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

HWY: An American Pastoral

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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