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Flashback: on 1966’s Ride in the Whirlwind

It’s that time of year again…Happy 78th Birthday to the great Jack Nicholson! It’s beginning to look as if he’ll never work in motion pictures again…five years dormant since 2010’s “How Do You Know”. But most of us can still find something from his 60+ resume that we haven’t yet seen. And for me, this birthday celebration choice was Monte Hellman’s western, “Ride in the Whirlwind”. Co-produced by Hellman with Nicholson himself–and Jack even wrote the screenplay (yeah, that’s right folks who’ve only watched Jack in “The Shining” and “Batman”…he can pretty much do it all)! It was shot back-to-back with its companion piece “The Shooting” (also co-produced by Jack, who also co-starred, from a Carole “Five Easy Pieces” Eastman screenplay–writing under the pseudonym “Adrien Joyce”). I watched the quite good “The Shooting” a bunch of years back, via late-night PBS broadcast. This print of “Ride in the Whirlwind” was recently made available by the Criterion Collection, which released it along with its sister production.

Three cowboys (Mr. Nicholson as Wes, Cameron Mitchell as Vern, and Tom Flier as Otis) travelling together (on beautiful Utah location landscapes), innocently arrive at the hideout of a group of outlaws. They are accommodated by Blind Dick (a fortyish Harry Dean Stanton–now 88 years young!). The next morning, the wandering trio find themselves mistaken as stagecoach robbers, as they’re surrounded by local law enforcement. Only two escape, and they proceed to take refuge at a farm run by an older couple, along with their young adult daughter Abigail (the almost superstar, Millie Perkins). The cowboys, Wes and Vern, don’t intend to hurt the local family, but only to steal two horses, so as to speed away from the lynch mob that wrongly accuses them. However, a struggle ensues, and Abigail’s father is killed after wounding Vern. Just as the two innocent men exit the property on horseback, the posse arrives from town and begins a hot pursuit.

Described as a minimalist, “acid” western, “Ride in the Whirlwind” holds up quite well five decades on–even though “The Shooting” is, arguably, slightly superior. Nicholson is strong here as Wes–not yet thirty, and turning in a commendable script to boot. Cameron Mitchell is also quite fine as Vern, fifty or so, weathered, and ultimately “heroic”. Millie Perkins is a mysterious dark beauty as Abigail–she also has a sizable role in “The Shooting”. Perhaps, most memorable of all is the priceless Harry Dean Stanton as the one-eyed “Blind Dick”. The ubiquitous Roger Corman was an uncredited producer here, continuing to lend a hand in the slow stardom rise of Jack (still three years from hitting the stratosphere, with 1969’s monster counterculture success, “Easy Rider”). With a complete (and welcome) lack of flamboyance, and a generous helping of “obliged”‘s, “Ride in the Whirlwind” had been aching for rediscovery. Criterion is thankfully leading that charge. It’s a heck of an 82-minute yarn, and one of the many early launching pads, for one of our finest film actors. Happy Birthday, Jack!

Grade:  B

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