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TWO SHOTS OF EARLY JACK NICHOLSON ARTHOUSE WESTERNS

The Shooting & Whirlwind YEAR: 1966
Welcome to director Monte Hellman’s Mild West, where it takes a good ten minutes for outlaws and cowpokes to become situated around a cabin in RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND or a mining post camp-out in THE SHOOTING...

To some fans of the conventional Western, the pace is far too slow, while to others, this double feature is authentically realistic and truly remarkable.
In the first venture, THE SHOOTING, Warren Oates stars with Will Hutchins, the latter fitfully misplaced in this brooding Western about a woman, played by Millie Perkins billed simply as Woman, hiring two bounty hunter types to guide her across the scorched desert terrain for an unknown agenda...

Beginning with a mystery yarn setup involving a murder discussed with sporadic flashbacks, puzzled over by the usually dynamic Oates as the thankless stalwart lead, Willett Gashade, and storyteller Hutchins as Coley, whose comical, simpleton character takes some adjusting to until the realization that, as the journey sustains throughout the scorched desert, his days could be numbered…
Will Hutchins as Coley
Hutchins provides a childlike innocence, without which the bleak shadow hanging above the unfolding scenario wouldn’t be as edgy, or palpable. A throwback to the fun old Westerns (he even sings... though not as a form of moving the story), Coley goes against the world-weary riders.
Jack Nicholson as Billy Spears
Meanwhile, the cutthroat antagonist… if you don’t count the persistent, manipulative Woman… is played by Jack Nicholson, who delivers the line “I’m gonna blow your face off” with a smug grin... As Billy Spear (not Billy Shears!), his steely, slow-burn, meticulous performance holds back what we know of the now legendary actor, a firebrand during the later 60’s and 70’s...

Clean-cut, slick and to-the-point, his dapper quick-draw is the real killer while Oates’ Gashade, with a tattered past behind him, remains completely oblivious to the impending future that, in anything this dark, can't be good... Which isn't a spoiler for someone who's seen the entirety, but, most likely, any person's rudimentary observation of such a sparse, bleak terrain...
Millie Perkins aims
The men aside, Millie Perkins is the most intriguing aspect, her unnamed Woman more an enigmatic theme than an actual person – like the film itself, what she hides is everything, and she’s hiding everything from everybody... A much different aura than the upfront, earthy follow-up, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND, beginning where THE SHOOTING left off... 
Warren Oates as Gashade
From one hunted man climbing to the crest of a mountain to the peak of another where two ragged outlaws, played by Harry Dean Stanton and Rupert Crosse, look down upon their prey: an approaching stagecoach that, after rolling along with loud squeaky wheels, gets robbed before the opening credits.
Year: 1966 Shooting score: ***
While SHOOTING plays out like a deliberately arduous TWILIGHT ZONE or an existential foreign film, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND initially provides a neat shoot-em-up Western morphing into a slowburn DESPERATE HOURS as Nicholson, who wrote the script and produced both films with Hellman, plays the “kid” in this one – though hardly naïve or inexperienced…
His Wes follows the reluctant lead of Cameron Mitchell’s older and wiser Vern. First a trio, the wandering cowboys happen upon the stagecoach bandits, meandering around the crowded "bunkhouse" until the next day when a posse, surrounding the valley with gunfire, puts the innocent men in the midst of a frantic siege: providing a noisy "surrounded from all sides" scenario that the Western genre is known for.
Cameron Mitchell knows Jack
Falsely accused, the trio becomes a duo, and both Mitchell and Nicholson’s Vern and Wes take to the hills, winding up at a rural cabin where a hardworking family resides...

Herein the suspense builds slow and deliberate as both innocent men hold a wife and daughter in a polite hostage situation… the same subliminal, passive edge as when they were camped with the outlaws. During the first half they ate food served up by “bad guys," and now they’re the antagonists being served by the people forced to trust them.
The fact the trio originally remained with a gang they assumed was guilty (of something) provides an ambiguous Noirish gateway, eventually blamed for a crime. And while innocent, should they have left that night? Or were they afraid of being shot? And back to the scene at hand: Vern and Wes inside with the wife and daughter as the husband works outside, swinging an ax into an eternal tree stump with a redundant nerve-grating noise, especially for Vern (“How long has he been going at that stump?”), who could never imagine such a tedious existence i.e. staying put in one place for an entire lifetime.
Year: 1966 WhirlwindScore: ****
This metronomic death drum of workaday life, like a ticking time bomb, occurs at the prolonged peak of this WHIRLWIND that’s more of a purgatory state, discussed earlier around the campfire: Vern said Wes should join in with the footloose criminals – the pay’s as good as the food, you’re always moving forward and never stuck in the mire – like this family providing the doomed men a last chance of survival. Broken into two acts and not the typical mainstream three, this is really two meals: with completely different plates.
End of SHOOTING up
As a whole, THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND connect within a perpetual loop: As previously noted, the end of SHOOTING segues into WHIRLWIND as one man runs towards the top of a mountain, escaping death… Leading to WHIRLWIND as two criminals, having reached a mountain top, are looking forward (like vultures) for the next score…
Beginning of WHIRLWIND down
And the second film coils around to the first: the end of WHIRLWIND has Millie Perkins' much more passive, bland character with a spiteful, vengeful expression – which, when doubling-back into THE SHOOTING, embodies that Woman from the very onset...

And the final image of WHIRLWIND has a "lone man" on a horse, riding off… Then the first frame of SHOOTING is the close-up of a horse, standing still. While completely unintentional, both movies are joined together as one single entity.
Jack Nicholson & Millie Perkins
Neither is an epitomizing showcase for the actors, most of whom were just starting out with subdued, subtle yet dynamic performances...

It’s really director Monte Hellman’s visual canvas: maneuvering each shot with intriguing nuance, like a single facial tick or shrug or physical reaction equally as important as the piercing blast of a rifle, echoing throughout the landscape...

And now these cult classics are available on Criterion Blu Ray or DVD, with commentary tracks with Hellman and two film historians (one who annoyingly repeats himself, regarding Jack Nicholson's doomed leader as a "dude" about a hundred times), providing memories of the adventurous filming experience and historic insights into the Western genre that was listened-to well after this piece was written.
Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell in Ride in the Whirlwind
Jack Nicholson and character actor John McLiam lookalike George Mitchell
Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson ride the mountainside in RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND
End of Ride in the Whirlwind has Jack's horse riding down; start of Shooting, Oates' horse faces same way
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