Color, 1966, 81m.
Directed by Monte Hellman
Starring Warren Oates, Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Will Hutchins, B.J. Merholz

Color, 1966, 82m.
Directed by Monte Hellman
Starring Cameron Mitchell, Jack Nicholson, Tom Filer, Millie Perkins, Katherine Squire, Harry Dean Stanton
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), VCI (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

The ShootingLong before he became a '70s cult director par excellence with Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, Monte Hellman cut his teeth The Shootingworking for Roger Corman and getting his start with the drive-in favorite Beast from Haunted Cave. In 1966, Corman handed over enough money for Hellman to make a pair of westerns over a six-week period with an up-and-coming actor from a prior Corman/Hellman project, The Terror, named Jack Nicholson. The results were The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, which garnered attention for their unusual artistry and art house veneer in a genre being transformed by an influx of violent, stylish Italian and Spanish offerings.

The better known of the two, The Shooting, offers a grim look at the consequences of cycles of violence in a community as a gunshot sends cowboy Gashade (Oates) to his camp where one simple-minded compatriot, Coley (Hutchins), can barely explain how another, Leland (Merholz), got shot. Meanwhile their fourth companion, Gashade's brother Coigne, has taken off for a nearby town, and a mysterious, unnamed woman (Perkins) shows up offering money to escort her in the same direction. Then there's the seemingly unconnected sharpshooter Billy (Nicholson), who joins their quest into literal and metaphysical darkness.

The ShootingAs much a psychological freak out as a traditional western, The Shooting isn't the kind of film you wander into unaware and casually enjoy; it's austere, downbeat, and often surprising, with a bizarre final act that clearly paves the way for more audacious mainstream fare like Easy Rider.

Slightly more traditional in structure but equally accomplished is Ride in the Whirlwind, a pulp-flavored study in dynamics penned by Nicholson in which a trio of cowhands -- Ride in the WhirlwindWes (Nicholson), Vern (Mitchell), and Otis (Filer) -- is mirrored by a lynch mob erroneously tagging them as a criminal gang of marauders. The real culprits (including a young Harry Dean Stanton!) escape the blame while the innocents (with one man down) hole out in a farmhouse, complete with a beguiling single woman (Perkins) who complicates matters for all of them.

Though this isn't exactly a happy ride either, Ride would probably make for a more gripping entry point for newcomers. It's also great to see Mitchell really commit to a role at a time where he was famously grabbing paycheck roles left and right, no doubt encouraged here by the quality of the script and filmmaking. The expanded number of characters gives this a somewhat more realistic and grounded feeling than the preceding film, resulting in a more accessible piece of work with enough familiar faces in front of and behind the camera to really make it feel like the flipside of the same coin.

Bizarrely, neither of these films could find an American distributor and were mainly appreciated on the big screen in Europe; sadly, U.S. audiences could only find them two years later on television, with miserable VHS editions faring even worse until VCI issued them both in improved widescreen DVD editions in 2001. Ride in the Whirlwind

However, you can easily set both of those discs aside thanks to Criterion's 2014 revisit on both Blu-ray and DVD with the former format doing a particularly fine job of capturing the films' atmospheric visuals and tiny little textures and details in Ride in the Whirlwindalmost every shot. Criterion had already done a fine job of bringing Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop to Blu-ray and DVD, so it's no surprise that they pull out all the stops here as well with the director in evidence virtually throughout. Both films feature commentaries with Hellman and film historians Bill Korhn and Blake Lucas, with an understandable focus on the tight production schedule and budgets under Corman as well as the genre conventions being undermined at the time. Also included are new video interviews with Corman, John Hackettt, Merholz, Perkins, and Stanton, as well as assistant director Gary Kurtz (who went on to have a notable career himself) and chief wrangler Calvin Johnson, all interviewed by Hellman. The overall picture here is of two threadbare productions with no makeup people or the other usual production amenities, with Perkins in particular making for a fine, lucid interview subject (and even revealing she wore a hairpiece for the films). There's also a taped chat between Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin (memorably called "Whips and Jingles" and featuring some fun cast stories like the charades competition), plus a video love letter of sorts to the late Oates created by critic Kim Morgan (complete with clips from other films like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). The fold-out insert liner notes by Michael Atkinson offer a useful but extremely academic reading of the films that should only be read after you've watched them both. Easily two of the most striking American cult westerns, these are way overdue for greater recognition and a fine double feature tribute to a wholly unique moment in movie history.

Reviewed on November 21, 2014.