Monte Hellman, the maverick director and protege of Roger Corman who helmed the existential cult classics The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Hellman died at Eisenhower Health hospital in Palm Desert a week after he had fallen in his home, his daughter, Melissa Hellman, a producer, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He was my best friend,” she said.
Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French magazine, once called Hellman the most gifted American filmmaker of his generation, and critics likened the idiosyncratic director to Michelangelo Antonioni and Sam Fuller.
Hellman collaborated several times with Jack Nicholson and made four films starring Warren Oates, whom he called his “alter ego,” but cinephiles lament that he directed just 15 features. He never developed the traction that a box office success can bring, and his career was one of lost momentum.
In 1963, Hellman had just directed Nicholson back-to-back in Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury in the Philippines for Corman when he approached the producer for the money to make a Western. Corman then gave Hellman $150,000 to make not one film but two, and those became The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.
Each Western, sparse and distinguished by the use of the desolate, dusty desertscapes in Kanab, Utah, took just three weeks to complete, with a week’s break in between.
In The Shooting, Oates’ character is hired to guide a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) through the oppressively hot desert; soon, they are joined by a slick gunslinger portrayed by Nicholson. Future Five Easy Pieces screenwriter Carole Eastman, credited as Adrien Joyce, wrote the script, and Nicholson was a producer.
Ride in the Whirlwind, written by, produced and starring Nicholson, told the story of three cowboys being hunted by vigilantes.
“We thought we were making Duel in the Sun,” Hellman once told L.A. Weekly about the filming of the movies.
Although Hellman and Nicholson promoted the Westerns on the festival circuit and they screened at Cannes in 1966, neither received distribution in U.S. theaters after the European company that had acquired them went bankrupt. They eventually premiered on television two years later.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) starred singer James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson as hot-rodders who make a living winning drag races with their souped-up 1955 Chevy One-Fifty. They pick up a hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) and meet Oates’ character, the owner of a new Pontiac GTO, who challenges them to a race from Arizona to Washington, D.C.
Before its release, Esquire called Two-Lane Blacktop the best movie of the year, and Universal Pictures chief Ned Tanen said it was the finest film he’d ever been associated with. However, his boss, Lew Wasserman, thought the movie was “subversive,” Hellman claimed, and no advertising was purchased before its Fourth of July debut.
Hellman spent many years on projects — more than 50, by one count — that wound up never being made.
He did work as a second-unit director on the action scenes for RoboCop (1987) and, as an executive producer, helped bankroll Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) after thinking he might direct that eventual classic.
More than two decades after his previous feature, Hellman returned with the enigmatic movie-set Road to Nowhere (2010), produced by his daughter.
Monte Himmelbaum was born on July 12, 1929, while his parents were visiting Brooklyn. His father was a grocer and a gambler and his mother a housewife. Raised in Albany, New York, and then California, he made money selling portrait photographs while attending Los Angeles High School. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in theater, then studied film at UCLA.
Hellman got into the film editors union and started a theater company in Los Angeles. Corman was one of his investors, and they combined on the first L.A. production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But when they were evicted from their space after a year, Corman encouraged Hellman to try the movie business, and he directed Beast From Haunted Cave (1959), which featured a spider-like monster.
After Beast from Haunted Cave, Hellman called some shots on the Nicholson starrer The Terror (1963) along with Corman and Francis Ford Coppola.
During his grueling stay in the Philippines, Hellman was editing Back Door to Hell at night while he was shooting Flight to Fury during the day. He completed those films, plus The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, in a 12-month span.
For Two-Lane Blacktop, his signature work, Hellman cast Taylor after he spotted the singer’s picture on a Sunset Boulevard billboard promoting his first album and “was intrigued by his face.” He gave all of his actors one page of the script at a time, and the film was shot in sequence. (His daughter also appears in the movie.)
Hellman, who said he got most of his ideas for his movies from his sleep, was originally slated to direct Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) but was replaced by Sam Peckinpah. He then helmed the quasi-documentary Cockfighter (1974), which featured footage of brutal cockfights and starred Oates as a bird trainer whose prize rooster is killed. He said that film pays homage to one of his favorites, George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.
Hellman signed for the Hammer Films crime tale Shatter (1974) but was replaced during production, then helmed China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), a spaghetti Western shot in Spain that also screened at Cannes.
He completed Avalanche Express (1979) in the wake of the death of the original director, Mark Robson, headed the second unit on Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) and co-wrote and directed Iguana (1988).
In 1989, Hellman’s career had dissipated to the extent that his splatter film Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! went straight to video.
As an editor, Hellman worked on features including The Wild Angels (1966) for Corman, Head (1968) for Bob Rafelson, The Killer Elite (1975) for Peckinpah and Fighting Mad (1976) for Jonathan Demme.
Hellman taught filmmaking at USC and at the California Institute of the Arts.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his son, Jared, and his brother, Herb.
Variety first reported the news of his death.