Ride in the Whirlwind

(Monte Hellman, USA, 1966)


The legs of a dead man dangle in the top of the frame. Three cowboys saunter over on their horses and reflect on the evidence. "Two, three days?" asks Vern (Cameron Mitchell). "Something like that," murmurs Otis (Tom Filer). The last, and today most familiar, actor to speak is also the author of this laconic, Pinteresque dialogue. Jack Nicholson looks up and concludes: "A man gets hung."

This '60s Western has immense curiosity value. Shot quickly and cheaply in tandem with another project (The Shooting, 1967), it consolidated the distinctive style and themes of director Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop, 1971).

No doubt provoked by the bizarre, genre-bending Westerns coming out of Italy at the time, Hellman threw caution to the wind and created a minimalist, decidedly unromantic tale of savage pioneer life.

Nicholson's script is based on the diaries of old Westerners who had recorded in terse prose their daily battles with the elements, the land and gun-happy sodbusters out to rape and pillage anything in sight.

Deliberately low on plot, the film focuses in hypnotic detail on odd rituals of personal hygiene and animal management.

The complex ethical dilemma arising from the collision of settlers and wanderers anticipates the drama of Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), with Hellman infusing the tragedy with a black, existential sense of humour.

It is no wonder that Nicholson became an actor fond of inventing his own lines; the dialogue he penned for Ride in the Whirlwind rates among the drollest, most economic inventions of '60s cinema.

© Adrian Martin August 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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