When James William Guercio set out to direct his first film, a cynical character study of a small town bike cop who aspires to become a detective, little did he know that he the film's core message, that no matter how big the fish, sometimes the pond just swallows 'em all up, would become the epitaph of his short career as a film maker.
Robert Blake stars as John Wintergreen, the bike cop who discovers a suicide, and sees it as an opportunity to make a play for the gold badge. He butts heads at the scene with an incompetent coroner (Royal Dano), who quickly assesses that the scene is exactly what it seems: a suicide. Enter Mitchell Ryan as grandstanding detective Harve Poole, who takes Blake under his wing as his new driver and protege. It soon becomes clear that Ryan has merely pressganged Blake to serve as an audience to his ego.
When Electra Glide came out back in '73 it was denounced by the Hollywood establishment as fascist for its inverse Easy Rider dynamic of two police officers who are constantly shit on by society. This completely baffles me, as the film (while certainly poking fun of its surface level, with one scene exhibiting Blake firing off rounds into an Easy Rider poster) consistently levels healthy doses of criticism at the institution of police officers. It takes great care to offer several differing and often difficult perspectives to illustrate a sceptic tank water cycle of detectives shitting on street cops, of street cops shitting on hippies, and hippies returning the fecal favor. Everyone's on latrine duty in this film, and it offers no simple Dirty Harry kill 'em all solutions that might suggest a fascistic point of view.
One example of these varying perspectives in the film is the character of Zipper (Billy "Green" Bush), who plays the foil to Blake's Wintergreen character and his partner. Zipper chastises Wintergreen for aspiring for more, and relishes the simple pleasures of lounging on his bike while reading pulp comics and occasionally getting off on hassling hippies by planting drugs on them when the opportunity arises. The only thing Zipper sees himself in lack of is his dream bike, the titular Electra Glide in blue:
"...a stroker. About 1400 cc's worth, tucked into a '74 straight legged chrome frame kicked. Sixteen-inch Ricon mag rear wheels. With a chrome sprocket, chrome chain, chrome spokes, a chrome tranny, a chrome puddy and eight-inch extended sportster fork with a chrome dog bone. TT pipes, brass rocker boxes, couple of quartz eyed dyed running lights, and a full Farron you can really get behind. Contoured seat, with a two-foot poor boy cissy bar. And no squawk box, but a telephone. And an AM/FM and an insulated cocktail bar in the left pocket."
One mis-step of the film is its inability to self-edit its appetite for overwrought solioquy; apexing in a scene where a drunken barmaid (Jeannine Riley) lugubriously laments her aborted acting career while sobbing and dancing around the bar. Still though, scenes like this do serve the thematic agenda of the film, and something tells me that if Guercio continued directing that he would have learned to diffuse the self-indulgent tendencies of his scripts.
Electra Glide in Blue remains an underappreciated classic of this chaotic and introspective era of American filmmaking, a victim to the us-against-them political climate of those years. I see it as the Ferguson-to-Clarissa weird little brother of Decade-Under-the-Influence classics like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and the Killing of a Chinese Bookie who trades those films' art-damaged French New Wave influences for disenchanted westerns like The Searchers and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
MVT: Toss-up between Robert Blake; whose understated performance stands in stark contrast to his unchecked character actor costars, and serves as the emotional core of the story, and cinematographer Conrad Hall, (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) for whom Guercio gave up his director's salary to bring aboard the production - a sacrifice that paid in spades to the look and feel of the film.
Make or Break: The haunting final shot that brings the story full circle and evokes Monument Valley as a terrfying maw, all full of jagged rock pinnacle teeth, yawning to consume the everyman.