Electra Glide in Blue begins as a series of fragments. A man, Frank, seemingly blows a hole in his chest with a shotgun while preparing his dinner in his shack, an insignificant blip in Arizona’s sprawling, desolate Monument Valley. The film’s director, John William Guercio, averts faces and focuses on action: movements of hands, the sudden glow of a turned-on light bulb, the sizzle of pork fat on a skillet, and the loading of shells into two long barrels. It’s the building blocks of an assumption, one that figures into Frank’s death, the crime that brings highway cop John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) into contact with Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan), a seasoned detective whom Wintergreen yearns to be like.
Despite his rampant ambition, Wintergreen is the picture of steadfast duty, busting speeders and violators on the endless stretch of gravel he surveys, a stark contrast to Zipper (Billy “Green” Bush), his off-kilter friend and fellow officer. When Zipper berates and then plants evidence on a hippie, Wintergreen won’t go along with the arrest, and when an obnoxious city detective tries to wave away a ticket with his badge, the young officer bucks even this everyday corruption. Rather than make him shaggy or downtrodden, Guercio makes Wintergreen an ideal lawgiver, but also suggests a warped macho identity underneath the maintained exterior. In an early sequence, the officer is seen taking turns between high-intensity pull-ups in tight white briefs and having sex with Jolene (Jeannine Riley), a local bartender, underneath the American flag. Later, he displays a comical obsession with the wardrobe of detectives, including 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots. Blake is a marvel with the twisty role, one that at once mocks and finds unique compassion for Wintergreen, even when he’s a desperate suck-up.
When Wintergreen discovers Frank’s body, his immediate reaction is that it’s murder, and that it will be the case that brings him to the big leagues. He dreams of being able to “think for a living.” Guercio depicts his ascent, however, as a mighty rude awakening, as Poole is nothing more than a cynical, proud, and ultimately cowardly lawman, using his state-sanctioned power to torture leftists and shallowly demonize drugs. Wintergreen doesn’t believe in the blue shield, which is to say he doesn’t believe in excuses for injustice, making him a man of morals at a time when the country was uncertain if such things mattered. He becomes a martyr to the ideal of justice, as the search for Frank’s murderer becomes a route for personal gripes and opportunism for various lawmen. When the murderer is apprehended, his motive is aptly loneliness, and fear of being trampled under the hoof of progress. The title of the film itself refers to Zipper’s American dream, one that can be bought and which has the ultimate use of near-permanent isolation and dominance on the road.
Electra Glide in Blue is clearly political, as angry and subversive an American nightmare as was unleashed during Vietnam, and toward the end, Guercio and writer Robert Boris’s fatalism gets the best of them, ending the film on a preachy note that’s more tedious than artful. And yet, the film is madly inventive, totally distinct, and very funny, all of which serve to balance out its natural bitterness, and suggest the importance of personality and analytical power in conjunction with duty. Despite its few weak moments, Electra Glide in Blue is a remarkable whole, at once antic in its somberness and good-humored in its fury.
This is one of the more impressive releases to come out of Shout! Factory recently. Visually, colors are beautifully transferred, from the bright red of the myriad Coca-Cola cans to the dull orange glow that radiates in Jolene’s bar. The texture and detail of clothing, from the detective suits to the officer uniforms and Jolene’s knotted button-up, are excellent, as are the inky black levels. Rarely has Monument Valley looked so astonishing and alienating. The soundtrack is just as good, with James William Guercio’s own funky score mixing with some trippy bass-heavy tracks and sound effects in back, while the dialogue is crisp and clear in front of it all. It’s enough to make you forgive even the folky histrionics of "Tell Me," the film’s Guercio-penned theme song.
The commentary by Guercio is really the only thing worth your time here, as the director’s video introduction is entirely forgettable. But the commentary is rousing and informative for most of its runtime, as Guercio fondly recollects the film’s casting, production, and post-production work with detail and high spirits. This is, sadly, the filmmaker’s sole work, and you can tell how passionately he approached the material, if his deal with Conrad Hall wasn’t proof enough. It’s a galvanizing listen. A trailer is also included.
Electra Glide in Blue speeds onto Blu-ray with a fantastic A/V transfer and a highly enjoyable commentary by director James William Guercio, making for a particularly exceptional release from Shout! Factory.