Given the sad state of American studio filmmaking, is it any wonder that the Hollywood of the '70s has been so romanticized, not only by critics and cinephiles, but also by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, and David Gordon Green? For many, the adventurous period stretching from 1967's Bonnie And Clyde to Jaws represents a utopian epoch in which rebels didn't just infiltrate the backlots, they damn near took over the whole show, gaining leverage over the crass old dinosaurs that once ruled Hollywood. In that respect, the ascent of the hippie movement and the rise of the film-brat generation intertwined and overlapped considerably, which helps explain why 1973's masterful Electra Glide In Blue was wrongly perceived as fascist upon its Cannes première. At a time when the fuzz battled President Nixon for bragging rights as the counterculture's top boogeyman, Electra Glide In Bluewhose DVD is uncannily hitting stores just after star Robert Blake was acquitted of murderrevolved around a straight-arrow cop (Blake) who uses the iconic image of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider as his target at the gun range.
That audacious bit of provocation and the film's heartbreaking ending suggest that it be read as a moody answer to Easy Rider, but that description only scratches the surface of its iconoclastic genius. In a bravura lead performance, Blake stars as a nattily attired, leprechaun-sized motorcycle cop who longs to trade in his snazzy uniform for a detective's badge, and gets his chance when a recluse is killed on his watch. In his introduction to his sole directorial effort, producer-director-composer James William Guercio describes Electra Glide as a contemporary Western where the cowboys ride motorcycles instead of mustangs, in another parallel to Easy Rider. But the film arrived at a tumultuous time when the old divisions between cowboy and Indian, black hat and white hat, and villain and hero were becoming hopelessly blurred. In keeping with the zeitgeist, it's a thriller where solving the central crime seems somewhat irrelevant: Only thinly disguised as a cop movie, Electra is a profound and ultimately tragic meditation on identity, belonging, and the fickleness of the American Dream. It circles around genres only to dismantle and reassemble them in more truthful ways. On the DVD, Guercio recalls giving his director's fee to Academy Award-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall to keep the film on budget, perhaps the savviest move he ever made. Long takes allow ample time for soaking in the sun-baked beauty of the American desert while Hall frames Blake largely in long and medium shots that emphasize his diminutive stature, almost turning him into a speck of dust marauding across the sands.
Like its protagonist, whose ironclad sense of morality alienates him from both his cop colleagues and the hippies who taunt him, Electra Glide occupies a strange, uncomfortable place in the cultural divide. Clean-cut fans of Westerns and cop movies were no doubt turned off by its ambiguity, deliberate pace, and lack of action, while hippies weren't about to embrace a movie about a heroic cop, no matter how artfully crafted. Alas, had the hippies looked beyond Blake's uniform and haircut, they might have recognized a kindred spirit, a good-hearted and surprisingly open-minded outcast determined to live by his own moral code, no matter the consequences.