Film Forum's inexplicable decision to include the strange and wonderful film Thunder Road in their six-weeklong festival of film noir did not diminish the fun of seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Directed by Frank Capra protege Arthur Ripley and scripted by star Robert Mitchum, the film would be a rough fit for almost any film festival, since it seems to occupy a genre all its own. Set in the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains in the 1950s, it paints a picture of a joyously unreconstructed South where all higher authority is corrupt and any kind of loyalty other than blood loyalty is dubious. Elder statesmen of the local moonshine trade hold Godfather-like summits in tin-roof shacks, where they discuss how to deal with rival moonshine syndicates trying to poach their customers. This is a film where the biggest applause moment comes when an ATF agent is blown up in a car that was rigged with explosives and meant to wipe out Robert Mitchum's anti-hero character, Doolin. The coda before the film's end credits, in which the U.S. government is thanked for its cooperation in the making of the film, is perhaps stretching the tongue-in-cheekiness too far, but you get the idea: Screw you, yankees!
Robert Mitchum's face, craggier and stonier than ten rock quarries, was almost never put to better use than in this role, in which he's playing a character who is a stone-cold criminal from the point of view of anyone outside of his social system. His job is simple -- he hauls hooch from one location to another in a souped-up speed demon that can't be outrun by anything else on the road. The cops know who he is and what he does, but he's too slick to be caught with any incriminating evidence. Hauled into jail at one point, he sits with a totally expressionless face while the feds try to convince him to turn rat in order to save himself. The only time he cracks a smile in the film is when he's romancing one of his women -- there are two, of course -- no respectable anti-hero could have less. One is a young, pretty hayseed whose thoughts of intimacy go no deeper than dancing to big band music in front of the local general store. The other (Keely Smith) is an older, sophisticated lounge singer who belts out remorseful ballads about lost love and constantly telegraphs her intentions by batting her big eyelashes. She wants Mitchum's character to take her away from all of the stuffy city-folk and help her trade in her quasi-sleazy city lifestyle for the purity of the backcountry.
The film's biggest asset in the acting department, aside from Mitchum, is character actor Jacques Aubuchon in the role of the main villain, Kogan. A chubby man with the disposition of a picked-on kid all grown up, Kogan wants to muscle in on Doolin's moonshining business and modernize it. Depending on where you're coming from, his character represents either Big Business, forcing modernization and change on a society that utterly rejects it, or he's just another ambitious criminal looking to increase his share of the pie. Either way, he's greed and impatience personified. As he snorts and stammers about the damned hillbillies who are getting the better of him, you can almost picture him as a giant baby with a big, round lollipop in his fist. Aubuchon does a memorable job with this role, but the part is noticeably thin. We know early on that he's on a collision course with Mitchum's character, but his scenes are exposition-heavy and they offer little room for acting flourishes, which is what is needed in a film like this. Mitchum and director Ripley could have and should have expanded the Kogan role considerably.
For those uninterested in hillbilly sociology, you may still be swayed by the fact that Thunder Road is a stellar vintage car chase film. When watching older films that rely heavily on special effects -- in this case high-speed chases -- it's inevitable that we will spot the flaws and register that we are watching something dated, but Thunder Road holds up surprisingly well after fifty years. The camerawork is steady and close to the ground, so that you can feel the weight of a heavy monstrosity like the 57' Chevy as it comes barreling around the corner almost on two wheels. There are also nice little touches here and there, like a moment during one chase that comes and goes quickly: Mitchum's Doolin allows the punk who is tailing him to move up alongside as they roar down a country road. He waits for his moment, and then flicks a lit cigarette out of his window into the other guy's face, causing him to lose control and crash. The film doesn't go for harmless spin-outs -- most of the crashes end with one car being turned into a fireball of twisted wires and metal shards.
Fan literature on Thunder Road is heavy on the authenticity of the film's car details, and we know, for example, that actual moonshine tankers -- cars partially hollowed out on the inside so that they could be filled to the fins with booze for transport -- were commandeered for use in the film. But none of these details would be important if the film were otherwise a bore, which it's not. Maybe I'm being too generous to Thunder Road, but there are few highs to compare to finally seeing a film you've known for twenty years on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen. Some poor directing choices and unwise musical interludes aside, there's a visceral anti-hero fable contained here that should be interesting not only to any film buff, but also to anyone who's interested in charting the origins of the bizarre NASCAR car culture, which evolved from the culture depicted here, of North Carolina moonshiners building illegally souped-up automobiles that could out run law enforcement. Thunder Road is more entertaining on more levels than any B-picture has a right to be.