Friday 29 July 2022

Movie Review: Thunder Road (1958)

A drama and crime thriller about the moonshine business, Thunder Road overcomes budget limitations with star power, a sympathetic perspective, and gritty action.

In rural Harlan County, Kentucky, Luke Doolin (Robert Mitchum) is a Korean War veteran now working as a transporter, delivering hidden moonshine shipments to Memphis. Luke drives souped-up vehicles prepared by his brother Robin (James Mitchum, Robert's son) to stay ahead of government enforcement efforts led by agent Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Local girl Roxanne (Sandra Knight) and Memphis chanteuse Francie (Keely Smith) are the two women in Luke's life.

Crooked businessman Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) moves into the area and tries to intimidate all the Harlan County moonshiners into working for him. When they refuse Kogan resorts to violence. Barrett reaches out to Luke, offering to work together to stop Kogan, but Luke does not like making deals with anyone.

Based on Robert Mitchum's story idea, Thunder Road benefits from the star's magnetic presence. As Luke Doolin, Mitchum cruises through the action with irresistible anti-authoritarian cool and a trademark dangling cigarette. He effortlessly dominates the screen whether racing down the highway, confronting government agents, standing up to Kogan and his goons, showing other transporters who's boss, or belittling the assorted riffraff on the edges of his high speed profession. And of course, he casually keeps both Roxanne and Francie interested without commiting.

But Luke also knows his fast life has significant risks and limits, and his only soft spot is for younger brother Robin. Luke will never allow Robin to follow in his footsteps, and director Arthur Ripley ensures this humanity seeps deep into the character's psyche. The script by James Atlee Phillips and Walter Wise alternates action with plot and character development, and cleverly maneuvers towards aligning the moonshiners (just making a living) with the government agents (just doing their jobs) on the same side against Kogan's pure evil (killing in the name of business).

This is a low-budget, drive-in ready production, and for a movie all about roaring down country roads with the throttle fully open, the rear-projection scenes are plentiful and painfully cringey. Thankfully, the exterior shots are much better. Luke's Ma and Pa are stock country bumpkins comfortable in the company of the other secondary one-dimensional characters. The supporting performances are varied: Gene Barry, Jacques Aubuchon, and Sandra Knight are passable; Keely Smith and James Mitchum struggle to overcome stiffness.

Despite some bumps, Thunder Road carries no pretensions or apologies, and delivers the requisite energy in a cloud of country road dust.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.