Monte Hellman is interesting, maybe even quirky. A director with movies like Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and China 9, Liberty 37 to his name, Hellman specialized in odd, typically pretty low budget flicks. He also had a friendship and solid working relationship with a huge rising star in the 1960s. That name? Keep reading with 1966's Ride in the Whirlwind.
Riding south through Texas to find more work in the border country, three cowboys, Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer) are casually making their way down the trail. They ride up to an isolated line shack in the mountains, a group of five men hiding out there and suspicious of this trio of newcomers. Why? The men are what's left of a gang of stagecoach robbers led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) on the run from a posse after a robbery produced a dead stagecoach guard. Upon seeing that the three cowboys don't present a challenge, Dick allows them to eat and drink with them, even staying the night. Seeing the clues all around them, Vern, Wes and Otis immediately know they're not being told everything. They need the rest though and agree to ride out the next morning. They wait too long though. A posse shows up the next morning, and now these cowboys are in some serious trouble.
Shot back-to-back with another 1966 Hellman western, The Shooting, 'Whirlwind' is a little-known, mostly forgotten western. It was released in a time when the perception of the western genre was changing to a more cynical, realistic and sinister outlook. These flicks were dubbed revisionist westerns as they gave a new look at a genre that was always good guys vs. bad guys. Nothing is clean or easy. It's a dirty, gritty world where survival reigns above all else. Both Shooting and Whirlwind were filmed in Utah, the budget for both films a combined $150,000. That wouldn't cover the catering for most modern movies!
In the revisionist vein, 'Whirlwind' is worthwhile because of that darkness. If there was a such thing as a tragic western, this would be it. The iconic image of the cowboy is a genre archetype, maybe the most important western archetype. The three cowboys we meet -- Vern, Wes and Otis -- aren't heroes. They're not lightning-fast gunslingers. They're not maniacal killers. They are cowboys, plain and simple. We learn little to nothing about them, only that they're hard-working saddle tramps who are most comfortable in the saddle. Their laconic, easy-going demeanor feels real, very natural and not forced at the least. They sit around a campfire talking about where they hope to go, what jobs they hope to get. They don't want the trouble they find themselves in, but there's no clean way out of it. They have to make decisions about how far they want to go to make sure they get out unscathed.
It sounds so criminally simple, but the mistaken identity angle works perfectly. That's where the tragic element comes into play. They're just trying to do their job. They don't want anything to do with this trouble. The focus is on Nicholson and Mitchell, the younger cowboy with a lot of experience just the same and the more veteran cowboy with a few more miles on his backside. Without knowing much about them, I found myself liking them. The rest of the cast is generally unknown, Harry Dean Stanton as Blind Dick the lone exception. George Mitchell and Kathleen Squire are a husband and wife on their small ranch the cowboys meet on the trail with Millie Perkins as their semi-curious daughter.
So what's the big issue? Almost everything I've brought up until now seems like a glowing review. It could have been a classic, but it isn't. At 82 minutes, 'Whirlwind' is a short movie but it ain't a quick movie. Hellman has said in interviews he tries to focus on the visual and leave dialogue by the wayside. That's fine but when nothing happens for long stretches of an already short, slightly sluggish movie, we've got an issue. Reality is almost always a plus in a western -- and it is here -- but there just isn't much in the way of energy as our cowboys are on the run with the posse closing in not too far behind. I liked where it went late with a dark ending that could have been far darker. I liked the movie for a lot of reasons, but it could and probably should have been better. Still worth checking out if you can track it down.
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966): ** 1/2 /****