The Shooting

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Made on roughly the same budget as The Blair Witch Project (1999) and shot shortly after the assassination of J.F.K., Monte Hellman’s The Shooting (1966) is a western very much of its time that was not properly released in its time. It’s informed by films like The Virginian (1962), One Eyed Jacks (1961), Stagecoach (1939), and My Darling Clementine (1946), yet infused with an aesthetic not far from L’Avventura (1960) or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It stars Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson, and Millie Perkins. It also stars a ghostly and lunar landscape that ceased to exist with the completion of the dam on the Colorado river in 1966. Strange to think kids partying on a houseboat atop Lake Powell now skim water a hundred or so feet above the totemic panorama that gives The Shooting so much of its visual power.

Scene from The Shooting

The mid-sixties was a time when the old guard were making their last westerns. Lee Marvin had just won an Academy Award for Cat Ballou (1965), which was far from the high-water mark for the genre. Hellman had higher ambitions. For him the western was a unique genre rich with potential akin to Greek tragedy, one that allowed the story-teller to really examine man’s relationship to the universe. That was on one side of the equation. On the other was Roger Corman, who had given Jack Nicholson a leg up in the film business and suggested they capitalize on their remote locations by shooting two westerns back-to-back, the other title being Ride in the Whirlwind.

Nicholson, not only acting but taking on his first producer role, went to Cannes and sold The Shooting to a company that went out of business, thus holding up the title in litigation for three years. But the critical acclaim it received in France helped enhance Hellman’s reputation in the U.S., and it paved the way for his celebrated collaboration with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, musician James Taylor, and again Warren Oates in what would be one of the most iconic road movies of all time: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).

Road movies are about the journey, not the destination, and there’s something about this to be found in The Shooting. The script was by Carole Eastman, who also wrote the script for Five Easy Pieces (1970). Carole had a distrust of men and didn’t like to be touched, which might explain a thing or two about the female antagonist in The Shooting who drives the narrative with her thirst for revenge. She is on the chase, on the go, never stopping, her deep desire for resolution driving the narrative engine across uncharted terrain and into the valley of death.

Carole was inspired by a Jack London story involving a painting in a bar showing a man getting killed (see excerpt below, from Monte Hellman: His Life and Films). Hellman was also inspired by images of death, but his were moving images involving two men: JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald. In both cases, we are witness to assassination, a shooting. Concrete ends, but with mysteries never resolved.

Carole Eastman excerpt from "Monte Hellman- His Life and Films"

Throughout July TCM has been “presenting the largest showcase of Westerns in the history of the network”. The Shooting screens this Wednesday on TCM. For further reading, check out Michael Atkinson’s excellent essay on both The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3360-the-shooting-and-ride-in-the-whirlwind-we-can-bring-a-good-bit-of-rope

A scene from The Shooting

7 Responses The Shooting
Posted By Dan Oliver : July 25, 2016 3:37 pm

Interesting piece on a movie that deserves to be better known. The other film is actually titled Ride in the Whirlwind.

Posted By Pablo Kjolseth : July 25, 2016 8:16 pm

Thanks for bringing that mistake to my attention. It now stands corrected. Cheers, -pk

Posted By swac44 : July 27, 2016 7:55 pm

This post inspired me to pull out the Criterion blu-ray and watch The Shooting from start to finish (I was waiting for phone calls that never came … I substituted one existential dilemma for another). Remarkable film that hasn’t lost any of its power over the years, thanks to the indelible performances of its leads. Nicholson is especially menacing, I forgot that he doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, although his presence is felt earlier when we wonder who Perkins’ unseen accomplice might be.

Hellman is active on Facebook, and was posting updates during the restoration process, saying the version available now looks better than it did during its sparse release. Such a treat to see this richly layered film under such circumstances.

Posted By kjolseth : July 27, 2016 10:24 pm

Waiting for a phone call that never comes sounds like the kind of thing Samuel Beckett could relate to.

I’m one of the 5k people getting occasional posts from Hellman. I seem to recall a few years ago he was even recruiting new roommates via FB and posting pictures of his place. It looked like a sweet pad. I bet he got lots of phone calls.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 3, 2016 12:47 pm

I am rather perturbed that no one else wrote any other articles on the Western Movie Marathon that was in July on this year. Also, it has clearly been overlooked that back in Nov. 2002 was a whole month devoted to Westerns. That was called: “Every Great Western Except Shane”- I guess TCM didn’t have the rights to “Shane” yet. I had seen on AMC though. Even though “Shane” is not my favorite Western (that privilege goes to either “High Noon”or”Liberty Valance”), I rather like “Shane”. It certain helped me to understand where Clint Eastwood got “Pale Rider” from. Any comments?

Posted By kjolseth : August 3, 2016 7:12 pm

Hi, Juana – I’ve actually been taken to task by alert readers for writing about westerns that have already been covered by other Morlocks, so it can be a two-way street. I like all the westerns you mention, but my personal favorite is “Once Upon A Time in the West”. -pk

Posted By Paul Dionne : September 9, 2016 2:55 pm

“I’m one of the 5k people getting occasional posts from Hellman. I seem to recall a few years ago he was even recruiting new roommates via FB and posting pictures of his place. It looked like a sweet pad. I bet he got lots of phone calls.”

Actually, Monte Hellman rents out rooms in his Laurel Canyon home through airbnb. It is a wonderful place. My wife and I stayed there in 2015; Monte is there with his beautiful dog, he will even make you breakfast. My wife took me there because of my love of Monte Hellman films, esp Two Lane Blacktop, and it was a great thrill for me.

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