“HWY: An American Pastoral”: Jim Morrison’s experimental killer-on-the-road desert noir

HWY: An American Pastoral
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN BY BRYAN THOMAS AND PUBLISHED BY NIGHT FLIGHT ON JULY 3, 2015.

Jim Morrison had studied film at UCLA, and might have pursued more film projects had he not died on July 3, 1971, in a rented apartment on the rue Beautreillis, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, on the Right Bank. But we do have HWY: An American Pastoral, which was lensed out in the Mojave Desert during Easter week, April 2-9, 1969, with additional location shooting taking place in both Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California.

The film, not quite an hour long at just over 50 minutes, was shot in a cinéma vérité style and is considered experimental, incorporating improvisation and real-life ad-lib scenarios in favor of following a specific plotline. It was loosely based on a short screenplay scenario that Morrison had written, titled “The Hitchhiker: An American Pastoral,” which told the story of a fictional killer on the road (partially inspired by American serial killer Billy Cook — Morrison’s character is referred to as “Billy” in this early short script) who finds his victims while hitchhiking through the Californian desert. There’s no dialogue or characters from Morrison’s original ten-page script, however, in the finished HWY movie.

Additionally, Morrison’s hitchhiker-turned-killer/car thief tale seems to have been inspired by haunting images that had stayed with him since childhood, and he also is said to have drawn further inspiration from a 1953 film noir B-movie directed by Ida Lupino, called The Hitch-Hiker. Morrison told writer Howard Smith (in November 1969, the month he’d finished work on HWY) that he thought it was a “very beautiful film” about a person who “comes down out of the mountains and hitchhikes his way through the desert into a modern city, which happened to be L.A., and that’s where it ends.”

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