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Wes, Vern and Otis are three cowhands on the way to a cattle drive. Coming upon what is to be an omen of their future... an outlaw hung by a group of vigilantes...the trio finds shelter at a cabin, only to discover that their "hosts" are men who have robbed a stagecoach and killed the guard. When an avenging posse attacks the cabin, Wes and Vern escape, only to find that they have become branded as 'outlaws' by the posse, who relentlessly pursue them.Written by
If I had to explain with complete certainty why Ride in the Whirlwind is better than average it wouldn't be very easy because on the surface it seems average through and through. It was made obviously for bargain-basement prices (I think director/co-producer Hellman once said that he didn't think anyone would see the westerns he made in the 60s), yet with that, and within the simple confines, there's a freedom in other ways too. On the surface it seems like a cowboy story gone awry, as cattle herders Jack Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell, along with another partner, are on their way to Waco and come upon a cabin occupied by Harry Dean Stanton (in total 'bad-ass' mode with an eye-patch) and his gang (who previously robbed a stagecoach and killed a few of its passengers), and neither want any trouble so they settle for the night. The next day, of course, a posse has discovered Stanton's gang's whereabouts, and there's a shootout. Somehow, Nicholson and Mitchell (not the other partner) sneak out during the shoot-out, but are of course mistaken for being part of the gang, and are sought out to be strung-up.
What makes this simple premise- of cowboys falsely accused of pillaging and murder- more interesting than anything else is the consistent sense of dread and of the romantic sheen of more popular A-list westerns being stripped away. Since B-movies, not just B-westerns, concern more-so the basics of the characters, Hellman and writer Nicholson (who with this and the Trip shows that he actually isn't a bad writer with original material) dig into the fatalism tapped into both sides, of the posse and the prey. Some of the best scenes come up in the time that would usually be called the filler, when Nicholson and Mitchell hold up at a farmer's house and try and get their mind off of the situation with little distractions- Wes (Nicholson) checking out the horses, the two of them attempting a checkers game, trying to sleep- and what isn't said or the extra meaning behind the matter of fact dialog means a good deal. There's also the aspect to their not really being a sense of true justice, as the posse have taken it upon themselves to go after these men; you know just looking at these barely one-dimensional figures that all they want is a hanging done, no more no less.
I'm not sure how much allegory could be drawn from the picture, though on a first viewing sometimes the stilted acting by the supporting players drew away from that (there's also a practical lack of wit from the screenplay, which is appropriate but nears being a little bland for its own good). And while it doesn't dig into the complete heels of the western genre like a later John Ford or Leone movie, or even Unforgiven, Hellman's film is a cut above many other westerns that would settle for conventions being without any challenges to the situations. The climax of the picture doesn't come as too much of a shock to those who've seen their share of genre material, but it was the best way to end the picture: it's not really a happy ending, in spite of the 'riding off into the sunset' shot. There's no hope in this world, not on any side, even if complete justice is not sought. Short and succinct, this is one of those flicks to see in the one dollar bin at the video store, if only for Nicholson and Stanton's eye-patch.
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