John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is an officer in the Arizona Highway Patrol, and he likes to start his day, as he does today, with a strict exercise regime, spending time with the woman he bedded last night, and swallowing a couple of raw eggs. Vietnam War veteran Wintergreen is shorter than the average police officer, but likes to boast that he and film star Alan Ladd were exactly the same height, yet he has his sights set higher than spending his days travelling the highways of his home state and picking up ne'erdowells: he wants to be a detective.
The producer, director and composer of Electra Glide in Blue was James William Guercio, a music producer who had happened upon the chance to direct his own film, from Robert Boris' script (Rupert Hitzig helped with the story). As a matter of fact, Guercio belonged to that exclusive club of directors who create one cult movie then never direct anything else, although not always because they didn't want to. This film was an homage to the John Ford epics of his youth, and is, along with being a mystery thriller of a kind, a modern western with Wintergreen the principled hero.
Like Jon Bon Jovi, on a steel horse he rides, but he's not happy about it and when he and partner Zipper (Billy Green Bush) notice a crazed figure wandering the desert they go to pick him up. Wintergeeen recognises the wildman as Willie (Elisha Cook, perfectly cast), and he's jabbering about finding his equally elderly friend Frank dead of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide. The two cops check out the reclusive Frank's shack and indeed he is dead, but Wintergreen is not convinced it's suicide and sees this as the opportunity he needs to get a promotion.
This he does, and is now sidekick to Detective Harve Poole (Mitch Ryan), but soon realises he is not any better off. Wintergreen is a man of integrity in a world where people are giving up their morals for a life of cynicism about each other - look at the scene early on where Zipper stops a hippy in a camper van just to harrass and plant drugs on him; the hippy is under no misconceptions about what is going on. This leaves our hero in a quandary, one of the good guys but between two stools of police corruption and civilian dismissal of authority and even lawbreaking.
Electra Glide in Blue spends its first half hour as a low key drama, and although the discovery of the body happens after that tension isn't really part of the film's makeup. As it turns out, Frank was murdered, and Poole thinks the local bikers are to blame, but is he just falling back on lazy stereotyping? There is humour here, but mainly the tone is melancholy and despite Wintergreen's investigation working out the real story behind the death, he doesn't draw any satisfaction from it, as his illusions are steadily shattered.
This would be great stuff if it wasn't for that ending that is one step too far into misery, and many have pointed out its similarity to a certain other biker movie of a few years' previous. It might provide a memorable final shot of Monument Valley for Conrad Hall's superb photography, but it feels too fashionable for its time, and therefore dated and verging on the flippant, although in its defence this aspect was based on a true life incident. Besides, as he's well-played by Blake as a genuinely nice guy, we don't want to see this happen to Wintergreen. Watch out for members of the band Chicago, who Guercio managed for a time, in small roles, and in an even tinier appearance, Nick Nolte.