By Ron Wells | May 12, 2001

It seems like anyone who’s not a major film buff doesn’t really have any idea who director Monte Hellman is. It’s their loss. Most people can name-check the film school brats who came to fame in the 1970’s and recite dialogue from the movies that made them a force. Well, Hellman was making pictures just as “out there” and started several years before guys like Scorsese, Coppola, and Bogdanovich, and he got his big break the same way they did: through legendary producer Roger Corman.
[ FIRST, THE FORCE OF ROGER CORMAN ] ^ Now, Corman is probably a whole series of other articles, and was no slouch as a director himself. He was probably most hampered in that capacity as his priorities were quite firmly on the business side of his low-budget operations. That’s why he always made money. It’s in his capacity as a producer that he ranks with the bid studio legends like Irving Thalberg and Darryl F. Zanuck. ^ Why is that? Corman’s heyday was in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s. During the decade of political unrest the big studios were monolithic and had big problems adjusting to a changing marketplace and competition from television. They were slow to change their ways, and they found themselves losing money. One way that hadn’t changed was that the odds for a first-time director to get hired to direct a studio picture were slightly worse than winning the lottery today. You had to spend years working your way up through the system. ^ It was a different story with Uncle Roger, though. Veteran directors would thumb their nose at the miniscule resources and shooting days made available for Corman productions, but the producer could always find some hungry young kids who would work for nothing for the chance to helm their own movie. More importantly, with so many films in the works, as long as the new director was on time and on budget, and the footage looked okay, he would usually leave them alone. As a result, Corman provided early breaks for such future big names as Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and many more.
[ THE WRITING ON THE WALL ] ^ Another guy who passed through Corman’s gauntlet was Monte Hellman. In the late 1950’s, Corman was an investor in a theatre company run by Hellman in Los Angeles. They even staged the first L.A. production of “Waiting for Godot.” One day the group was evicted from their home theatre. The owners then tore down the place to erect a new movie theatre on the site. Roger suggested to Monte that he take that as a sign of “the writing on the wall.” Soon enough, Hellman went to work for his new mentor to make “The Beast from Haunted Cave”. It starred Frank Sinatra’s brother, Richard. ^ Hellman was learning his craft as not just a director, but as an editor. He cut the 1960 film “The Wild Ride” which co-starred a very young Jack Nicholson. Years before stardom would hit, Nicholson would try his hand at not just acting, but writing, producing, and even directing. Corman’s name is at the top of the 1963 Boris Karloff film, “The Terror”, which also co-starred Nicholson. In reality, parts of the movie were directed by several young filmmakers including Hellman, Nicholson, Coppola, and cult director Jack Hill (“Switchblade Sisters”, “Foxy Brown”).
[ FROM THE PHILIPPINES TO UTAH ] ^ For the next few years, Hellman’s career revolved around a new partnership with Nicholson, while still working for Corman. Now Roger would do anything to save money. One method was to have a crew shooting on location outside of Los Angeles to film two movies instead of one. Sure enough, Jack and Monte soon headed off to the Philippines to shoot a pair of films, “Back Door to Hell” (no, it’s not a porno) and “Flight to Fury”. ^ The latter film can be found on an out-of-print video and is significant as an example of what to expect later in the careers of both men. Jack not only co-strarred, but wrote the screenplay based upon a story by Hellman and producer Fred Roos. As such, at age 26, the future superstar comes on pretty full-formed, as creepy and gregarious as he is charismatic. A heist film, it also reveals the nihilism and themes filmgoers could expect to see from the director very, very soon. ^ Not so long from the shoots of the Philippines flicks were the shootings of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Monte and Jack both felt the desire to comment in some way on these events, though probably more on the kind of disturbance and unrest they caused. Nicholson soon wrote an original screenplay, a Western called “Ride In the Whirlwind”. When the pair brought the project to Corman, he again asked them to find a second script to shoot before heading off to Utah for the production. They ended up with a story from Carole Eastman (“Five Easy Pieces”) called “The Shooting.” ^ Jack and Monte produced the movies together. Each film was shot in 18 days, separated by a week of prep time for the second production. “Ride In the Whirlwind” co-starred Nicholson and veteran character actor Cameron Mitchell in a tale of how good men are forced to do bad things because of somebody’s perverted idea of “justice”. ^ “The Shooting” is a far more difficult piece and much more direct commentary on the earlier assassinations. Any number of meanings can be attributed to the elements on screen, most of them concerning the elusiveness of ever knowing “the truth”. ^ “The Shooting” was significant in another respect. It began a long association between Hellman and the man he would later call “his brother”, the film’s star, Warren Oates.
[ AMERICA’S LOST CINEMA GOD ] ^ As Warren died at age 53 in 1983 of a heart attack, most of the kids today don’t know who he is. If that guy were around today, everybody from Rip Torn to Robert De Niro would be scraping his leftovers. The character De Niro plays in the recent “Men of Honor” is a bad cartoon compared to just the performance Oates gave in “Stripes.” ^ The actor is probably best known for his Westerns (including nearly every Western TV show in the 1950’s) and his work with two directors: Sam Peckinpah and Hellman. Oates was perfect to play Monte’s desperate souls who were somewhat aware life wouldn’t end well for them. The two men hit it off as well as the director had with Nicholson. ^ Hellman stuck to editing gigs after the Utah trip until he got back in the director’s chair for Universal’s “Two-Lane Blacktop”. What should have been a cheap road movie became a zen-like masterpiece about desperation, alienation, and America. It is probably both Hellman’s and Oates’ best film. Of course, the studio hated it. It died after executive refused to promote it. ^ Hellman had acquired his first studio gig only to piss off his new bosses. Now at the dawn of the 1970’s, the director would soon face difficulties that would plague the rest of his career. Difficulties on the 1974 film “Shatter” would leave him uncredited for the work that he did. Following the deaths of the orginal directors during production, Monte took over the reins on the Muhammad Ali flick, “The Greatest”, and the thriller “Avalanche Express.” ^ Still, Hellman successfully helmed two more features that would contribute to his legacy. The first was a return to Corman to adapt Charles Willeford’s novel “Cockfighter” to the screen. For both the director and star Oates, it is probably their second best performances, second only to “Two-Lane Blacktop”. Unfortunately, by this time much of the country was fairly turned off by a “sport” that was now banned in most of the country. Later released under the name “Born to Kill”, this gem would also have to wait for a critical renaissance like the one awaiting its predecessor. ^ The second feature of this era and the last to date that incorporates the director’s trademark themes, is a very late Spaghetti Western named “China 9, Liberty 37”. This would be the final Western for both Hellman and Oates. Again, what should have been a forgettable film resonates with themes of the futility of “justice” and “honor”. In the end, it’s just as nihilistic and honest as all of Hellman’s other great films.
[ NOT GOING DOWN EASY ] ^ The rest of Hellman’s career might seem kind of bleak, but he doesn’t see it that way. The only features he’s directed since shooting roughly the last 10% of “Avalanche Express” in 1979 are “Iguana” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night III”. There’s been a few other projects he’s worked on in some capacity. ^ For instance, Monte was up for “Robocop”, but executives told him they thought he wasn’t very good at shooting action. But when production fell behind schedule, they did hire him to shoot second unit to pick up the schedule. Of course everything filmed by the second unit were action shots. Whatever. ^ Hellman’s collective work has picked up quite a reputation in the last ten years. Much of the renewed buzz probably came from one of his biggest fans, a former Southern California videostore clerk named Quentin Tarantino. At one point, QT actually brought his hero a script to direct. He agreed to do it. However, the novice soon sold his script for “True Romance” and believed he would have enough clout to gain financing to direct the film himself. Hellman graciously stepped back to executive produce the movie “Reservoir Dogs.”
[ WHAT NOW? ] ^ Monte may be 68, but he’s not ready to retire. Recently, he’s overseen new director-approved DVD’s of “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Cockfighter” for Anchor Bay and “The Shooting” and “Ride In the Whirlwind” for VCI Home Entertainment. Better yet, it appears he’ll start shooting a new, unnamed film next year near Austin, Texas. We can only dream of a return to the greatest achieved before his career stalled. In talking to him, he would seem to still have it together, and films over 35 years old still retain their power. ^ You know, it’s one thing to go after the big ideas when you have all of the money, time, and creative control in the world. Try shooting not one but two politically-charged Westerns in less than a month and a half for Roger Corman. There really is no such thing as a “perfect” film. You can keep shooting for a year-and-a-half like the late Stanley Kubrick did for “Eyes Wide Shut”, but any movie will have its flaws. The best you can hope for is the elements coming together in a perfect unity in the minds of the audience. To accomplish that or something close, Monte Hellman only required whatever he was given. That’s the sign of a true artist.
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