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An authentic movie mogul's nephew who made good, producer Aubrey Schenck teamed up with co-producer and sometimes director Howard W. Koch for a long string of very inexpensive '50s program pictures. Their work served double feature duty at several studios. The Black Sleep and Pharaoh's Curse were filmed for United Artists. Koch directed Frankenstein 1970 for Allied Artists and Untamed Youth for Warners. As with the low-low budget films of Roger Corman, Schenck and Koch's filmographies change radically in 1960, when new SAG rules committed all Guild-aligned producers to real contracts, minimum salaries and bookkeeping to keep track of residuals. An entire category of Hollywood filmmaking came to an abrupt end.
A couple of years earlier, Schenck produced and Koch directed a muscular cheapie for Warners distribution, Violent Road. A completely undisguised revisit of the basic idea of French filmmaker H.G. Clouzot's classic tense thriller The Wages of Fear, Violent Road is an amusingly minimal production kept afloat by the broad but effective performance of tough-guy actor Brian Keith. At the time Keith was making good progress toward the goal of leading man status.
Screenwriter Richard Landau puts together a script of pulp fiction clichés, even working in a 'rocket' angle reminiscent of some English science fiction movies that bear his writing credit: Spaceways, The Quatermass Xperiment. Especially in its advertising, Violent Road is yet another 1958 movie taking advantage of the then-topical "Sputnik" controversy.
It's a grim time out on the desert, where a military test rocket has gone haywire and obliterated a school playground, incinerating kids and mothers alike. The base is being moved in a panic, requiring the cigar-chewing boss Mr. Nelson (Ed Prentiss) to hurriedly relocate three truckloads of volatile, poisonous and downright troublsome rocket fuel chemicals to the new base site. Bulling his way into Nelson's office, playboy / truck driver / contractor Mitch Barton (Brian Keith) gets the job to put the convoy together because nobody else wants it. The three trucks must cross many miles of dangerous desert roads in a big hurry, and Mitch's effort to find five additional drivers comes up with a mixed bag. Fearless and dependable mechanic Manuelo (Perry Lopez of Chinatown) eagerly wants the 5,000 fee to obtain an engineering degree. Gambler Ben (Arthur Batanides of The Unearthly) wants the cash but has serious problems with cowardice. Duty-driven Frank "Sarge" Miller (Dick Foran of The Mummy's Hand) feels useless in retirement and wants his pride back to repair his marriage. Young hot-rodder Ken Farley (Sean Garrison) is a last minute replacement, when his older brother shows up drunk. Mitch is afraid that Ken hasn't the needed experience. And the last driver George Lawrence (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) happens to be the very rocket scientist that formulated the highly explosive contents being transported. George insists on going along -- he feels responsible for the loss of life in the missile accident, which killed his own children and wife (Joanna Barnes) as well.
Violent Road has what can be called an un-killable story. Put six guys in three trucks that might blow up at any moment, and chances are an audience will stick around to see what happens. There have been good movies about trucks. Steven Spielberg later won over audiences with Duel, making a dangerous truck into a major suspense item. The actual truck-driving suspense scenes in a French picture called Greed in the Sun are also excellent. And William Friedkin showed some good moves in his own Wages of Fear re-do, Sorcerer. In Violent Road, however, director Koch had just a few days to get six or seven complex scenes on film. It looks as if things got so difficult that a lot of compromises had to be made.
The show starts with some hilarious sexist stuff to establish Brian Keith's Mitch as a hairy-chested he-man. Sexy Merry Anders (The Hypnotic Eye) drops him off after what must have been a casual sex encounter. They trade a couple of tough-talk lines that are more comical than seductive. The introductory scenes are not helped by flat dialogue. Most of the drivers hang around the local bar for one reason or another. Seen in some awkward flashbacks, Sarge's wife Edith (Ann Doran) complains and suffers. Yet she and ends up the most sympathetic character in the film.
Considering the danger and importance of the rocket fuel convoy, almost everything we see has serious credibility issues. The boss lets Mitch choose drivers almost at random from his employees, and nobody even checks to see if the kid Ken knows how to drive a truck. Are there political reasons why the fuel has to be moved so quickly that justify such enormous risks? Where are the picket vehicles and cop cars that should be helping the trucks clear the residential neighborhoods around the rocket base? And why is a rocket base so close to a populated area in the first place? The movie makes a couple of speeches about the importance of the rocket program, and at one point Mitch tells George that nobody can blame themselves because all this 'space stuff' is going to happen no matter what.
The trucks leave good roads for graded dirt cutout roads snaking up into desert canyons. Reportedly filmed in Lone Pine and the Alabama hills (the location for the car chase in the original High Sierra), the scenery looks good. But why aren't other company vehicles scouting ahead, making sure the road is clear of rocks and traffic?
The convoy is menaced when they find rocks partially blocking the road. We aren't impressed because they look small enough to be pushed out of the way. More than once, a truck loses oil pressure or its air brakes, resulting in a runaway situation. A school bus with no brakes comes flying at them out of nowhere. And some irate locals armed with rifles block their progress. But we never really get the feeling that the trucks are in danger of exploding. The guys just aren't nervous enough, and no real sense of jeopardy arises.
A couple of the drivers are injured. Daring Manuelo saves the day more than once. Leaping into the middle of a rockslide, he even kicks a sizeable boulder out of the way, a rather unlikely-looking stunt. Ken is reckless at first, but then shows that he has The Right Stuff in the close-call school bus incident.
The one incident that ratchets up the tension is when Sarge discovers that one of the chemical tanks is leaking some horrible acidic component of George's rocket fuel. Yet again we question an important action. Why can't Sarge pause for twenty seconds to at least get a wrench first?
Violent Road perhaps tries to stretch Schenck & Koch's budget too far. Stock shots and a bad superimposition represent the missile accident so vaguely that later dialogue exposition is needed to explain what happened. The actors must take on an extra burden to give the show some energy. Brian Keith and Ann Doran are the standouts. Merry Anders' hot date seems to be based on the fantasies in Cad magazine, about fashion plate babes that get their kicks pursuing 'real men'. Perry Lopez brings energy and focus to the team. His decision not to change his name to something more American-sounding has always impressed me. Handsome blond Sean Garrison picked up his share of roles over the years. In this show he looks like a pretty boy kept on tap by Warners as a backup for Troy Donohue. Efrem Zimbalist Jr's morose rocket scientist George seems rather lost in his underwritten role. No point is made about the morality of his profession, although we expect one at any time. The script can't even spare George a scene to fully lament his lost wife; we instead see a rather foolish flashback to her sending the kids off to school. But George is left in a mentally scarred state anyway.
Looking at the three explosive trucks barreling down the narrow dirt roads reminds me of the final action scene in the 007 adventure Licence To Kill. That film can spend millions to compress the entire action story of Violent Road into just one of a dozen 'big action' set pieces. This movie is fairly entertaining, and it was made with not much more resources than were used to film turkeys like Voodoo Island and Bop Girl Goes Calypso. And who can't appreciate the sight of a grimy Brian Keith, dripping with sweat as he takes Merry Anders in his arms? She must be one of 'those' girls that appreciate musk.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Violent Road is a very good widescreen transfer with a grayscale that reflects Carl Guthrie's hurried but in-focus camerawork. Forget interesting lighting in most shots; at least Guthrie handles his exteriors naturally. The film element used is in very good shape, with a few small scratches -- and just one really bad scratch that lasts a couple of seconds. The sound quality is excellent, although Leith Stevens' music score is called on to provide too much of the film's tension and excitement.
In addition to the main cast members, one of the actresses 'decorating' early scenes is Venetia Stevenson, known to creepshow fans as a main player in the Christopher Lee movie Horror Hotel. The leader of the vigilantes that stops the truck convoy is none other than John Veitch, who in the 1970s became head of production at Columbia Pictures.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Violent Road rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.