Sunday, April 19, 2015

THUNDER ROAD (U.S.- 1958)


D: Arthur Ripley.  Robert Mitchum is Doolin, a cool cat war veteran who returns home to his rural homestead to become a moonshine runner for his father and the other local distillers.  Events get revved up and increasingly deadly when a city gangster, Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon of Disney's THE SHAGGY DOG), tries to sabotage and dominate the moonshiners while the Feds are coming down on all of them.  Hard-headed Doolin, partly due to his marine training, stands up and goes into full-on combat mode to defy Kogan and the Revenue agents led by Barrett (Gene Barry of WAR OF THE WORLDS, TVs BAT MASTERSON) in a series of  high-speed cat and mouse close encounters.  Meanwhile, Kogan's dad, mom and two worshipping femmes (Louie Prima's main squeeze Keely Smith and Sandra Knight of BLOOD OF DRACULA and THE TERROR) beg him to give up the losing battle.  To add to all the mounting chaos, Doolin has to deal with his younger brother (played by his older son Jim!) who gets suckered into illegal hooch trafficking by one of Kogan's goons (Peter Breck of SHOCK CORRIDOR).  Ignoring all the sane advice and pleading, Doolin goes on his final kamikaze run in his hopped up tanker car with the gangsters and T-men hot on his tail.  Ultimately, Doolin goes out in a blaze of glory with predictably explosive results. The climactic stunning stunt car somersault was so spectuacular that it was recycled as stock footage many times over in movies and TV shows such as INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959), THEY SAVED HITLER'S BRAIN (1964) and even a TWILIGHT ZONE episode.


The script contains a few opportunities for Bob to slip in some personal jabs reflecting his own heartfelt anti-government philosophy.  Although produced with the cooperation of the IRS, the story treats the revenue men somewhat ambiguouly and lamely attempts to make them heroic at the film's last few moments.  In fact, the Moonshine Wars were an ill-thought government overreach program not unlike prohibition era and the current drug war where there is a vague, blurred line between the so-called good guys and bad guys.  The actual Moonshine Wars was most intense in post-Civil War Georgia among Irish/Scottish immigrants up until about 1965.  Violence and death resulted from the armed IRS spooks snooping around the rustic backwood cabins to search and destroy the evi, rickety, make-shift distilleries!  The ultra-potent booze itself was legal but it was the blatant tax evasion that really set the Feds off and seemed to justify the fatalities on both sides.  The real life back road car chases supposedly led to the creation of the NASCAR competition!


The film packs a visceral punch despite the strangely pedestrian direction and photography.  There are many static mundane dialog scenes where participants sit at tables and a few long telephone monologues.  But if you are enraptured by Mitchum (like I am!), even these plodding scenes attain a warped, surreal kind of greatness that makes some of the awkward dialog memorable.   In short, Mitchum is his usual killer screen persona- half asleep, smirking and super low-key with his hair practically dripping and glistening.  It seems like the film's motor oil budget went to lube the four-wheel vehicles as well as the oil-slicked coifs of the male cast members.  The car chases are exciting but blunted by the unconvincing rear screen work. The muscle cars are rad and Doolin's jalopy sports twin oil slick sprayers well before 007 did in GOLDFINGER.  There is a consistent mismatch of polished studio production values and rear projection and the obvious grittier location shot scenes.  The HD format really exposes the film's tech uneveness with the optical zooms and constant post image cropping resulting in wildy inconsistent grain structure and focus issues.  When the shots are sharp, they are razor sharp and when they are cropped in, they are soft and super grainy.  This gives the film the look of a cruder regional indie shoot.  Sadly the disc's only extra is a blurry standard def trailer. This iconic Robert Mitchum film is available as a blu-ray/DVD package courtesy of Shout Factory's Timeless imprint as an overpriced sublicensed title from the massive MGM library.  Originally a United Artists release, THUNDER ROAD comes off as a decidely B picture for Mitchum but one that he had a pronounced personal stake in.  His own DRM production company co-produced the film based on his orignal story.  He also wrote two songs featured in the film.  Oddly, the title song, Ballad of Thunder Road, is not sung by Mitch during the main title sequence but he did later release his own rendition as a single.  You get a fragment of Mitchum's superior version looped over the disc's main menu.  It's also heard on the jukebox in Tarantino's DEATH PROOF (2007).

Click the link above to hear Mitchum croon!

Amazingly, the film struck a deep chord with southern audiences and continued to be a staple of deep south drive-ins through the 80's.  From the director of THE CHASE (1946).  Ripley was a silent comedy gag writer for Mack Sennett and Harry Langdon and helmed THUNDER ROAD toward the end of his career, a few years before his death in 1961.

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