In 1938, Hal Roach took his successful Our Gang series and sold it to MGM. 52 more films were made featuring favorite characters like Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, and Porky, but there were also several other, less memorable, new kids added to the gang. One was a young man named Mickey…Mickey Gubitosi. He may not have been one of the most famous members of the gang, but in the end, he is the one who earned the greatest success as an adult actor. We know him today as Robert Blake. He’s had a long career full of ups and downs, both professionally and personally. Shortly before he earned some of his greatest success as TV’s Baretta, he starred in today’s film as an honest motorcycle cop wanting to become a detective. It’s 1973’s “Electra Glide in Blue.”
Blake plays officer John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop in the desert of Arizona. He’s sometimes called “Big John” by his fellow officers, because of his diminutive size. Wintergreen is an honest cop who is anxious to turn in his bike to become a detective. Though, it seems that his commanding officer isn’t taking his interest in the detective job very seriously. Big John does a good job but life on the desert highway is not too exciting. One of his buddies on the force, Zipper (Billy Green Bush), spends much of his day tucked away in a hidden spot off the highway reading comic books. When he gets bored, he chases down hippies in VW vans and plants drugs on them when he can’t find any real crimes being committed. John is caught between being too honest to play along, but too loyal to get his buddy in trouble.
One day, John and Zipper run across a local, mentally challenged man named Willie (Elisha Cook) babbling on about a friend, a hermit of sorts, who has died. The two officers go to the man’s shack to find that he is indeed deceased in what, at first, appears to be a suicide. But John notices several things that look like there may have been foul play. The doctor sent to examine the body (Royal Dano), though, thinks it’s an open and shut case. However, the big shot detective in town, Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), thinks Big John may be onto something and has the eager cop join in his investigation.
John excitedly trades in his motorcycle helmet for a fancy suit and cowboy hat. As they investigate, Poole and Wintergreen realize that a large sum of money is missing from the dead man’s home and they are soon pointed toward a drug-dealing hippie named Bob Zemko (Peter Cetera…yup from the band Chicago). The two head for a hippie commune of sorts, where Poole uses his fists to try and find out Zemko’s whereabouts. By the way, one of the hippies is played by a young Nick Nolte. John is not at all comfortable with this violent approach to police work and tensions between him and Poole start to run high when it is revealed that both men have had affairs with local barmaid Jolene (Jeanine Riley).
John is busted back down to his old job patrolling the highway, but his keen eye spots Zemko riding a hog one day. This leads to a big chase through town. Now, John has a chance to solve the case, after all. However, the trail leads in a direction he didn’t expect.
This film was directed by James William Guercio, who is not primarily known as a filmmaker. He’s much better known as a songwriter and music producer, having produced some early albums from the band Chicago. Several members of the band, including Peter Cetera, Lee Loughnane, and Walter Parazaider, appear in the film. This is the first and only film Guercio ever directed, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.
Though the film has moments of action (the big motorcycle chase, for example) and it’s wrapped around a murder investigation, the film is really much more focused on characters. Big John Wintergreen may very well be one of the best characters Robert Blake has ever played. He’s a good man, honest, ambitious, maybe a bit slow at times, and not at all deterred by being short in stature. As the thin thread of a plot wanders around in this film, Blake’s subtle yet deeply intriguing performance is part of what keeps this film mesmerizing.
The photography by Oscar winner Conrad Hall is also a highlight. It’s an interesting mix, with the interior shots being dimly lit and often shot from strange angles as if we were seeing the low-eye-level world that Wintergreen sees. Meanwhile, the exterior shots of Arizona highway winding through Monument Valley are taken right out of John Ford’s “The Searchers” playbook.
The mystery at the center of this film’s plot is nothing spectacular, but it’s not supposed to be. On the other hand, “Electra Glide in Blue” is one of the more interesting character studies I have run across in a long time. It’s a beautifully made film, by someone who knew nothing about making films and a career highpoint for an actor who’s been making them his whole life.