Electra Glide in Blue

(USA - 1973)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Robert Blake, Billy Green Bush, Mitch Ryan, Jeannine Riley, Elisha Cook
Genre: Crime/Action
Director: James William Guercio
Screenplay: Robert Boris & Rupert Hitzig
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Composer: James William Guercio
Runtime: 114 minutes

“Somebody's gotta be doing something bad somewhere!” – “Big” John Wintergreen

In between a horse riding John Wayne and a arms hoarding President Ronald Reagan, motorcycle cop Robert Blake was the Modern Day Cowboy. Deceptively the fascist answer to Easy Rider, Electra Glide in Blue has Blake as an ex-marine who joins the police force after returning from Vietnam. He’s the straightest of the straight arrows, sporting a crew cut and taking immense pride in his gun, badge, and uniform. He feels he belongs with the police because of his look and his idea of what they stand for, but he soon learns it’s all mythology.

Blake’s partner Zipper (Billy Green Bush) loafs around reading comic books all day then, for a change of pace, spends a few hours harassing whatever hippies happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blake’s “Big” John Wintergreen is used to Zipper’s laziness and unjust actions, but he figures that’s why Zipper is made for motorcycle cop while he’s destined for bigger and better things. Wintergreen figures detectives will be more akin to judges, thinkers who are in it for the law rather than a paycheck and some kicks.

The wild west of the early 1970’s isn’t exactly inhabited by lawmen with the integrity of Gary Cooper in High Noon, so Wintergreen is antiquated for trying to do the right thing. The film is about the crumbling of the American dream. It’s very much a film of its time, a time when various political factors had aged the country, crushing the American dream. Wintergreen is different largely because he still has his dreams and illusions. He thinks the law is enforced exactly by the book no matter whom the perpetrator and his coworkers will be honest men that actually care. When Wintergreen proves he’s enough of a thinker to see through a rigged suicide, his dreams of a promotion to detective are suddenly within his grasp.

Wintergreen is so lonely he makes himself believe in something. He tags along with Detective Herve Pool (Mitch Ryan) on the investigation, figuring he’s a more experienced and successful like thinker (he also saw through the “suicide” and demanded an autopsy). Herve is hardly the great guy Wintergreen imagines, instead he’s angry, domineering, prejudice, and abrasive. He makes decisions on innocent and guilty by knocking “the truth” out of someone until he gets the answer he’s looking for. Wintergreen is willing to be Herve’s sheep to get the promotion, but his pure heart eventually takes precedent over his laid back and easy going demeanor.

The film wasn’t embraced at the time of its release, but perhaps it’s easier to see its brilliance now that the particular culture battle is over. Wintergreen is actually an outcast with a heart of gold. He’s not a “Go ahead, make my day” kind of cop, in fact he’s as passive as the hippies. Wintergreen finds the courage and integrity to stand up for what is just when he needs to even though he’s scared and frail. Whatever you think of Blake as a person, there’s no arguing he could be a very sincere and human actor. He does things real people do in times of turmoil; he thinks, hesitates, and then takes some action knowing it won’t be well received but doing so anyway because the option of looking on in silence isn’t acceptable. He’s an ideal in a sense, but he’s also the most vulnerable of heroes.

Though Electra Glide is the cop’s side of the hippies vs. fuzz battle, it’s about the horrors of getting old more than anything else. The “suicide” isn’t in the movie, leaving his crazy friend as the only sad and lonely old man (Elisha Cook), but the characters in the 35-50 age group already have weary minds and we imagine only increased despair and loneliness in their future. In the process of trying to attain his dreams, Wintergreen’s idealism turns to cynicism. The film shows that answers come internally, but since dreams are illusions you are probably better off without the answers, it keeps you younger.

Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears producer James William Guercio made his first and unfortunately only film, an atmospheric vignette laden play on famous films and homage to John Ford. Guercio uses too many plays on famous movies. In moderation they would have been strikingly effective reference points, for instance Wintergreen using a picture from Easy Rider for target practice, but at some point it becomes a gimmicky distraction.

The murder mystery plot is fairly thin, but the character study is very effective. What’s interesting is the way Guercio constantly uses asides to paint a picture of the culture that shapes the characters identity, only to reveal their attire and demeanor is another illusion, one of the ones they try to pass off largely to quell the loneliness. Those who still have the dream like Wintergreen do believe hooking up with the right group of people will get them where they want to go, but those whose dreams have been crushed by inabilities and failures spend their life hiding behind facades. Though it doesn’t take long to see who is who, it does take long enough that you’ve made something of a commitment.

Feeling he needed an experienced lens to attain his vision as well as guide him, but working with a $1 million budget, Guercio decided to surrender his salary in order to afford ace cinematographer Conrad Hall. Hall still wasn’t thrilled with Guercio because he made him shoot the Monument Valley exteriors in John Ford fashion, but Hall settled for being allowed free reign on the exteriors. It was a wise decision as Electra Glide is one of Hall’s crowning achievements. The expansive wide-angle exteriors often surpass Ford because Guercio gave Hall all the time and focus that was necessary, sometimes to the detriment of the film. The interiors feature all kinds of wild camera placement, and as a whole it’s like watching Gregg Toland and John Alton at their 1940’s peak, except Hall has figured a way to do it in color without losing too much of the contrast and mist effects.

One effective establishing sequence has closeups of various parts of the police uniform, eventually showing the pieces don't add up to the man. There’s a lot of humor about the diminutive size of “Big” John. Early on we wonder why the camera is seemingly panning too far across the heads of the motor officers, but then the top of Wintergreen's helmet is revealed.

The film might not always show maturity in message or direction, and some of the acting is bad, but so many individual scenes make an impression. It may not come together perfectly as a whole, but the whole does have an exceeding power of resonance, which is probably more important.


You can survive on your own in some walks of life, but cop isn’t one of them. Wintergreen’s only choice appears to be conformity, but in its own way Electra Glide makes as strong a statement against the notion as anyone possibly can. The film is laced with irony, particularly the ending where Wintergreen dies the first time he goes against his personal code. Death comes from giving up on what he believes in. He managed to believe these things for 40 years despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps delusion is preferable to disillusion?



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