Thunder Road
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Thunder Road

In the backwoods Tennessee and Kentucky is a long-standing resentment of government authority. Much of the area was settled by the Scott-Irish, fiercely independent and determined people. Over time they would become known as hillbillies and one of the ways the demonstrated the defiance of the law was the manufacture and distribution of moonshine, extremely high proof alcoholic beverage that became especially popular during Prohibition. Frequently, the methodology was passed down from one generation to the next. Some of these families have continued the tradition, albeit, with a twist that lets you keep up with the times; these areas of among the best in the world for the cultivation of marijuana. If you’re interested in that aspect of the region, I suggest something like the F/X television series, ‘Justified’. However, if you happen to be in the mood for good old-fashioned moonshiner drama there one of the best suggestions can be found in the film under consideration here, ‘Thunder Road’. Just to be clear, I’m referring to the 1958 drama that the iconic song by Bruce Springsteen although the story here, based on actual incidents and written by the leading man, did serve as the song’s inspiration.

The film is set in the 50s as the vet or in Korea began returning home from the war. Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) happened to be one. His family has lived in the lush mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee for many generations. Over the course of the many years the Doolin family earned a living as moonshines, distilling their particular brand of white lightning, running it through the dangerous mountain roads. They always playing a cat and mouse game with United States Treasury agent’s job it is apprehend members of their vocation. In the context of the local vernacular these agents are referred to as ‘revenooers’, consider this one enemy. Quite frequently the moonshine and find themselves heatedly pursued by the federal legions. They had two main things going for them which allow them to keep their business profitable. They knew the roads are better than any outsider could hope for. The also had a knack automotive engineering which they would use to modify their cause to drive fast and turn better than anything Detroit has ever made. These cause and eventually make their way into mainstream America; the Hot Rods.

This was the epitome of the family business. The current patriarch of the Doolin clan, Vernon (Trevor Bardette), is in charge of the all-important still while Lucas used his highly customized Ford to deliver the finished product. Many of the alterations as well as general upkeep of the vehicle were provided by Lucas’s younger brother, Robin. You’re bound to notice the remarkable similarity between the ‘brothers’ in this film. Robin was played by Jim Mitchum, real-life son of the star. Holding down the home front is their mother, Sarah (Francis Koon). The scope of a contribution to the film is typical too many crime dramas of the era, when not observed cooking or cleaning he keeps busy by constantly worrying about the menfolk. Although this is fine with Jim’s involvement restricted to the garage, the teenager is enamored by what he perceives to be a fast-paced and exciting career as a runner, just like his big brother. These ambitions are considerable source of trepidation for Lucas. Lately the level of danger has been greatly increased. An ambitious young treasury agent, Troy Barrett (Gene Barry), has been trying to establish a reputation in the agency by intensifying the efforts to apprehend the bootleggers. As with any criminal enterprise there are dangers constantly present that are not part of law enforcement. Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) is a gangster was funded and supported by criminal organizations outside this mostly tightknit local community. Kogan begins by putting pressure by the second-level distributors directly supplied by the bootleggers. He is also coercing the moonshine is themselves to work exclusively for him. His tactics from negotiation a simple; do exactly what I tell you to do or I will kill you. When Lucas refuses the offer made to him, Kogan attempts to make good of his promise. Lucas survives an attack by one of Kogan’s henchmen (Peter Hornsby), but the collateral damage includes the death of the revenue agent (Dale Van Sickel) and another moonshine runner (Mitch Ryan).

It was typical for films of this period to include romantic subplot. The gunfights and car chases were tailor-made for the men but in order to make this a suitable date night movie studios always preferred when there was a bit of romance that could find its way into the story. With the ruggedly handsome leading man such as Robert Mitchum, there was no way around it. Lucas becomes involved with a singer at a nearby nightclub, Francie Wymore (Keely Smith). The ever popular romantic triangle is formed when the audience discovers that Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight), a neighbor’s daughter, has been carrying a torch for him her entire life. She’s consumed by feel of what will happen to Lucas. The campaign initiated by the ambitious novice treasury agent begins to make a serious impact on the local moonshiners, including the Doolins. Many of this it instills has been uncovered and subsequently destroyed. The general consensus of the community of moonshiners is the shutdown production "for spell." They hope that this will divert the attention of the federal legions to the criminal actions of Kogan. The plan is to let the Treasury Department take care of Kogan giving them the much-needed high profile arrest while simultaneously ridding them of a major threat.

This was the last project the legendary filmmaker, Arthur Ripley. He was a pioneer in cinema who got his start with one of the first movie moguls of the industry, Mack Sennett. Almost 60 films to his credit his body of work stretches back to just after the conclusion of World War I. This list of movies could easily be used as a curriculum for any film study course. There are many influences that Mr. Ripley incorporated into this movie but one that stands out all the nuances of film noir pervading the movie. This helped differentiate this film from other crime films that were so popular at that time. The darker nuances and the reliance on Lucas as the antihero heavily contributed to why this film achieved cult status and remaining entertaining to this day. It was a popular movie during the golden age of the driver-in theater. It has been called the ultimate road movie, a title that has never ceased to be well deserved. Finally, this film has been released in high definition. I realize there are some that feel that the black-and-white movie cannot benefit by a Blu-ray release, but you are absolutely wrong. A film like this, crafted by such an expert director demonstrates how black-and-white is not so much the absence of color but a different medium of artistic expression. A piece of artwork done with ink or charcoal is just as viable as one with the full pallet of oils. Watching this movie in full high definition I was able to appreciate nuances I never could discern with white DVD copy. The juxtaposition of light and shadow, the textures of fabric and scenery all take on greater significance in framing the story and pulling the audience into this world. It must also be remembered that the exciting high-speed chases and daring stunts were carefully planned and executed by masters of their craft long before CGI was even dreamt about.

Posted 04/02/2015

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