Saturday, February 13, 2010

Thunder Road

"Thunder Road" (Arthur Ripley, 1958) A B-movie curiosity that has gained cult status, especially in the southeast corner of the U.S., usually neglected by Hollywood. Although beloved by its corps of loyalists (there are "Thunder Road" fests every year), most folks only know it from writer-producer-composer-star Robert Mitchum's driving recording of the film's theme song. He co-wrote that song, as well as it's love ballad "The Whipoorwill," sung in the film by Keely Smith, the exotic—if dead-pan—wife-chanteuse of the Louis Prima Band.

The film, based on Mitchum's story-idea,
concerns an ex-con Luke Doolin (Mitchum), who drives a souped-up Ford delivering moonshine hootch throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. The story has Luke as the hub of several tugs-of-war: there's the struggle between the still-men and the Treasury boys (represented by Gene Barry); a territorial tussle between the loose association of mountain-folk and the smuggling kingpin (Jacques Aubuchon) who wants control of their routes, by any way possible; then, he's caught between two girls after his affections—singer Francie Wymore (Smith), who wants him to settle and stop rum-running, and the girl who looks up to him (Sandra Knight), whether he's running or not. She's probably more suited to Luke's younger brother Robin (played by Mitchum's son, Jim—when Col. Tom Parker wanted too much money for Elvis Presley to play the part), who wants to be a part of the family business.

The film's directed by Arthur Ripley a B-movie veteran who'd started doing television work, but whose lasting legacy is as one of the industry stalwarts who established the UCLA film school. The film looks much older than it is, as it employs filming techniques that emphasized economy over spectacle, or even consistency, as in one scene where Gene Barry's monologue starts on location and ends up in a studio.

But dang! Some of the racing scenes are amazing, especially in some of the daylight scenes where it's readily apparent no camera tricks were used to speed things up—those hulking roadsters are really go that fast.

Mitchum is great in it—he rarely stepped out of his personal cruise control when acting, employing the same effective techniques as he had since "
The Story of G.I. Joe," but he stands out like a professional thumb in this film. Keely Smith has a startling look, but her acting ill-becomes her, as she's at her best at stillness—the more lines you give her, the worse she is. Barry is terrific in his "Just the Facts, Ma'am" mode, and Peter Breck and Mitchell Ryan are around to off-set some of the halting, amateurish acting of some of the cast.

Thunder Road" is beloved as a cult film, but it's one of those films where love is blind and looks past the faults. One of those "not a great movie, but it's 'our' movie" movies.

Is the song in it? Yup. But it's sung as a ballad with just an acoustic guitar accompaniment, like it was being trilled on the porch, a part of memory and maybe of legend.


Matthew K. said...

I'll have to watch this one the next time it's on TCM. After reading your article I googled the Springsteen song of the same name and it turns out it's inspired by the movie.

Walaka said...

This film should be hailed a classic if only for the scene caught at 1:37 in the music video - the single most badass moment in movies.

Oh, and I once Google-mapped the route mentioned in the song, and it makes perfect sense. Bonus points for that!