Before entering into a discussion about James William Guercio's 1973 'Electra Glide in Blue,' lets just address the elephant in the room that is Robert Blake right off the bat – and no, I'm not talking about the caked on foundation he wore in 'Lost Highway.' As many are certainly aware, the last decade or so has not been a favorable one for the actor in terms of the court of public opinion – though his record in actual courts is slightly better – which has certainly overshadowed his body of work.
However, any reexamination of the seldom discussed, ostensibly forgotten cop-drama is due less in part to Blake's legal woes (a DVD version of the film was released in 2005, shortly after Blake's acquittal on murder charges), and more because the era in which the film was produced has become a revered, somewhat glorified period in the hearts and minds of seasoned and novice filmmakers alike and therefore worthy of continued discussion. Additionally, 'Electra Glide in Blue' was overshadowed by its own mis-perception amongst the political and social tumult raging in America at the time of its initial release, making a reassessment all the more desirable.
While the film had no control over Blake's legal troubles, placing a by-the-book Arizona motorcycle cop who blatantly uses the image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in 'Easy Rider' for target practice in the central role of a film released in 1973 could easily be seen as a bit of provocation. This overt nod to the counterculture, and the film's bleak, distressing ending that seemed an obvious retort to 'Easy Rider, explains the rather chilly reception it received at Cannes that year, where, amongst other criticisms, it was perceived as being fascist.
But 'Electra Glide in Blue' moves with more purpose than a mere repost by the establishment or act of deliberate irritation between filmmakers. Through Blake's earnest performance as a diminutive police officer, aching to exchange his uniform blues for the suits and Stetsons of the detectives he so admires, the film addresses the desire, dreams and ultimately disillusionment of the times by situating Blake's Officer John Wintergreen firmly between the noticeably aged and satisfied establishment that's busy maintaining the appearance of control, and the hippie movement that sees anyone with a badge as part of the overall problem.
When Wintergreen comes upon the apparent suicide of an elderly hermit, his dreams of career advancement seem within reach, after he correctly reevaluates the situation as a homicide. Blake is then joined by Mitch Ryan as Harve Poole, a hard-nosed, old-school detective prone to sermonizing before the workday from within smokey, working class bars about conspiracies of "police genocide" and "civilian brutality," and spouting ironic phrases like, "Incompetence is the worst form of corruption," before seeing his personal and professional contentedness completely upset by the pint-sized youngster he haughtily takes under his wing.
As the film progresses, the narrative shifts, becoming less about the murdered hermit and more an examination of the effect Wintergreen's uncompromising morality has in a world where the classic lines separating the law from the lawless have become increasingly and despairingly vague. A notion poignantly demonstrated by Wintergreen's unraveling of the mystery, which is treated more as an indictment of his superiors than anything else. That notion, mixed with a healthy hint of the Vietnam War's ongoing ramifications and some lasting blue-collar barrenness are distressing examples and comparisons of the ever widening gap between the establishment and the counterculture that seem hopelessly irreparable – and caught in the middle are men like Wintergreen.
Accentuating the film's deep subtext is Academy Award-winner Conrad Hall's sumptuous cinematography. Coming off such visual feasts as 'In Cold Blood' (also starring Robert Blake), 'Cool Hand Luke' and 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' Hall's proficiency was practically a pipe dream for the low-budgeted production. But thanks to Guercio handing over his director's fee to the cinematographer, Hall managed to get as much, compositionally and emotionally speaking, out of filming the sun baked Arizona desert as he did through the many shots of Blake paired with the much larger Mitch Ryan or even his fellow motorcycle cop, Billy (Green) Bush.
For whatever reason, this would prove to be James William Guercio's only directorial effort – and after the reception it garnered at Cannes, perhaps one can see why. Still, Guercio, who is certainly best known for producing several of Chicago's albums, turned in a rather remarkable, haunting feature for his directorial debut.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Another great catalog title from Shout Factory, 'Electra Glide in Blue' comes as a single Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. The disc's sleeve features some original artwork with an image from the film on the inside. The film auto plays to the top menu, as there are no previews.
While it has been given a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, the image on 'Electra Glide in Blue' delivers a somewhat uneven viewing experience. For the most part, the disc does it's best to capture Conrad Hall's exquisite cinematography in the best light possible, but there are occasions when it simply doesn't seem up to the task. Thankfully, this isn't all the time, as the image here manages to look particularly striking with bright vivid colors and some excellent detail, but those moments of clarity are offset by issues that could have been corrected by full-on remastering of the film.
The film itself is somewhat tricky, as early on most of the colors tend to look washed out, but it quickly becomes apparent that this was a deliberate attempt to give the film a proper sense of place, and to make the staggering heat of the Arizona sun palpable even for those sitting in the air conditioned climate of a movie theater (or, in this case, their living room). While the dim colors early on (they tend to become brighter as the film progresses) are intentional, there are other distractions, like screen flicker and noise that would have been nice to see cleaned up before presenting the film on Blu-ray. In addition, the image tends to get lost somewhat during low light sequences, which reduces the clarity and presence of fine detail significantly.
On the bright side, there are some great shots of sprawling vistas and desert expanses that, as they were captured in the full light of day, happen to still retain much of their initial beauty and look marvelous on this disc. Ultimately, the picture here is simply uneven: one second it looks pristine and stunning, and it's a flickering disappointment the next. Thankfully, in this case, the good elements mostly outweigh the bad.
Although it's been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, the sound on 'Electra Glide in Blue' is as uneven as the picture. That's not to say it ever sounds bad, because it certainly doesn't. Dialogue is mostly clear, while music and sound effects come through sounding very strong. The problem, however, is that the mix doesn't do a particularly great job of balancing them out. In that regard, the listener will have to take his or her pick between being able to hear the dialogue and being blown out by the score or music selections, or struggling to comprehend the actors and have the sound effects or score come through in an even manner.
There seems to be a small window on the volume dial that will accommodate both elements at the same time, but while this may create a mostly-suitable listening experience, it doesn't highlight either the dialogue or the sound effects in a manner that it could have. Moreover, the dialogue can sometimes come off as tinny in places, especially with high voices in enclosed spaces – the monologue by Jeannine Riley in the bar is a prime example of this.
Thankfully, there's not much in the way of noise on the audio mix, as it is mostly free from scratches or hissing that can sometimes mar the audio of a film this old. As mentioned above, it's not a total loss, as each aspect does appear to be mostly robust on its own, but the problem occurs when the mix comes up short striking the right balance between them.
In a way, the film echoes Andrew Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly,' another film rich in societal subtext that may have been too contemporary to be fully appreciated, and garnered an initially lukewarm reception from critics and audiences. While only time will tell whether or not Dominik's show-me-the-money gangster-flick becomes a talking point 40 years down the road, one can certainly see similarities in how 'Electra Glide in Blue' has been rediscovered over the past decade and become a must watch for some. While the picture quality could have been given some more impressive upgrades, and the sound doesn't quite deliver a flawless product, this film is certainly recommended for anyone interested in taking a peek at a tragically overlooked film.