Obituary: Monte Hellman, US film director who worked with Jack Nicholson

Monte Hellman, film director. Born July 12 1929 in New York City. Died April 20 2021 in Palm Desert, California, aged 91.

Monte Hellman in 2010 (Picture: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Unknown to most, lionised by a discerning few, Monte Hellman made low-budget, existential movies, sometimes with the then-unknown Jack Nicholson. They have acquired a cult reputation over the decades. But his most popular and most significant movie is not one that he directed, but rather helped produce.

Quentin Tarantino was a fanboy, working in a video rental shop, when he first met Hellman. The veteran director was enormously impressed with the screenplay that Tarantino had written, a thriller about a gang of jewel thieves, with lots of style, violence, profanity and arch dialogue.

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Hellman wanted to direct, but the young video clerk was insisting on directing it himself. Instead Hellman became one of Reservoir Dogs’s five producers and helped raise the modest $1.5 million budget. He was even prepared to mortgage his house and land in Texas to get it made, though in the end that proved unnecessary.

There was a buzz right from the outset and I was at the first Edinburgh Film Festival press screening in 1992, even before the US release, when the organisers could not fit everyone into the tiny Filmhouse 2 auditorium.

With its ear-severing torture scene - played out against a typically poppy soundtrack, Reservoir Dogs disgusted some, but wowed many more and set Tarantino on the way to becoming a Hollywood superstar director.

Meanwhile Hellman’s own reputation benefitted from critical reassessment, with praise lavished on his westerns with Jack Nicholson, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind.

Edinburgh Film Festival showcased several of his films over the years, with a gala premiere for his Southern Gothic drama Cockfighter in 1974. The festival intended to include it in a 2006 retrospective of little-seen gems from the 1970s.

But one of the reasons it was little seen was that it was banned. The title may be open to misinterpretation, but it was banned for scenes of animal cruelty. The cockfights were real and the film breached animal welfare legislation. It had never been approved for cinema exhibition in the UK and it transpired that even the original premiere had been technically illegal.

The film shot in Georgia, where cockfighting was legal. Although Hellman pushed boundaries and never pandered to mainstream opinions, he was apparently uncomfortable with the subject matter. Producer Roger Corman added more graphic material.

The Internet Movie Database described Cockfighter as “one of the most extraordinary movies of the 1970s, and further proof that Monte Hellman is one of the most underrated directors of all time”.

The son of a grocer, Monte Jay Himmelbaum was born in New York City in 1929, but the family relocated to Los Angeles a few years later. He majored in speech and drama at Stanford University, studied film at UCLA and worked as an editor with the ABC television company.

He also founded a theatre company, the first to stage Waiting for Godot in Los Angeles. Hellman turned it into a western. But the company struggled to survive and the theatre was turned into a cinema.

At the time Roger Corman was the undisputed master of low-budget exploitation movies, anything from surf to horror, aimed at young drive-in audiences. He provided early breaks for many actors and directors, giving them relatively free reign as long as they delivered on tight budgets and made money.

Corman gave Hellman the chance to move from theatre to film. The Beast from Haunted Cave was not exactly Waiting for Godot, but it gave Hellman his start in movies.

Hellman directed two films back to back in the Philippines for 20th Century Fox, the war film Back Door to Hell and the thriller Flight to Fury, both of which starred the young Jack Nicholson.

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Working with producer Roger Corman once again, Hellman and Nicholson made The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, sometimes described as “acid westerns”. Nicholson wrote, produced and starred in Ride in the Whirlwind, in which his character goes on the run after being mistaken for an outlaw.

With Universal Pictures behind it and long-haired pop stars James Taylor and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys as leads, it looked like Two-Lane Blacktop might give Hellman a major mainstream box-office hit in 1971.

It was haled at the ultimate road movie, with two nameless men heading down a highway to an uncertain future, Easy Rider meets Samuel Beckett. “Here we are on the road,” says co-star Warren Oates. “Yeah, that’s where we are alright,” James Taylor confirms.

Esquire magazine devoted almost a whole issue to the film, pronouncing it the “movie of the year”. In Time magazine Jay Cocks wrote: "The film is immaculately crafted, funny and quite beautiful, resonant, with a lingering mood of loss and loneliness ... Not a single frame in the film is wasted.”

But Universal Pictures were less impressed, did little to promote it and the film soon disappeared, until years later it found a new audience on video, and even then only after a concerted campaign to force Universal to release it.

After Two-Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, Hellman worked only intermittently as a director, reuniting with Warren Oates for China 9, Liberty 37, which sounds more like an American football score than a western. They are actually distances.

He did post-production work on other people’s films and directed some of the action sequences on the 1987 film RoboCop when Paul Verhoeven fell behind schedule.

Road to Nowhere, a 2010 thriller, was his first film as director for more than 20 years. A prize-winner at the Venice Film Festival, it was, as ever, little seen anywhere else. And then of course there was Reservoir Dogs.

At least Hellman lived long enough to see his films reappraised by critics and acquire a significant cult and cineaste following.

He was married four times and is survived by one daughter and one son.

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