James William Guercio, Electra Glide in Blue, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.

WHEN BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN wrote “Born to Run” and sang, “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes,” he might have been thinking of a then-current spate of road movies piled with unlikely co-riders and misfit loners. Two Lane Blacktop (1970), Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970), Duel (made for TV, 1971), Vanishing Point (1971), The Getaway (1972), Badlands (1973), The Sugarland Express (1974), Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974): Here was a bumpy Polaroid patchwork of the American Southwest, each snapshot presenting a different tangential angle on wide open spaces and arid claustrophobia, motorized dreams of freedom pitted against a world of roadblocks, scrap yards, tumbleweeds, and dead-end streets.

James William Guercio’s 1973 picture Electra Glide in Blue was a one-shot distillation of that tendency, a drive-in art film that gave Robert Blake his best role as pint-size, overcompensating motorcycle cop John Wintergreen, stuck patrolling a seemingly endless stretch of scarcely populated Arizona asphalt. It was a weird combination that somehow clicked. Guercio was a big-shot record producer who had made his name on brassy, crowd-pleasing albums for Blood, Sweat, & Tears and Chicago—not someone you’d think of as a natural candidate for a naturalistic film director. (He had also worked on records for the Firesign Theater, a clue there may have been more to him than his hard-sell reputation.) At this point, Blake had only two serious credits—In Cold Blood from ’67 and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here from ’69—and was probably still best known for having been a child actor in the Our Gang series (1939–44).

He brought a desperate, freewheeling conviction to the material that made it believable: Like his character, he knew this might be his only shot at getting out of the also-ran division. Guercio appreciated that, and built the movie around him with a palpable faith in his star: The reciprocity shines in scenes like Wintergreen’s getting dressed up for his first day as a plainclothes officer, dancing to the rapturous doo-wop of the Marcels’ “Most of All.” Blake throughout moves between cockiness and diffidence, a driven and scared man trying to wiggle his way through a narrow opening in a tight spot: His casual eccentricity and socially awkward will to do the right thing make him an unusually persuasive Everyman.

In film noir terms, that’s a nice word for “patsy.” But part of Electra Glide in Blue’s appeal is how it sets up a classic murder mystery—a staged suicide apparently covering up another crime—only to go off the grid and wander into less familiar terrain. It might be something as small as Wintergreen trying a pickup line on a pair of tall girls beside an ice cream truck: “Did you know me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height, right down to the quarter inch?…Didja know he was so short, they used to have to dig a ditch just for the girls to stand in to kiss him?” Or something as charged as his paranoid, Dirty Harry–manqué boss (Mitchell Ryan) taking him to meet a woman it turns out they’re both involved with, a scene that doesn’t develop into a predictable male confrontation but rather is completely dominated by Jeannine Riley, another small-timer making the most of her chance at glory, delivering an epic, scathing monologue that leaves the two men shaken and virtually speechless. Eventually, the solution to the crime turns out to be something simple and all too human, a rebuff to the logic of conspiracy.

Guercio surrounded himself with smart pros, from cinematographer Conrad Hall to character actors Royal Dano and Elisha Cook Jr. (Cook’s desert crazy is, appropriately, the metaphoric descendant of Walter Huston’s prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The director rode in on a stagecoach’s worth of boy-genius hype, but the movie has very few ego-trip trappings—if he was determined to play the wunderkind, he would turn out to be a restrained one. (Guercio did write a pretty terrible score but employed his own music sparingly.) Using someone like Billy Green Bush, an actor who appeared in about one out of three TV shows that aired in the 1970s, he was able to defamiliarize everything about him—creating a monument to cracked instability under a seemingly straight-arrow surface. The Arizona topography is a similarly skewed composite, part Monument Valley, part cactus country. And from the looks of it, the motley motorcycle chase winds through the vicinity of Barstow or Adelanto, CA.

Electra Glide features a double ending: The first is a bizarre, deadly confrontation between Wintergreen and his partner that formally resolves the last loose end of the mystery. The second is a coda that revises (or inverts) the conclusion of Easy Rider in a tour de force reverse tracking shot that is the most sheerly pretentious and purely beautiful thing in the film, a long backward glance down the highway that turns into a visual hymn to the empty landscape. It’s a farewell to arms, dead cyclists, and all the fuel-injected fantasias of the fast-receding West.

Howard Hampton

Electra Glide in Blue is now available on Blu-Ray from Shout!Factory.