Camus with sixguns
Monte Hellman, born 1932, partnered up with the B-movie maestro Roger Corman in the late 1950s, worked on cheap exploitation horror flicks and then joined forces with Jack Nicholson, born 1937 (they met on the set of The Wild Ride in 1960, which Hellman edited). Hellman and Nicholson made a war film and an adventure together in the Philippines for Lippert in 1964, then two back-to-back low-budget Westerns with Corman in Utah, Ride in the Whirlwind (to be reviewed next) and The Shooting, which were premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival in October 1966 but struggled to be released nationwide (except in France, of course, where arty films were greeted enthusiastically, the more obscure the better). They are now available together on Blu-Ray, with various interviews.
Nicholson in '66
I say low-budget: they were made for $70,000 each – peanuts, even in those days. And $10,000 of that is said to have gone to the horse wranglers, the only unionized labor on the set. But that doesn’t mean they are low quality. The actors may not have been (at that time) top stars but they were pretty good. The writing, by Nicholson for Whirlwind and by Carole Eastman as Adrien Joyce on The Shooting, was modernistic, thoughtful and natural (both writers had an ear for Western vernacular), with the dialogue in the latter being more opaque. Nicholson had been reading frontier diaries in the LA library and aimed for an authentic feel and atmosphere. Whirlwind is probably the more traditional in plot and staging, while The Shooting is more abstract, with a fatalism Camus would have appreciated (Hellman was a great reader of Albert).
The photography (Gregory Sandor did both, using natural light) was classy, and the arid locations fine. The music, by Richard Markowitz in The Shooting and Robert Drasnin on Whirlwind, is ominous, atonal and somehow appropriately bleak.
Though Hellman’s directorial pace was slow, to emphasize the monotony of frontier life in Whirlwind and the inexorability of the pursuit in The Shooting, the pictures do not drag. They are talked of as existentialist Westerns (whatever that may mean) and afterwards they became something of a cult, especially once Nicholson became famous in ’69 with Easy Rider.
The Shooting is a slow chase Western. Former tracker and bounty hunter but now miner Willett Gashade (Sterling Hayden was considered but the part went to Warren Oates, who is superb) returns to his camp to hear from his simple-minded but good-natured partner Coley (top-billed Will Hutchins, Tom Brewster in Sugarfoot) that their two other partners, Leland and Willett’s brother Cohen, went into nearby Winslow, got drunk and Cohen ran down a man and possibly a child. Cohen returned to the camp and lit out on Coley's horse, presumably to avoid being found by law or vigilantes. Leland stayed but was shot dead, we know not (yet) by whom.
A strange woman appears, on foot having shot her horse. She will not give her name. This unnamed dame is played by second-billed Millie Perkins, star of George Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, homesteader’s daughter Abilgail in Whirlwind, Hellman’s neighbor at the time. She obliquely engages Gashade to escort her to Kingsley. Gashade and Coley unwillingly agree, for the money.
It becomes gradually evident, however, that they are on a manhunt. She has death in mind, though neither Gashade nor Coley (nor the viewers, indeed) are told the who or the why.
The woman is extremely unpleasant. She is demanding, arrogant and complains all the time. She frequently shoots a pistol unexpectedly, startling the horses. Yet poor Coley is besotted by her. She simply exploits him.
But she is charming by comparison with Billy Spear, the smirking professional gunman she has hired, who shadows the party, eventually joining it. It is Nicholson. Just as Perkins did not appear in Whirlwind for three quarters of an hour, so now Nicholson only makes an entrance 35 minutes in.
Ruthless and sadistic killer
As they run out of water and horses, Coley is simply abandoned in the desert, where the hired gun sadistically tells him his brains will be fried. Curiously, though, Coley finds a bearded man (Charles Eastman) close to death, and kindly but uselessly gives the expiring man some candy and a little game, which he had been taking a childlike pleasure in. It’s an odd scene but a poignant one.
Coley is abandoned
The chase goes inexorably on. It is finally revealed who the quarry is, and we probably guessed, but we are never told why the woman is so hell-bent on finding and killing this person. We may speculate. That’s the point, really. We must create our own narrative and motivations. At one point Gashade says, "I don't see no point to it," and the woman replies, "There isn't any." The viewer wonders if that exchange isn’t all too illustrative.