the ‘The Corman Film School.’
Up through these ranks, great American filmmakers and screenwriters began their careers and formed what would become the core of the New Hollywood film movement, or the American New Wave. Names amongst this illustrious group (then just a bunch of vagabonds and art school kids) include Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Brian De Palma, Curtis Harrington, George Hickenlooper, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Nicolas Roeg, and Robert Towne, just to name a few. Actors who got their start from this production house included Charles Bronson, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, and through his work with Monte Hellman and Corman especially, Jack Nicholson.
All four of Hellman’s first directorial projects were for the Corman brothers, including an uncredited co-director position on 1963’s The Terror, and direction of two films back to back in 1964: Back Door To Hell and Fight to Fury. But by 1966, Hellman had managed to secure no more film projects and was itching to develop something with the young, exuberant Jack Nicholson as a star. Corman suggested the two develop a Western, and later expanded his suggestion into a commission for two Westerns, to be made back to back over a six-week period (three weeks each) on a total budget of $150,000 USD, in an effort to save money by using the locations, cast, screenwriter, director, and production staff.
The first of these two projected pictures was adapted from a previously existing novel and seemed a fairly straightforward script about a man being forced at gunpoint to help a woman find a man who crossed her in the past, and who ultimately turns out to be the man’s twin brother. However, Roger Corman decided that once the initial script was completed, it was too dialogue heavy. As executive producer, he removed the first ten pages of the script and removed as much dialogue from the remaining script as possible without also rendering it insensible. The result was dramatic and made the film much more mysterious, the motives and relationships of its characters much more arcane and obscure, and resulted in something of the first true arthouse Western. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival that year alongside its partner film, Ride in the Whirlwind, it received near-universal acclaim, went on the following year to a respectable run in the Parisian arthouse circuit, and established Monte Hellman, for a time, as a hot ticket of the the American New Wave (which subsequently allowed him to direct his existential road masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop, which few studios today would ever even consider producing).
The film begins in media res, as the gunhand and cowboy Willet Gashade (played by one of the greatest actors of his generation: Warren Oates) finishes bivouacking in the desert and resting his horse, and himself, to recommence a journey toward the camp of an old friend named Coley. When he arrives, his friend doesn’t immediately recognize Gashade and fires a few warning shots at him before finally realizing who he’s aiming at. Coley has developed a deep paranoia after his and Gashade’s friend Leland Drum was gunned down, seemingly in cold blood two days prior whilst eating his breakfast. Coley never saw the assassin , but speculates that the man had a bone to pick with Drum as he and Coley moved through a town a few days prior and seemingly trampled a ‘little person’ with their horses. The visuals of this mythic event immediately present themselves to the viewer’s mind, and become even more viscerally challenging later as Coley admits that the ‘little person’ may in fact have been a child. A comparison with later Southern Gothic Western fiction by Cormac McCarthy with all of its brutality, symbolism, absurdism, paranoia, and nihilism is immediately apparent, especially insofar as McCarthy is definitely inspired by Revisionist Westerns like The Shooting in his masterful writing (the best this side of William Faulkner, maybe better).
The Shooting is very obviously a revisionist Western and a powerful piece of Southern Gothic as well. However, the designations that have really stuck with the film since the 1990s when these terms were codified are as an Acid Western or an Existential Western. The film more than subverts traditional Western tropes and moral designations by bringing to bear a nihilistic approach to the topic in which good is not present at all, and evil manages to survive to duke it out with Gashade another day. It is a film likewise about paranoia as no one is sure of the motives of any other character throughout the film, Coley knows not who killed Drum, Gashade knows not why The Woman has hired him to guide her through the desert in pursuit of some man, and no one is truly certain about the motives of the deadly, personified evil gunman Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson).
Uncertainty runs rampant, which mirrors the uncertainty of the counterculture of the mid-sixties and is an unhealthy, drug-fueled way of analyzing the events of the world around oneself. Even the landscapes in the film appear paranoiac as large rocks loom upon the horizon, each potentially hiding the quarry of The Woman who may mean death. The sands are white, bleached out, infinite, as if representing the moral wasteland prophesied by T.S. Eliot, wherein everything bodes salvation and light, but is ultimately just banal, just more desert. And those humans, and horses, roaming throughout this desert come to bad ends the further away from civilization and its constructed, though helpful, moral constructs and ways of operating derived from millennia of social evolution they become.
The film is at turns heady, distressing, mysterious, absurd, and beautiful, but potentially most important is the quest at its core. Gashade moves through this world, not knowing why The Woman appeared in his campsite with a dead horse who seemingly suffered no injuries, why she would offer him and Coley $1000 USD to guide her to Kingsley, why Drum was shot, what the encounter between him and the ‘little man’ really mean, who he is being hired to follow, and at base, who he really is in the first place. He constantly presses The Woman for more information about the journey, but comes up empty each time in his inquiries. He asks her for her name and she only responds that there is no point. But what exactly does she mean here? No point in telling him her name? No point in familiarizing themselves? No point in names when everyone is a lone traveler in a meaningless world made all the more meaningless when friends (‘the little man’) or loved one (‘a child’, her child?) can be cut down in the blink of an eye?
At the denouement of the film, Gashade finds that the man they have been tailing, the man he has been paid to track down is his own twin brother Coin. And Corman made it a point to make sure Gashade mentions that Coin is his brother on three separate occassions throughout the film. However, this is not readily apparent when watching the film, and at no point did I hear him refer to Coin as his brother. The more interesting interpretation in this light seems to me to be that Coin is literally Gashade’s Shadow, his doppelganger, the other side of the same thing which can erupt at any time and metamorphose a decent man into an unrepentant murderer. Here, Gashade’s quest is a dark night of the soul, a realization of the banality of man, of the evil latent potential in each person. And when he tracks his dark eternal opposite down unwittingly, and watches as it is gunned down by The Woman (another Jungian archetype), he is seen no more and the quest becomes a journey of self-realization, and the self-realization leads to the discovery of the self as disjointed and absurd and constructed, and this discovery leads to a archetypal suicide. But the good prevails in killing the darkness within as he wounds Spear’s gunhand as one of his final actions and ensures that at least some evil could be prevented in the future, and that his existence has, in the final equation at least some semblance of restoring order.
[Next up: Ride In The Whirlwind]