Review: Thunder Road (1958)

>> Sunday, August 24, 2008

USA/B&W-92m./Dir: Arthur Ripley/Wr: James Atlee Phillips & Walter Wise/Cast: Robert Mitchum (Lucas Doolin), Gene Barrey (Troy Barrett), James Mitchum (Robin Doolin), Jacques Aubuchon (Carl Kogan), Keeley Smith (Francie Wymore), Sandra Knight (Roxanna Ledbetter)

No white lightning is actually consumed in the most famous of all the moonshine pictures, Thunder Road. In fact, very little imbibing of any kind can be witnessed in this cult drive-in sensation. It’s more a movie about the illegal transport of liquor than a story about drinking it. And, in fact, the bootleg business is merely a backdrop for the real concerns of the flick--fast cars and existential angst.

Robert Mitchum stars as Lucas Doolin, a disillusioned Korean War vet who has returned to his pre-war profession of transporting illegal corn whiskey for his pa. The family business is under attack both by the feds, headed by Alcohol and Tobacco tax agent Troy Barrett (Gene Barry), and by a gang leader, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), who wants to take over all the moonshine traffic in the Appalachians. Adding to Luke’s troubles are two ladies (Keeley Smith and Sandra Knight) that are vying for the affections of the emotionally dead veteran and a younger brother (James Mitchum) that Luke desperately wants to keep out of the moonshine trade.

Thunder Road was a vanity project for Mitchum. He produced the film, wrote the original story on which the screenplay was based, cast his son in the role of his brother (a part originally intended for Elvis Presley), and even co-wrote the film’s two original songs. Financially, the film was a great success. Next to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Thunder Road has probably had more theatrical screenings than any other motion picture; and it was a staple of drive-ins from its original release through the 1980’s. However, Thunder Road isn’t quite as successful when assessed on the merits of its narrative and production values.

In no way is Thunder Road a bad film. In fact, compared to other vanity projects--Hudson Hawk (1991), Battlefield Earth (2000), Glitter (2001), etc.--it’s a masterpiece. However, the film does suffer from some mediocre acting (with the exception of the always reliable Mitchum), hokey dialogue, continuity errors, and lackluster direction. The story is also a bit schizophrenic. With touches of film noir, hillbilly corn, hot rod chase, gangland drama, love triangle, and police procedural, the picture never truly settles on what it wants to be. Still, Thunder Road is never boring, and its individual parts are worth the ride.

Drinks Consumed--Beer, whiskey, and unnamed liquor

Intoxicating Effects--None to speak of

Potent Quotables--THEME SONG CHORUS: Thunder, Thunder, over Thunder Road. Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load. Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil’s thirst. The law they never got him, ‘cause the devil got him first.

Video Availability--Thunder Road DVD (MGM)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Mitchum hit the bottle in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966).

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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