Crime films, westerns, and horror. It’s easy to see why these genres make arguably the best B-pictures, all things considered. It lies in their ability to deliver thrills with minimal capital and a bit of inspiration. Film Noir is by far my favorite but a film such as The Shooting makes me love shoestring westerns too. Except that’s just an initial gut reaction. What happens over the course of this film truly plays with our preconceptions. Its ambitions being rather curious.
The players are set fairly early on. The cult favorite Warren Oates is cast as the laconic Gashade who however indifferent he might seem has some shred of decency in him as signified by his friendship with Coley (Will Hutchins) a needy and rather dimwitted miner.
His genial personality makes the addition of our third player all the more important. She’s a woman (Millie Perkins) who comes upon them unannounced and generally unwanted by Gashade. But she also comes with a proposition and money to boot.
Our protagonist is lukewarm to the whole undertaking but for some inexplicable reason agrees to become her guide in tracking someone. He wins a spot for Coley in their caravan as well and it’s easy to see Coley is very much taken with the lady to make up for his buddies complete lack of interest.
The acerbically biting Millie Perkins rivals Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch in the pantheon of cinematic Western women as she verbally spars with her fellow travelers. While the ever-leering Jack Nicholson, here in a very early role as a hired gun robed in black, adds another layer of tension to this extremely peculiar western exercise.
Monte Hellman follows a script penned by Carole Eastman that leads us through the blistering deserts of Utah on a very certain quest that nevertheless becomes increasingly vague and ambiguous as the film progresses. The very fact that The Shooting takes one of the archetypes of a man with a burning vendetta (for example The Searchers or The Bravados) and subverts it so completely denotes how unique this film manages to become.
It’s all orchestrated with a certain idiosyncratic paranoia both musically and otherwise. The opening moments prove just how effectively a score can impart a level of anxiety into a film without anything of much consequence actually occurring. It complements the slow burn that follows for the next hour — slow, brooding, perplexing, all those things — as we wander along with them like the Israelites in Exodus. But there’s an underlying goal to it all, the resolution that we expect to bring everything that has happened thus far to fruition. There will be a cathartic showdown where all is revealed if not made right.
Hitchcock’s long since overused quip that I will nevertheless mechanize one more time goes something like this and seems apt for this film. There is no terror in the bang only in the anticipation of it. That’s the key here. The “bang” as it were, comes but it comes in such a way that we were never quite expecting. The sequential narrative points that we are used to traversing are never quite passed in the succession that we are used to.
There’s a penchant for throwing out names that feel vaguely relevant such as Beckett or Kafka but not being literary enough I will forego such pieces of analyses to simply state in many ways The Shooting feels perfectly at home in the 60s. It’s a real trip and not simply on horseback. More in a precursor to Easy Rider sense. I believe the coined term is an Acid Western.
Paired with another Hellman-Nicholson collaboration backed by Roger Corman and filmed consecutively, The Shooting is made for a double bill with Ride in the Whirlwind. This number, in particular, proves just how mind-bending a western can be. There are no small films only small budgets and with enough vision, not even that can inhibit a truly inventive endeavor like this.