Friday 28 June 2013

All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood

There's probably no better testament to the iconic status of Thunder Road (1958) than the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. Not because 'Thunder Road' and Thunder Road have anything to do with each other: one's a proto-carsploitation thriller about moonshiners, the other a lament of lost youth tied to 'one last chance to make it real'. What matters is that Springsteen saw the poster to Thunder Road when the film was making the rounds on the drive-in and grindhouse scene, and was so inspired that he wrote a signature song without even watching the whole thing.

The other bit of trivia I'll pretend to know about before watching Thunder Road: Robert Mitchum wanted Elvis Presley to play the role of his character's younger brother. 'Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch,' Ian Johnston drily notes of their meeting. Nothing came of it, since Elvis's notorious manager demanded a sum of money that would have exceeded the film's entire budget. And thus did the world come to enjoy the spectacle of Mitchum's son pretending to be his brother.

World War II veteran Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) has returned to the East Tennessee holler where he grew up. There, he is the best driver in the dangerous business of evading the FBI while running moonshine from the mountains to Memphis. A gangster from the city, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), attempts to muscle in and bring the moonshiners, including Luke's father (Trevor Bardette), under his thumb. After he refuses to be swayed by Kogan's offers, Luke is in increasing danger, while also trying to keep his mechanic younger brother Robin (James Mitchum) from joining in his life of crime.

Mitchum's assured movie star performance helps sell all this, and the film works hard to make him the epitome of cool. It works, in a very fifties way: Mitchum strikes matches on the soles of his boots, wears leather jackets, and humiliates his enemies by repeatedly crushing their hats. There are not one but two women madly in love with him, femme fatale singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith) and wholesome girl next door Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight). But since dialogue bluntly establishes Roxanna is all of eighteen years old, her unrequited longing also points to a central problem: Mitchum was plainly about a decade too old for the role, and casting his son as Luke's fool brother makes it worse.

On the plus side, though, Thunder Road is jolly entertaining. The story of working-class underdogs facing down a wealthy bully is hardly original, although the fact that all parties involved are criminals gives it an edge. The younger Mitchum's performance is no great shakes, and that causes undeniable problems in the film's last act; but his father's swagger holds it all together. What really makes the film click, though, is the action. Largely eschewing the rear projection that still dominated driving scenes in the fifties, Thunder Road has some outstanding car chase scenes that prefigure the carsploitation mania of the seventies, complete with terrific stunt driving and excellent fluid camera work from director Arthur Ripley.

It's a perfectly good low-key crime thriller, and it's no wonder it became a staple of grindhouses in later decades. Its outsized legacy elevates Thunder Road to a status it doesn't necessarily earn. Without this film, it's hard to imagine about half the oeuvre of the Drive-By Truckers, or the current deluge of country-rock bands with 'whiskey' or 'still' in their name. Mitchum's obsession with the project may not have paid off financially or critically, at least not in the short run. But it proved, in case that needed proving, the enduring appeal of cool.
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:
Elvis brought the Memphis Mafia, Mitchum a bottle of scotch. - See more at:

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