By Danny Peary
If you’re looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for a friend or yourself, I can confidently recommend Criterion’s new Blu-ray and DVD box-sets of a terrific double feature directed by Monte Hellman, who provides audio commentary. Unique to their genre, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind are exciting and thought-provoking cult westerns that were filmed back-to-back in Utah for only $150,000 combined of penurious producer Roger Corman’s money. They were barely released in America in 1967, but were celebrated in France because of their existential, almost surreal nature. Each starred a pre-Easy Rider Jack Nicholson and post-The Diary of Anne Frank Millie Perkins, but a major reason The Shooting is the superior film is that veteran character actor Warren Oates was given a rare lead, playing a smart, nice guy bounty who escorts Perkins through the wilderness for reasons she won’t reveal. (His companion is played by Will Hutchens, TV’s Sugarfoot.) Among the box set’s special features is an exceptional new video/textual appreciation of Oates by critic Kim Morgan. Like Morgan, whose essay is long, thorough, and passionate, I am a big fan of the versatile actor who passed away in 1982 when just in his mid-fifties. This is what I wrote about him in my 1991 book Cult Movie Stars: “A dynamic presence in extremely violent pictures. Sam Peckinpah, after using him in his TV westerns, cast him in four of his films: Ride the High Country (1962), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). He began in character parts but ultimately moved into leads, most notably in three quirky existential films for Monte Hellman. The short, dark-haired actor could be friendly ferocious, and funny. In Two-Lane Blacktop, he talked a blue streak; in The Cockfighter, he spoke only once. In The Shooting, in which he outsmarts and outfights the sadistic Jack Nicholson, he proved he even was capable of playing a western hero, the hardest of tasks for an actor. Oates himself wasn’t impressed; as he told F. Albert Bomar and Alan J. Warren: ‘I feel most uncomfortable in a western role, because my image of the western man is John Wayne, and I’m just a little s**t.’ With a scruffy beard, slovenly appearance, and a crazed, puzzled expression, he was ideal playing subhuman villains, as in Ride the High Country. But he was a cerebral actor and had much impact when his villains, losers, and heroes were complex figures. There was always something going on behind those bulging eyes and that sheepish grin, something dark that was driving him to be violent (or mean) or tearing him apart. You usually felt his character’s pain, and even if you didn’t like who he was or what he did, you felt empathy for him. You also marveled at Oates’s great performances working for out-of-the-mainstream, often new directors. He really was a great actor. His death was a shock –we fans felt robbed.” I hope the new release of The Shooting will introduce Oates to a new generation of fans.