Throughout a long and extraordinary career, Monte Hellman (b. 1932) has remained simultaneously at the cutting edge and the very farthest margins of the post-studio-era American cinema. In influential major films such as The Shooting (1966) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Hellman defined a distinct brand of art cinema by reinventing traditional genre formulas – here, those of the Western and the road movie – to create boldly minimal and mesmerizing portraits of characters inexorably driven by obscure desires. Hellman's debut feature and improbable entry as an auteur director was, in fact, a horror picture – Beast From Haunted Cave (1959), an almost impossibly threadbare – creature feature – produced by Roger Corman and transformed by Hellman into a gripping, visually striking crime drama that announced his unusual talents as a bold stylist and intuitively resourceful artist. The early stage of Hellman's career was, however, crowned by two relentlessly dark and violent revisionist Westerns, Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and The Shooting, both produced by Corman and shot just weeks apart from one another in the barren hinterlands of Utah. Together the two films took Hellman's stylistic minimalism to a new and unyielding extreme, refining the tight economy of image and narrative displayed in Beast into frighteningly elliptical fables of innocence mercilessly destroyed by rabid posses and cold-blooded contract killers.
While extending the eccentric approach to genre defined in the 1950s by a group of maverick American filmmakers prominently including Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, and Nicholas Ray, Hellman's Westerns also reveal his singular approach to performance and his meticulous distillation of narrative into nuanced and mysteriously intense character studies. Hellman's steady interest in performance as a central focus and eventually a major theme of his films points back to his own roots in the vibrant West Coast theater scene of the 1950s and culminates in his best-known film, Two-Lane Blacktop. Constantly battling outrageous fortune, Hellman's career – like Orson Welles' – has seen many tantalizing unrealized projects indeterminately suspended, lost or abandoned along the way. After blazing a steady trail of incendiary masterworks through the Sixties and Seventies, the Eighties proved to be a difficult period, with only two features completed ñ the still misunderstood Iguana and the intriguing horror film, Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!. After a full twenty-two year hiatus, Hellman marked a triumphant return to feature filmmaking in 2010 with Road to Nowhere, an intellectually bristling and visually stunning neo-noir which looks back over his past work while pointing boldly forward towards new frontiers. Like the danger-loving gamblers that recur throughout his films, Hellman continues to be drawn to risk, with Road to Nowhere reaffirming his status as one of the great visionary artists of the American cinema.
The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Monte Hellman for a rare chance to discuss his films and fascinating career.
Special thanks to Darrell Rae, Monterey Media.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With James Taylor, Warren Oates,
USA 1971, 35mm, color, 102 min
At one level a vivid documentary of American road fever and the obsessive world of street racing, Two-Lane Blacktop is also a sustained meditation on film acting as one of the most dangerous games, a form of high-stakes gambling where everything, including the film itself, is on the table. The film's fable-like story of a spontaneous cross-country race between two cars thus gives way to an extended and explicit showdown between two distinct modes of performance – with the musician non-actors James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their stripped-down Chevy pitted against the ultimate actor's actor, Warren Oates, driving the decked-out orange GTO that gives him his name. At once a visually brilliant art film and an intoxicating road movie, Two-Lane Blacktop is often cited as the last film of the Sixties, a lonely farewell to the free spirit innocence and rebellious naivety of the ultimately defeated counterculture.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Jack Nicholson, Cameron Mitchell,
USA 1965, 35mm, color, 82 min
Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell are two unlucky cowboys who mistakenly wander into the crosshairs of a merciless avenging posse in Hellman's relentlessly dark and brooding Western. As frightening as the bloodthirsty posse's inexorable justice is the lonely life of backbreaking toil, muttered prayers and pleasureless domesticity they encounter in the prairie Gothic home of a family of "sodbuster" farmers. An important showcase for Nicholson's little known talent as a screenwriter, Ride in the Whirlwind also reveals Hellman's preternatural ability to craft psychologically intense drama and an indelible sense of place on a shoestring Roger Corman budget. Print courtesy of Monterey Media.
Directed by Monte Hellman, Appearing in Person.
With Shannyn Sossamon, Tygh Runyan, Cliff De Young
USA 2010, digital video, color, 101 min
Hellman's bold new film is a moody neo-noir that revolves simultaneously around an unsolved murder mystery and a daring film-within-a-film mirror game. An elliptical and seductive meditation on cinematic illusionism and story telling, Road to Nowhere reveals Hellman's ardent love of the cinema through its thoughtful allusions to Sam Fuller, Victor Erice and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. The gorgeous Shannyn Sossamon casts a bewitching spell on the film as a changeling starlet weaving enigmatically through the intertwined stories, sparking obsessive desires along the way. The first American feature shot using a handheld digital still camera, Road to Nowhere makes clear Hellman's remarkable gift for visual narrative through the haunting imagery that gives the film the floating quality of a waking dream.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Jimmie Rodgers, Jack Nicholson,
USA 1964, 35mm, b/w, 75 min
An impressively understated and realist depiction of guerilla warfare, Back Door to Hell travels with three American soldiers deep into the heart of the Philippine jungle on a secret mission crucial for the success of General MacArthur's campaign against the Japanese. Hellman carefully balances the film's tense deadline-driven narrative with melancholic and soulful interludes between the soldiers as they grapple with the palpable fear and the uncertainty that surrounds them. Characteristic of postwar "runaway productions," Back Door to Hell was made entirely overseas with Hellman and his cast and crew traveling to the Philippines to take advantage of the lower production costs and jungle locations. The film's distributor Twentieth Century Fox insisted on adding the emphatic newsreel combat footage and patriotic closing narration that notably clash with Hellman's quieter, more introspective vision of war.
Directed by Monte Hellman, Appearing in Person.
With Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Will Hutchins
USA 1968, 35mm, color, 82 min
One of Hellman's undisputed masterpieces, The Shooting is a stark nightmare Western set in a barren desert wasteland and featuring mesmerizing performances by Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson and the alarmingly beautiful Millie Perkins. Expanding the tradition of the taut and minimalist "revolving poker game" narratives defined in the late studio Westerns of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, The Shooting goes even further by embracing a gothic abstraction of story that transforms its characters into mysterious woodcut emblems of fate and human destiny. The script by legendary screenwriter Carole Eastman (Five Easy Pieces, Puzzle of a Downfall Child) brings a cryptic feminist dimension to the film.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Warren Oates, Jenny Agutter,
Italy/Spain 1978, 35mm, color, 102 min
Hellman's final Western and last film with Warren Oates ranks among his most personal, meditative and important works, brimming with private meanings and references – including a memorable cameo by Hellman's long-time hero, Sam Peckinpah, as a weathered dime novelist. China 9, Liberty 37 offers a soulful response to Hellman's earlier and enigmatically fatalistic Westerns, extending their unrelenting violence but also adding a mellow wistfulness. Oates brings a depth of melancholy, regret and longing to his portrayal of a stubborn farmer faced with a series of momentous decisions and discovering unexpected friendship. A visually sumptuous film, China 9, Liberty 37 was shot in Spain with an all-Italian crew – including acclaimed cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Satyricon, All That Jazz).
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Samantha Scully, Bill Moseley,
Richard C. Adams
USA 1989, 35mm, color, 90 min
In the third chapter of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, Hellman upends the standard slasher movie with a feminist take – pitting intuitive knowledge against the smug ambitions of science. Here, a scientist exploits the abilities of a telepathic blind woman to communicate with the comatose serial killer of the previous film – unleashing a string of violence which takes turns mythic, comic, and cathartic.
Better Watch Out!, like most of my movies, is a genre pic at odds with its genre. Or maybe something that refuses to be categorized so easily. I refused the job at first, and only reconsidered when my close friend Arthur Gorson begged me to do it. I was ill with the flu, couldn't get out of bed, but immediately set to work on creating a new screenplay, as usual for me throwing out the one that was presented to me. … I've always worked quickly, but broke all records on this one. We wrote the script in a week at the beginning of March, at the same time scouting locations. We shot during the month of April, edited for 10 days at the beginning of May. … At the beginning of June we started mixing and color timing, had an answer print on July 1st, and I left for our premiere at the Barcelona Film Festival on July 4th.
– Monte Hellman
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Everett McGill, Michael Bradford,
Italy/Spain/Switzerland/USA 1988, digital video, color, 98 min
Iguana is an allegorical fable of the abuses of power which follows a disfigured and fiercely misanthropic sailor who jumps ship to become the improbable king of a remote barren island. Featuring a haunting score by Joni Mitchell and starring Everett McGill as a man raging against the calcified hierarchies of 19th century society, Iguana has gained the reputation of a cult film maudit for its harrowing depiction of the savagely exacting master-slave society created by the despotic sailor. Among Hellman's least discussed works, Iguana will be presented in its rarely screened extended director's cut.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Warren Oates, Richard B. Shull,
Harry Dean Stanton
USA 1974, 35mm, color, 83 min
Hellman's sad and rollicking portrait of stubborn male pride stars Warren Oates in one of his iconic world weary performances as a man who has staked his dignity, reputation and power of speech on regaining the title of champion cockfighter. Working with a wonderful script by cult author Charles Willerford, who adapted his own eponymous novel and appears in a spirited minor role, and lustrous cinematography by Nestor Almederos, Hellman offers a richly authentic vision of the South and of cockfighting subculture that compares to the far West world of street racing captured so memorably in Two-Lane Blacktop.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With Dewey Martin, Fay Spain,
Philippines/USA 1964, 35mm, b/w, 80 min
After completing Back Door to Hell Hellman remained in the Philippines to direct this black comedy thriller written by Jack Nicholson as an open homage to John Huston's satirical romp Beat the Devil. A taut, paranoid story of diamond smuggling and deception, Flight to Fury stars Dewey Martin as an expatriate gambler drifting through the Far East and suddenly menaced by Nicholson's seedy Machiavellian con man. The film's darkly satirical edge gleams with unexpected flashes of unsettling comedy, violence and bizarre narrative twists.
Directed by Monte Hellman. With John Saxon, Tahmoh Penikett,
USA/Japan 2006, 35mm, color, 27 min.
Hellman's contribution to the omnibus horror film Trapped Ashes is a melancholy study of friendship and obsessive desire which invents a sinister and haunting tale about a young Stanley Kubrick.