Dick Miller is a vital strand of the DNA of a significant portion of American genre cinema—one of those faces that movie fanatics come to appreciate as a touchstone of the genre film’s capacity for unpretentious economy (re-using the same actors over and over for the same sorts of roles, often for films shot at the same time), and for self-reflexivity (making a deliberate joke of said economy). Miller’s appeal isn’t mysterious. In a manner reminiscent of many of John Ford or Howard Hawks’s stock players, he’s a beautifully rumpled everyman who suggests an audience member who’s somehow wandered into the movies, interacting with icons or informing his films’ often ridiculous situations with a notion of how someone from the “real world” might react to them.
That Guy Dick Miller is a fawning tribute to the cult legend, enriched by a subtle current of sadness that prevents the documentary from turning into a glorified DVD supplement. Director Elijah Drenner interviews a long list of Miller’s collaborators, most notably Roger Corman, Joe Dante, the actor’s brothers, and dozens of admirers, but it’s the footage of Miller and his wife, Lainie, that lingers in one’s mind. The couple commands the screen with the ease of longtime entertainers, but there are metaphoric ghosts in their home, which are detectable when Lainie acknowledges that her husband is a workaholic, but that he isn’t adept at promoting himself, relying instead on work that’s offered rather than proactively hustling for it. This, the filmmaker suggests, is one of the differences between actors who financially thrive, like Corman alumni such as Jack Nicholson, and those who remain on the fringes. Well, that and luck and happenstance and who knows what else. Drenner doesn’t prod the Millers for the sake of cheap pathos though; he allows them to simply inhabit the screen, their complementing body languages offering a poignant portrait of a decades-long marriage that has implicatively provided the actor with the stable hearth that’s perhaps necessary to weathering spotty employment and to creating lived-in characters in a matter of minutes.
That Guy Dick Miller isn’t weighed down by portentous torment though, as Miller’s story also offers a celebration of a wonderful performer’s ultimately sui generis sense of tough-guy humanity. Much of the film is also composed of enjoyable, well-edited, astutely chosen footage that succinctly establishes the quiet breadth of Miller’s cultural reach and the precision with which he can drop into a film and immediately instill it with a sense of audience complicity. His presence intensifies our involvement with any given film, rather than fostering an illusion-trampling aura of in-joke superiority—an artful balance that particularly defines the sensibility of Dante’s films. That Guy Dick Miller is a gratifying portrait of art as commitment, which is art in itself.