Year – 1973
Decade – 1970s
Cinematographer – Conrad L. Hall
Director – James William Guercio
Aspect Ratio – 2.39
Distributor – United Artists
Genre – Drama
Lenses – Panavision anamorphic
Format – 35mm
A diminutive Arizona motorcycle cop (Robert Blake) gets his chance to play detective when the apparent suicide of a desert hermit turns into a homicide investigation. The film marks the one and only directing credit for James William Guercio, best known as the longtime producer for the band Chicago (several of the group’s members play small roles). He produced one more film – Hal Ashby’s Second-Hand Hearts (1980), also starring Blake – and made it three days into directing the Steve McQueen vehicle Tom Horn (1980) before the star fired him.
Here’s cinematographer Conrad Hall on working with Guercio, from Vincent LoBrutto’s excellent book of DP interviews Principal Photography. Guercio gave Hall his director’s salary – essentially making the film for free – in order to afford the cameraman, who had already shot Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and In Cold Blood.
Q: Electra Glide in Blue had a very striking visual style. The film was directed by James William Guercio, who at the time was the producer of the rock group Chicago. How did you work with this first-time director?
A: James Guercio grew up in Chicago, Illinois. His father was a projectionist. When James came out of school he would go to the theater, look at whatever was playing, and fall asleep in the back row until his father finished work. So this guy had seen an exorbitant amount of movies and knew a lot about movies. He liked detail, so we learned how to extrapolate the scene by picking up the elements of it and not going to the heart of the matter to begin with.
Q: What was your concept of the use of color in Electra Glide in Blue?
A:….I was trying to sell James Guercio on pastels and he wanted rich color. I shot some tests. I was overexposing two or three stops. This was after Butch Cassidy and I was going in that direction more and more. I thought, “Oh boy, out here in the desert it would be wonderful.” The tests came back, and you never saw a longer, sadder look on a director’s face in your life. He didn’t say anything. We said we’d meet for dinner. I got a telephone call from the production manager and he asked if I would stop by James Guercio’s room before we met for dinner. He had put up a whole bunch of postcards on a bulletin board and said, “You know Conrad, I don’t know about losing all of this beautiful color. This is what I like.” Here were these shots with donkeys and cactus with blue skies so blue that you wanted to throw up. I said, “Why didn’t you get Bill Clothier (The Horse Soldiers, Cheyenne Autumn)? He’s the guy that does this kind of rich, beautiful, colorful, and sharp kind of photography. I like to interpret light, shadow, and sharpness to create different moods. I consider this false because this is not the way I see the desert.” So we shot some more tests and I didn’t overexpose too much. He got happier as soon as he saw some color come back in. I started the picture with a saturated look and then I weaned him away from that look by sneaking the colors into more of a pastel, desaturated sense which I felt the story belonged in. By the time we were in our second week, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and he was liking it. But the film is much more saturated than I normally would have made it, because he liked it that way. So what could you do. I went with the director.
Final Shot (*****Spoilers******)
A breakdown of Electra Glide in Blue’s epic final shot. This is definitely spoiler territory so I wouldn’t go any further if you haven’t seen the film. The first two rows of frames below are the lead-up to the final shot, with Blake chasing behind a van after a traffic stop to return a forgotten driver’s license. In an inversion of the Easy Rider climax, the van’s counterculture inhabitants gun down Blake’s cop. The final shot (found in the bottom two rows below) begins with the camera static as Blake topples along the road in that beautiful 1970s-era slow motion of Peckinpah and Bonnie and Clyde. As he sits up in the center of the frame, the camera begins a 3 1/2 minute pullback set to late Chicago singer/guitarist Terry Kath’s “Tell Me” as Blake recedes further and further into the distance.
Here’s Conrad Hall (also taken from Principal Photography) on the final shot.
We started in slow motion at ninety-six frames a second. We had Bobby Blake falling and rolling after he was shot. He starts to sit up and then the camera pulls away to leave him sitting in the middle of the road. We drove back very fast shooting at ninety-six frames. The driver was in low gear and whoosh we were up to sixty miles an hour in seconds. We changed the film speed without changing the exposure. We were going faster and faster and it would get lighter, lighter, lighter, more surreal, mystical, and spiritual. Then a black crow flew across, and James William Guercio couldn’t bear not to freeze frame, which I thought was very moving.