It's a strange feeling to write about Robert Blake movies now, after so much has happened to him in his personal life. But, all that aside, if you think about it, Blake had a long and fascinating career in movies. Under his real name Mickey Gubutosi, he was Mickey in Hal Roach's Our Gang series of short films. He went on to play Little Beaver, the Native American sidekick to Red Ryder (Bill Elliott) in a long, now-forgotten series of westerns. He had a memorable two-scene role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a kid trying deperately to sell a lottery ticket to a busted Bogart.
Later, he was in Pork Chop Hill (the best Korean War movie, by Lewis Milestone), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (the western that was only the second movie by once-blacklisted Force of Evil director Abraham Polonsky), Richard Brooks' In Cold Blood (as Perry), David Lynch's Lost Highway (in a scary white-faced mask), and most famously, he became the unorthodox TV cop Baretta, playing alongside a cockatoo named Fred and a streetwise best friend named Huggy Bear (Antonio Fargas). He was well-known for his funny 70s motor oil TV commercials and his manic Johnny Carson appearances. Pretty good career, really. But now, after all his court troubles, this all seems quite far away.
Still, I have a fondness for the actor, mostly stemming from 1973's Electra Glide In Blue, the only film written and directed by--get this--the founding member of the supergroup Chicago! James William Guercio delivered, in his only screen outing, the single best motorcycle cop movie ever made. In it, Blake plays John Wintergreen, a diminutive, Alan Ladd-loving Arizona patrolman whose desire to be a state detective throws him feet-first into a bizarre murder investigation. His enthusiasm garners him a mentor, detective Harve Pool (the despicable Mitchell Ryan), who eventually on him and sets roadblocks up against his acceptance into the detective program.
This moody picture is endlessly influential (one of its opening scenes has been aped by Rambo and Aliens, among others). Guercio was lucky enough to coerce cinematographer Conrad Hall--Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty and Road to Perdition--into throwing his talents into the ring, resulting in a luciously-colored widescreen frame throughout. (The film's long, extended final shot MUST be seen--it's one of the most indelible images in movie history.) Blake is quite likable as Wintergreen--perhaps the most likable he'd been since buddying around with Spanky and Darla. I personally love the scene where he's trying on his detective's uniform for the first time, stepping outside, cigar in mouth, before realizing he's forgotten something essential. Yeah, it's a little silly but through moments like this, or when he's arguing with a coroner (the creepy Royal Dano) for the further investigation of a desert bum's murder, we can feel his excitement, his passion, his capacity to always do the right thing. And when he's punished for it, we're heartbroken (SPOILER ALERT: the ending is some kind of retribution for the climax of Easy Rider).
The cast is rounded out by Billy "Green" Bush (excellent at Zipper, Blake's over-the-top partner), a sexy Jeannine Riley, a more-crazed-than-usual Elisha Cook Jr., key cameos from Chicago members Peter Cetera and the late Terry Kath. Oh---and THE star, Blake's glorious Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle. As one might expect, Guercio's horn-laden score is excellent, with songs by The Marcels, Mark Spoelstra, Terry Kath, and Madura (who perform in live concert footage). And the closing song, by Chicago, called "Tell Me," is a sad, majestic ballad about the vanishing wilderness---it's a song I'd like to have a copy of (anybody out there got one?) Now, if we could only get Guercio to make another movie...and put Robert Blake in it.