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Monte Hellman - An Obituary

Monte Hellman – Film director

 Born July 12, 1929; died April 20, 2021 

 

 Monte Hellman, who has died aged 91, was a film director who became the ultimate outsider. One of a generation of auteurs to have come of artistic age on the back of the post World War Two American counter culture, his work was equally in tune with European philosophical sensibilities. The fusion of the two made for a brooding and ennui-laden canon that chimed with the times. This was seen best in Two-Lane Blacktop, (1971), an existential road movie starring singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson alongside Laurie Bird and semi regular Hellman collaborator, Warren Oates.

 

With a trailer voguishly hailing it as ‘The Far-Out World of the High Speed Scene’, it was hoped Two-Lane Blacktop would catch fire with disaffected youth, and become a crossover hit in the mould of Easy Rider. Dennis Hopper’s era defining opus had been released two years earlier, and featured a cast that included Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. 

 

Like Hellman, both were graduates of producer Roger Corman’s stable of young pretenders knocking out B-movie westerns, monster movies and teensploitation flicks on the cheap. Hellman’s films for Corman went some way beyond their intended status. This was evident even in Hellman’s first film as director, Beast From Haunted Cave (1959), filmed on the same set as Corman’s own Ski Trip Attack. 

 

Hellman’s concerns came through too in his four collaborations with Jack Nicholson. Flight to Fury (1964), and Back Door to Hell (1964) were war films made back to back in the Philippines. The pair operated a similar strategy with The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), a pair of westerns shot one after another on the same set in Utah. As his first and last studio picture, Two-Lane Blacktop’s starkness left his bosses as alienated as his characters. 

 

Hellman’s approach continued right through to his final feature, Road To Nowhere (2010). Co-produced by his daughter Melissa, it focused on a film-maker whose obsession with his work comes at great personal cost. In Hellman’s onscreen world, everyone is either on the run or being chased. Just as some of his characters were left behind, injured, damaged, or worse, others carried on regardless, galloping towards the void and running on empty.

 

While it would be easy to file Hellman’s work in the ghetto of cult classics, the all too few films he made deserve much more than being patronised in that way. In the decades he spent trying to get his own work made, the films he did direct disappeared almost immediately. 

Hellman’s highest profile came later as co-executive producer of Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature, Reservoir Dogs (1992).  After being shown Tarantino’s script, Hellman mentored its precocious and knowing new generation movie brat author to the sort of success he’d never been able to do with his own work. Despite this, Hellman’s output remains loaded with depths that transcend the fashions of the times they were made even as they have become their barometers. 

 

Monte Jay Himmelman was born in New York to Fred and Gertrude Himmelbaum (nee Edelstein). His family moved to Los Angeles when he was five-years-old. His love of film came from watching The Lone Ranger and Tarzan before he studied theatre at Stanford University, California. 

 

He set up the Stumptown Players theatre company in Guerneville, and directed the Los Angeles premiere of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. The Los Angeles Times described Hellman’s production as being ‘directed with wisdom, devotion and perception’. Like Beckett, Hellman often put rootless double acts in search of something intangible at the centre of his work.

 

Hellman met Corman through his first wife, Barboura Morris, who had been a classmate of Corman’s and appeared in several of his films. After Corman co-opted Hellman to direct for him, Hellman’s second wife, Jaclyn Hellman (nee Ebeier), appeared in Beast From Haunted Cave. Both she and Melissa later made cameos in Two-Lane Blacktop.

 

Outside his own films, Hellman shot the prologue for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963), and was dialogue director on Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). He finished Mark Robson’s Avalanche Express (1979) in post-production, and did second unit directing for Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, (1987).As an editor, Hellman worked on The Wild Angels (1966) for Corman, on Nicholson scripted Monkees film, Head (1968) for Bob Rafelson, The Killer Elite (1975) for Sam Peckinpah, and Fighting Mad (1976) for Jonathan Demme.

 

After Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman returned to Corman’s fold to make Cockfighter, starring Oates and Bird. He went on to direct China 9, Liberty 37 (1978), a western with Oates and Jenny Agutter. A decade later, he oversaw Iguana (1988). Hired to direct Silent Night Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out (1989), he turned his contribution to the horror franchise into satire. 

 

Road to Nowhere appeared in 2010. Hellman dedicated it to Bird, who had taken her own life in 1979. At the film’s premiere in Venice, Tarantino presented him with a Special Lion for Overall Work. At last, it seemed, Hellman’s maverick spirit had been recognised in Europe where it belonged. As with his characters, it was the journey that counted, not the getting there.

 

He is survived by his third wife, Emma Webster, his daughter, Melissa and his son, Jared, to his second wife, Jaclyn Hellman, and his brother, Herb Himmelbaum.


The Herald, May 14th 2021

 

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