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In 2000 the The Fast and the Furious franchise reawakened screen epics about old school laying-rubber-on-the-highway thrills: fast cars and street racing. Although even silent movies had reveled in hair-raising car stunts, for decades filmmakers relied on under-cranked cameras and special effects to pull off hairy car chases and crashes; I think that famous screeching sound effect of a messy impact of metal and glass was invented so that producers could depict crashes by showing bystanders looking off-screen, with shocked expressions on their faces.
There are exceptions, but I first noticed the safety rules being thrown away in Don Siegel's 1958 The Lineup, in a car chase from the western end of San Francisco, past the Golden Gate Bridge, and into the city's Downtown. The cars are going full tilt, leaning into curves, their suspensions compressed to the max. The wild and wooly It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World had so many extreme car stunts that we sheltered kids thought it was irresponsible -- what if everybody tried to drive like that? One car vaulting over a simple dip in the road appears to fly through the air for eighty or ninety feet. That film let the stunt drivers go all the way, unlike, say the suicidal Grand Prix in On the Beach, where death cars are towed through shots and replaced across cuts. Normal movies were apparently so cheap that cars were too expensive to wreck for one shot... or the producers couldn't abide the waste involved. Goldfinger got a lot of value when it crushed what looked like a new Lincoln Continental - it seemed incredibly decadent for anybody, even a 007 film, to do such a thing. Then came Bullitt and The Seven-Ups and the fenders started bending. By the time of The Blues Brothers, dozens of cars were being wiped out on screen, in an orgy of autoerotic mass car-o-cide.
But there's also another genre of 'car' films, an existential vein that deals with lonely men riding through the night with the windows down, moving down the highway but not really going anywhere. After WW2 seemingly everybody took to the roads in cars, from wage-slave vacationers to Jack Kerouac. Gas was cheap, the Interstates were freshly paved, and the cops waiting in speed traps were the only impediment to the illusion of freedom. The lure of the idea is so strong that movies like Vanishing Point, The Gumball Rally and a slew of Good ole Boy Burt Reynolds epics were huge hits, even if they were 90% fantasy.
In his essay Thunder Road Maudit: "The Devil Got Him First," David Thompson pegs 1958's Thunder Road as the origin of the hipster open-road movie. The modestly budgeted United Artists release reportedly played as a second feature right through the 1960s, despite being filmed in B&W. The director Arthur Ripley also co-produced, but we can't see that he had much impact on the product. DRM Productions is short for Donald Robert Mitchum, who wrote the story, produced and stars. Thunder Road is shot through with Mitchum's outsider attitude. Reportedly a poet and songwriter in his spare time, in 1957 Mitchum made a bid for a singing career with a Calypso album... perhaps inspired by his participation in the Rita Hayworth movie Fire Down Below. Mitchum co-wrote and sings a twangy theme song, not on the movie itself, but on a still-popular 45rpm hit, The Ballad of Thunder Road. It broke the top 100 twice, in 1958 and in 1962.
By 1958 Mitchum was getting fairly paunchy. He was broadening his major film appearances as a standard romantic lead. But he doubled back to his 'outlaw' persona for this independent filmed mostly in North Carolina.. It's an old-fashioned hillbilly movie, except that instead of Hatfields & McCoys, it's the independent hill folk against both the Mob and the Federal revenue agents. The 'shiner' philosophy is pretty weak. They affect an ignorant, antisocial don't-tread-on-me belligerence, defying the law because it's against one's personal heritage. What right do those Fed'ral dudes with their law books have to come into our hollows and tell us to do anything? Even us decadent city folk admire the gumption of the mountain distillers.
Moonshine runner Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) came home from Korea and applied high horsepower to the task of smuggling 'shine from the stills in the hills to the buyers in Asheville and Memphis. His stock cars are specially rigged with oversized mills (motors, to you un-hip souls), special suspensions, and 250-gallon tanks to hold the contraband likker. A dump valve can drop the car's entire load in seconds, should the law land on his tail. And Doolin's car also has spigots that spray slippery oil onto the road, to discourage pursuers. 007's "Q" must have caught a matinee.
Washington ATF interloper Troy Barrett (Gene Barry) is hot on Doolin's case, 'covering the state' with agents to find and trap him. Doolin's daddy Vernon (Trevor Bardette) is with sonny boy all the way, while his younger mechanic brother Robin (James Mitchum, the actor's son making his debut) wants to drive as well. Lucas strictly forbids this. He knows he's a loser, and that he tempts fate with every run. Lucas has no intention of letting Robin follow in his tire treads. Their weary mother thanks him for this.
How much of a legend can Lucas be? Neighbor girl Roxana Ledbetter (Jack Nicholson's then-wife Sandra Knight, of Frankenstein's Daughter) idolizes Lucas, but he has eyes only for cabaret singer Francie Wymore (famous singer Keely Smith). He can visit her only after he makes his deliveries down the hill. Mitchum admired Ms. Smith's singing; she enjoyed a long-running performing partnership with Louis Prima. Another driver, handsome Jed Moltrie (Mitchell Ryan) loves Roxana, but she mostly ignores him. The men talk about car modifications. Lucas encourages Robin to join the Air Force and learn about the future, with those souped-up jet planes. But Lucas remains stuck back in his outlaw groove, fighting the government's attempts to regulate the backwoods 'industry.'
Nope, the real villain is Carl Kogan (Jacques Abuchon), a racketeer that has already cornered most of the moonshine racket and is moving in on the Doolin's valley. Kogan works out of a 'speed shop' in Memphis. He dispatches his goons to shoot at uncooperative moonshine runners or run them off the road. So the 'shine makers must either stop producing, as Troy Barrett urges, or knuckle under to the mob. 1
Now one would think that Tennessee in the 1950s would have so few paved roads that the Feds could police them quite efficiently. Why don't the shiners find another way to ship their contraband: mule teams on ancient trails? A pipeline? No, we instead have the greatest excuse for back-roads car chases ever invented. A lot more is at risk for Lucas than a traffic ticket. The Feds can put him in jail for ten years. Kogan's men will kill him, period. This makes Thunder Road the ultimate man & machine vs. The World movie. Every punk and dissatisfied nine-to-fiver can identify with Lucas's laid-back rebellion.
And risky it is, considering the balloon-y 1950 and 1951 Fords that Lucas drives. They aren't exactly Formula One material. Sometimes we see later-model Fords and Chevys, big honking '50s cars much heavier than today's vehicles. Those things corner like a bar of soap on a tile floor. Thunder Road's key visual shows Lucas barreling down some shadowy nighttime lane (usually day-for-night), smoking a cigarette. Fast-pickin' twangy guitar music plays on his radio. The combo of vintage cars & bluegrass music hit big nine years later in Bonnie & Clyde.
Thunder Road is the proto-existentialist road movie, a violent, romantic tale about a highway to nowhere. Mitchum hired some good actors and filmed on location. He clearly wanted to keep things simple, and the evenly paced direction -- by Ripley, or Mitchum himself -- is on the primitive side. On screen at least 80% of the time, Mitchum purposely slows things down, putting pauses between dialogue lines and stopping frequently to light cigarettes. The camerawork is just average, and many interiors look drab and lacking in design.
Things pick up in the highway footage. Modern viewers accept digital effects that drain the credibility from everything we see. Are they really going fast? Are they even in a car? Yet today's audiences balk at the use of Rear Projection for driving scenes. To us kids who grew up watching RP, it's acceptable as long as the traffic we see through the window looks the right size.
The camera doesn't do many exciting tricks, preferring to stay nailed down as cars race by. There aren't even that many panning shots. The fast guitar music is doing the work. Lucas Doolin has a specific action music cue associated with his exploits on the highway, another angle that peeks forward toward the 1960s.
The best action is seen in broad daylight in Asheville and Memphis. A car blows up at a filling station, killing a runner and a revenooer in one fell swoop. One would think that would make Lucas and Barrett into instant allies against Kogan, but our 'born to lose' hero prefers to follow the Loner Code. Lucas does a 180-degree skid and reversal in front of a roadblock, which looks good too. A remake could give us all manner of exciting car stunts, but I doubt it would work out -- with CGI and the demands of the audiences, nothing naturalistic is good enough any more. Cars need to skydive out of airplanes or vault through the air like Superman, or audiences will feel let down.
Mitchum is famous for understatement and underplaying, and Thunder Road has a violent moment that distills his personal brand of Cool. Racing side-by-side with one of Kogan's killers, Lucas Doolin flicks a lit cigarette through his passenger-side window, into the Kogan hood's driver's window, and into his eye. One cut to a (mismatched) car going over a cliff, and the threat has been neutralized with little more than an offhand gesture. If one ignores the absurdity of a flung cigarette staying on course through a 70 mph draft, Doolin's stunt would make James Bond green with envy.
The dramatics elsewhere are primitive but effective, coming up with what Bob Birchard would call 'a simple story for simple people.' On the Fatal Night all the players makes their moves at once. Kogan's main bad guy gets serious on the highway. To save Lucas, Roxana tells all to Barrett's wife. Lucas goes for broke, just when the Feds know exactly where to intercept him. He says goodbye to Francie by asking her to put a nickel in the jukebox. When she turns back to their table he's gone, and all she has left is the roar of his engine as he pulls, out, heard over a view of the dark highway out the window. It's as if Lucas is already off somewhere, 'between the winds.' 2
Mitchum is of course dead-on with his performance. Sandra Knight is fetching as his wannabe girl. Jim Mitchum isn't bad at all, once one gets past his uncanny resemblance to his father. Jacques Aubuchon sketches the mobster effectively. Un-billed Peter Breck (Shock Corridor) is effective as a local mechanic who has gone over to Kogan. Keely Smith is good when singing "The Whipoorwill" but as an actress lacks expressiveness. She can't read dialogue or express emotion to save her soul. Her eyes seem dead, like Shelley Duvall on sleeping pills. Did Mitchum's style affect her? In archived music clips, Keely Smith is lively and vivacious. 3
Shout! Factory / Timeless Media's Blu-ray of Thunder Road is a disc I couldn't pass up -- I'd never seen the show in widescreen, and all those flat open-matte prints on TV always made every scene look far too wide). With all that head- and foot room, the rear-projection shots looked especially fake. The show now has much more of a dramatic focus. The transfer is clean and reasonably sharp, and the music really hops.
As much as we'd like a side order of extras on this disc, most everybody who worked on it has sadly departed for that muffler shop in the sky. I recommend Richard Thompson's article on Thunder Road in the book Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System. It's a great read all around.
The textless trailer included retains every bit of tire-screeching action in the picture. It's also flat full frame open-matte, allowing the aspect ratios to be compared. A big piece of Robert Mitchum's radio hit Thunder Road plays behind the disc's menu page, and it's very welcome. But I'm surprised that rights to use it came along with the movie. Maybe somebody made a deal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thunder Road Blu-ray
1. Elmore Leonard's interesting The Moonshine War is a recommended Prohibition-era thriller. In moonshine tales set after the Prohibition era, I always wonder why the Tennesseeans don't simply band together, form a company, register their stills with the government and buy tax stamps for their product. Was booze a 'legal racket,' with the big distilleries making things tough for the mom & pops? Or do they think that 'freedom' means doing whatever they damn please?
2. The final stunt is an all-time winner, a smash-up so good that it's been re-used numerous times, not just the one or two cited in the IMDB. The finale to the road chase in Bullitt is so similar, I think Thunder Road must have been an influence. True to character, at the brink of death Mitchum's Doolin barely raises an eyebrow -- highway road warriors don't sweat such things. When his number is up, it's up.
3. Ms. Smith has been in other movies, but I don't recall if they're dramatic roles. Is she good? We love her and wouldn't want to hurt her feelings -- and as her Francie is a sincere lady, she does add to the film's primitive appeal.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.