Monte Hellman is probably the greatest filmmaker you've never heard of, and a talent who rightly should be lionised as one of the greats who have emerged since the '50s. Hellman has never been attracted to making overly commercial films or to 'playing the game', preferring to make his own kind of cinema - intelligent, carefully paced, character-based films. Starting off in theatre, where he ran his own company, Hellman made his directorial debut with the low-budget monster  movie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE in 1959, and then began working with Roger Corman on various projects. He worked with Jack Nicholson on four films before Nicholson's smash with EASY RIDER (1969), most notably on the brilliant existentialist Westerns THE SHOOTING and RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (both 1966). Alongside Sam Peckinpah, Hellman was quick to notice the low-key excellence of character actor Warren Oates, casting him also in four films, including the now celebrated road movie TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971) and the underrated COCKFIGHTER (1973). Hellman recently released his first film in 21 years, the fascinating ROAD TO NOWHERE (2010). I spoke with him about some of his favourite overlooked films.

My interview with Monte about his career.

"All the movies I like are ones that move me."

STAVISKY (Alain Resnais, 1974)
STAVISKY is one of those the films which I saw and then went back immediately to watch again, either the same day or the next day. I saw it twice on its initial release. Its an amazing movie and has one of the greatest performances of any film by Charles Boyer. He was given a special tribute at the Cannes Film Festival for it. The film is beautifully photographed, and although I don't usually go for scores, it has a great one by Stephen Sondheim. It has a fantastic screenplay by Jorge Semprun which intrigued me. He wrote a book that I tried to get filmed called 'The Second Death of Ramon Mercauder' (1969). STAVISKY had a great influence on my ROAD TO NOWHERE in the way that there is a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order!

I just got that new (British) DVD. It's been unavailable forever. It's really pretty good. I've had some really bad copies off of VHS. Some of the timing is off and the picture looks washed out in occasional shots, but this is the first relatively good release of the movie.

I had a very interesting experience the first time I saw the movie. I saw it in 1952, relatively soon after it came out. We don't always get movies quickly in the States. I saw it at an arthouse cinema on Westwood Boulevard, a few blocks south of UCLA. I normally sit in the back of theatres but for some reason I was sitting in the tenth row. So I was in the movie rather than watching it from afar. And the other thing that made it kind of interesting is that there was literally the most beautiful girl I had ever seen sitting in the row in front of me. She kind of took some of my attention away from the movie but not much. She was with this older man and I mistakenly assumed it was her father. It turned out that when the lights came up at the end of the movie it was Elizabeth Taylor and her new husband, Michael Wilding!
The movie just struck a chord with me. The woman in it (Kerima) is very primitive and there is something terrifying about her. It just hit me. It's a difficult movie. I can see why it never became successful. It's about a character who is truly unlikeable, except that at some point, you do feel for him. He never explains why he is such a bastard. It's a Joseph Conrad story, and Conrad never explains it in the book either. He does not become very human. And also I was really in love with good acting, as then as is now. The cast in this is just extraordinary. Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller (whom I had seen on stage prior to seeing the movie and is fantastic here), George Coulouris, Robert Morley (whose daughter is also in the film and looks exactly like him) and Ralph Richardson. Kerima is so powerful in it as the girl.
I got to work with John Wilcox, the film's cinematographer. He was my first DP in Hong Kong on SHATTER (1974). He was an alcoholic and became ill with liver poisoning so he didn't work with me all through and I didn't stay on the movie anyway. I left after three weeks.
The film could have had some effect on my IGUANA (1989) for sure. I've seen OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS dozens of times and every time I see it, it just gets better and better. For me, it is the best of all Carol Reed's films.

SERIE-NOIRE (Alain Corneau, 1979)
I saw SERIE-NOIRE the first time at Cannes, and it has a great performance by Patrick Dewaere, who unfortunately killed himself years later. It had a tremendous influence upon me when I was trying to get a film made called 'Dark Passion', which was based on the same novel that Godard's PIERROT LE FOU (1965) was made from. SERIE-NOIRE is a story about obsession (the title of Lionel White's original book), and when I was working on 'Dark Passion', the idea of there being no logic to this kind of passion, that it had nothing to do with how beautiful or ugly a person was, and that the usual kinds of rules didn't apply, was interesting to me. It was kind of a similar theme to OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS.

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (Fatih Akin, 2007)
I was on the Foreign Language Film Committee at the Academy for several years and that was how I saw this film. I finally got to meet Fatih Akin in Venice, and he is really a fantastic guy. He's also a disc jockey, as was Shannyn Sossamon, the lead in ROAD TO NOWHERE, so they spent time together at the cast party for my film at the Venice Film Festival in 2010, taking turns being the DJ!

It's so powerful. The performances just tear you apart. It's such a really tragic story - three stories in fact. Each one is more powerful than the previous one. The film builds up to a tremendous ending.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE (Robert Montgomery, 1947)
What I remember best about RIDE THE PINK HORSE is the incorporation of the Santa Fe fiesta, and the wonderful Wanda Hendrix line that went, more or less: "I will show you the way to the hotel, Senor. " And of course Fred Clark holding the phone up to his hearing aid, rather than his ear. And finally, riding the pink horse on the merry-go-round, hiding under the girl's skirt. Shades of Hamlet with his head in his lady's lap, rather than "country matters."
NIGHT MUST FALL (Richard Thorpe, 1937)
I just rediscovered this film, and it was based on the first play I ever directed (by Emlyn Williams). It's so far ahead in terms of the subtlety of its performances. The film is excellent. Robert Montgomery was one of my heroes. Dame May Whitty is great. Rosalind Russell is the most underappreciated actress in movie history. David Thomson thinks she was the worst actress ever and that HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) was great in spite of her! I think it's great because of her.
This film is at the top of the list of films that I think are great but that I would have been probably better off never seeing! It's such a disturbing movie. I saw it at Cannes with my wife at the time. Ken Loach is like a latter day darling of Cannes but it was not always that way. The year that this film showed at the festival, he was not there 'in competition' but to sell the movie. It was actually better than any of the films that were screened. It's an extraordinary film, beyond real. Loach is a director's director. I remember watching HIDDEN AGENDA (1990) with Ivan Passer at Cannes and both of us feeling that this was a director we were in awe of. We thought 'How do you live up to that?'.


''Five minutes into contemporary movies I know exactly where it's going and what's going to happen, and I lose interest. I don't even like to know where my movies are going to lead. I like to let them happen."
STORM OVER ASIA (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1928)
I don't know why this isn't at the top of everybody"s list. Historically it's an important film because Pudovkin is largely credited with inventing cinema acting, but he's mostly forgotten now. There are so many silent films that keep getting on the 'Sight and Sound' lists, but I don't think STORM OVER ASIA has ever got one mention. It's an historical drama about a Mongol fur trapper (Valery Inkijinoff) who is cheated by a European fur trader who also steals his great fur. He goes into hiding and gets involved with partisans during the Russian Revolution. After that, he gets captured by the British army, who take him out to get executed but then start to believe that he is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan because of an amulet he was wearing. They try to stop the execution, but they find out he has already been shot. Luckily, he is still alive and they restore him to health, and then install him as a figurehead to control the mass of Asians on the continent.
It's a huge, sweeping epic of a movie and I use it in my classes as an illustration of casting in movies. The director cast his college roommate as the hero!
GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)
I'm a huge fan of Tsai Ming-Liang, and this is a tough one if it is your introduction to his work. It's a movie about the last night before the closing of one of the great movie palaces in Taipei. They are showing a classic Chinese movie, DRAGON INN (1967). If you don't know any of Tsai's movies, the film is difficult to describe. Another of his great movies is WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? (2001). It's a love story between two people who are in different cities (Taipei and Paris). The guy in Taipei (Lee Kang-sheng) tries to reset all the clocks in Taipei to Paris time in honour of his love. Tsai shot the movie with almost no cutting, with probably not more than 35 shots in the whole movie.
I actually met Tsai and spent some time with him in Northern Spain. He's an amazing guy, and we really had a great time together. Unbeknownst to me, my daughter asked him to send some autographed posters to her so she could give them to me as a Christmas present that year. So I have the posters to GOODBYE, DRAGON INN and WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? in my office. They're just fantastic posters as well. 
LA SENTINELLE (Arnaud Desplechin, 1992)
I first saw this movie at an annual festival held at the Directors Guild in L.A. called City of Light, City of Angels, where they show all the newest French movies. It really is an extraordinary movie, with acting that is so real that you just can't believe it's a performance. It's about a medical student who specialises in forensic medicine and winds up getting involved in political espionage and intrigue. They plant someone's head in his luggage on a flight from Switzerland to Paris, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to do research on the head, ultimately placing him in danger for his life!
A SLAVE OF LOVE (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1976)
A SLAVE OF LOVE definitely has an influence on my ROAD TO NOWHERE. Both are about the making of movies. SLAVE is about a silent film company trying to continue making films during the Russian Revolution. The leading lady is in love with the cameraman, who's also shooting propaganda films for the revolutionaries. The film manages to be both nostalgic for the old life while at the same time celebrating the coming of the new with the revolution. It's a great love story, very Chekhovian, funny, suspenseful and tragic.
I met Nikita at the L.A. Film Festival, or Filmex as it was called back then. I saw A SLAVE OF LOVE and really fell in love with it. We spent nearly a week hanging out and trying to communicate! He didn't speak any English but he had had a Spanish nanny so he spoke Spanish to me, which I don't speak or understand , but I could understand Spanish better than Russian! Somehow, he could understand a little bit of my English. We would tell jokes to each other. He did have a translator to help us some of the time. Nikita was under the impression that what made our two countries similar was all the space. He was convinced that because of that we had the same sense of humour, which after hearing some of his jokes, made me a little nervous!
If you love someone's work, it makes it very easy to become friends. Although, when we met, I'm not sure if Nikita had seen any of my movies, which was the same with Tsai. Nikita did ultimately see TWO-LANE BLACKTOP and CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978) because he got me invited to the Moscow Film Festival. 

EL SUR (Victor Erice, 1983)
Erice is one of my favourite directors. SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973) is on my list of favourite movies, but EL SUR, in many ways, is even better. It's really hard to see. Even my copy of the DVD is without English subtitles. It's a really powerful movie. Like SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, it's about a father's relationship with his daughter, but this time it is spread over time, concerns one daughter and not two, and has two different actresses playing the daughter at different times. I love the acting in his films, but it's also the economy of his filmmaking. There's literally nothing wasted, even in his four hour movie, THE QUINCE TREE SUN (1992). Every shot has a purpose, and if you removed it, the film would be seriously flawed, which is contrary to many modern movies. It's such a rare thing, and it's something I admire very much. I hope I can come close to that in my movies.
Monte was interviewed by telephone on 25th April 2012. I'd like to thank him for the generous use of his time and memory!
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

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