Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
When the name Robert Blake comes up, people typically think of one thing: Baretta. For me, however, two things come to mind. The first is his totally bizarre and tremendously unnerving performance as what might be the devil in Lost Highway. The second is his understated and sympathetic portrayal of uniform cop John Wintergreen in the lost classic Electra Glide in Blue.
Far from a typical cop movie, 1973’s Electra Glide in Blue revolves around John Wintergreen’s struggle to become a homicide detective. He has two things working against him all the time: his height and his good conscience. Wintergreen is actually a decent human being and a cop, desperately trying to make a positive impact on the force.
When playing "Good Cop/Bad Cop", Wintergreen’s always the good cop—not because he likes the role but because it suits him. He’s honest to a fault; busting hippies, fellow Vietnam vets, and police officers with an equitable attitude. Yet, unfortunately, he’s trapped in a world that has no use for him; a world that towers over him like the teenage girls he flirts with while in line for ice cream.
Wintergreen believes in Truth, Justice and The American Way; the ideals that came into question during the late Sixties. Wintergreen is a representation of the ideals of ’50s updated to a ’60s attitude. He wants us all to get along, but not without order and decency. The tension between decades is exemplified by Wintergreen’s partner, Zipper (Billy Green Bush), who wears a cap on his off hours that makes him look like Marlon Brando from The Wild Ones, meanwhile Wintergreen uses a picture from another classic motorcycle film, Easy Rider, for target practice. Clinging to the promise of the New Society, Wintergreen’s idealism often comes across as conservative blind faith in a failed system. Ultimately, it’s Wintergreen’s outdated thinking that crushes him.
It’s a hollow victory when Wintergreen finally succeeds in his desire to be a detective by solving a bizarre murder set to look like suicide. He’s delegated to the role of driver for Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), a good old boy who talks a line of mystic bullshit about Jesus helping him to solve his crimes. It isn’t too long until the now-disillusioned Wintergreen is busted back down to uniform cop—out on the barren Arizona highways on his Electra Glide motor scooter. The reason for his demotion has nothing to do with his abilities as a police officer—oddly enough; it’s his ability in bed that is his undoing.
Directed by James William Guercio, Electra Glide in Blue comes across as a movie co-directed by Don Siegel and David Lynch. The odd combination of these auteurs’ styles is fitting to the offbeat nature of the film. The visuals are daring at certain points and merely effective at others. But the balance is perfect. As soon as you settle into the idea that this a typical cop drama, the mood shifts and you know something isn’t right.
What carries the movie straight through is Robert Blake. His flawless performance as John Wintergreen is easily one of the most overlooked in cinema. He comes across as earnest and forthright without ever being condescending. We want Wintergreen to succeed against the odds, which are stacked so high against him. After he terrified us in Lost Highway, it’s fascinating to go back and watch him as a genuinely likeable guy.
Guericio also provides a rocking score, showing that his years as manager of Chicago (members of which appear scattered about the film) weren’t for naught. With Blake’s subtle performance and Guercio’s shrewd direction, Electra Glide in Blue is able to walk a fine line between conservatism and fascism. The world needs order, but not necessarily through force. The world needs freedom, but not necessarily chaos. Electra Glide in Blue teaches us, however, that we’re not quite there yet. John Wintergreen is the balance between these ideals, which makes his story all the more tragic. The film’s opening song, Wintergreen’s idealism and the name "Bob Zemko" will be in your head long after the movie has ended.