Thursday, October 25, 2018
Thunder Road (1958)
Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a Korean War veteran who makes his living running illegal whiskey. It’s a small family business but Luke is finding himself squeezed by agents of the Treasury Department on one side and big-time gangsters on the other.
The action takes place in Harlan County in Tennessee, and illegal whiskey is the main industry in the county. These are hillbillies who have been distilling moonshine, and avoiding the revenue agents, for generations. It’s not just as profitable business. It’s part of their culture.
The transporters are guys like Luke, driving specially modified cars with racing engines and 250 gallon concealed tanks for the whiskey.
Luke’s charisma, resourcefulness and daring has made him the de facto leader of the illegal distillers in the valley. Luke certainly has guts. The question is whether his judgment is entirely sound. He doesn’t just refuse Kogan’s offer, he goes out of his way to antagonise and humiliate him. Kogan has a reputation for ruthlessness and one might think that it would have been wiser not to push him so far. But subtlety is not Luke’s style, and he possibly figures that if he refuses Kogan’s offer then Kogan is going to try to destroy him anyway so why bother refusing him politely?
Things are getting so grim that Luke’s Daddy decides it’s time to get out of the whiskery business, temporarily at least. Luke will make one last run and that will be it.
One of the cool things about a film noir-tinged 1958 movie is that you can’t be certain whether it’s going to have a downbeat ending or a happy ending. From the late 60s onwards movies started to become terribly predictable. You just know there’s going to be a nihilistic downbeat ending. But in 1958 there was no way to be sure which way a movie like this would go. And I’m certainly not going to tell you!
Gene Barry (an actor I’ve always liked) plays Treasury Agent Troy Barrett. In this case Barrett doesn’t really care about Luke Doolin. It’s Carl Kogan he wants. Luke is a bit of a bad boy but Kogan is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Barrett’s problem is to try to persuade the moonshiners that this time he’s on their side.
Mitchum’s son James makes his film debut here as Luke’s kid brother Robin.
Thunder Road is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 and there’s a U.S. Blu-Ray release as well. I caught the movie on cable TV so I can’t comment on the quality of those releases.
Thunder Road has no shortage of action. It was just about the first Hollywood move in which car chases were the main focus of the action, and those car chases are extremely well done. The film also benefits from lots of location shooting. This is a very entertaining mix of film noir and action movie, with some of the flavour of an exploitation movie as well. Highly recommended.