(director: James William Guercio; screenwriter: Robert Boris/story by Rupert Hitzig & Boris; cinematographer: Conrad Hall; editors: Jim Benson/John F. Link/Jerry Greenberg; cast: Robert Blake (John Wintergreen), Elisha Cook Jr. (Willie), Royal Dano (Coroner), Billy “Green” Bush (Zipper Davis), Mitch Ryan (Detective Harve Poole), Jeannine Riley (Jolene), David J. Wolinski (VW Bus Driver), Peter Cetera (Zemko); Runtime: 113; United Artists; 1973)

“James William Guercio was the producer of Chicago albums in the Seventies, and this is his only directorial effort.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

James William Guercio was the producer of Chicago albums in the Seventies, and this is his only directorial effort. It’s a “message” film with “message songs” playing in the background, as its ultimate message is that it is better to live in peace and make the world a better place to live in than to blindly obey authority figures. Its aim is to delve into the character of a short Arizona motorcycle cop, who is the same height as Alan Ladd (five feet tall). His name is John Wintergreen (Blake), who dreams of being a homicide detective because they earn their pay by using their brains and it’s a glory job. When he briefly attains that dream, it soon sours and he’s left looking inside himself for answers. The film’s other aim is to show the lost dreams and violence that fills America’s wastelands and wounds those living there.

The main rivals of the cops are the hippies, as a clash over culture and values exists. While the elderly are shown as a forsaken people, who are dying from loneliness and from failed dreams. The film is a quirky, atmospheric, character study, taken the form of a black comedy. Robert Blake as the protagonist is perfect for the part. Its main flaw is that its messages are too simplistic and the story suffers, at times, from a heavy-handed direction.

As the film opens motorcycle cop Wintergreen proves to be a stud while in bed with the local barmaid, the tall and buxom Jolene (Riley). On the job with his corrupted partner, Zipper (Bush), they patrol the hot desert roads looking for speeding cars. They soon come across a hippie in a VW wagon and Zipper goes on a power trip to harass the hippie and plant drugs on him. Zipper prefers to remain in the shade for most of his tour of duty, as Wintergreen prefers to play the game of being the tactful motorcycle cop making the roads safe from speeders.

Wintergreen sees his big chance to show that he’s of homicide detective material when the motorcycle cops come across a raving lunatic in the desert, a harmless recluse named Willie (Cook). He tells them that his only friend Frank is dead in his shack and that he had $5,000 hidden there. When Wintergreen investigates he does it by the book the way he imagines a detective would and he finds a shotgun, shell fragments in a loaf of bread and pork chops on the fire which he uses to determine the time the death occurred. He suspects murder because the wound was in the chest and not the head. The coroner (Dano) says it’s suicide and wishes to save the county the expense of an unnecessary autopsy. But when pompous homicide detective, Harve Poole (Ryan), arrives on the scene, he suspects foul play and when the thorough investigation is completed they find that there is another bullet in Frank. Upon further investigation of his shack they find a supply of red speed pills and that the drug money is missing. The fingerprints of a hippie drug dealer, Zemko (Cetera-a member of the Chicago band), are all over the shack.

Now with a murder investigation on the way, Harve takes Wintergreen under his wing to teach him how to be a detective as he puts him on homicide. He also makes him his driver and impresses the young cop by showing him how to go about conducting an investigation, saying the most important thing isn’t always the facts but what hits you inside. Wintergreen soon gets disillusioned with Harve when he observes his unethical methods of getting info on Zemko’s whereabouts, as he beats the info out of the commune members. The relationship breaks completely off when Harve realizes that Wintergreen has learned about his women problems and can’t be trusted to be part of the old-boy cop network. Soon Wintergreen is back on motorcycle patrol with his dishonest partner, Zipper.

The film has plenty of action scenes, culminating with a motorcycle chase; but, what it does best, is show how lonely people could be and how this is sometimes the driving force behind the false lives they lead. Because of the excellent photography, via Conrad Hall, of the Monument Valley desert region and the apt depictions of the barren inner landscapes of the individuals trapped by their lies, this film comes through as a powerful story of someone who is done in by the corruption of society.

It sets a thumping mood throughout, especially, with scenes of the band called Madura playing a concert to a desert audience, while the Robert Blake character was at that point in the story trying to find for himself what is important in his life so he could live with dignity and not fall by the side of the road like all the other disillusioned people he met.

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REVIEWED ON 8/18/2001 GRADE: B +