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Sep 12, 2007

Thunder Road (1958)

There was no actor remotely like Robert Mitchum. He took cool to a level that Elvis never visited, he made James Dean look like a nerdish nebbish, he was even cooler than Sinatra, who needed an entourage to get his kicks.

Thunder Road is one of the coolest of the cool Mitchum flicks. The late 1950s was a time when studio contracts for stars were on the way out and a lot of major actors were creating their own production companies. John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster each began their own film businesses. Thunder Road was made by DRM Productions. The D was Dorothy, his wife, the RM was Robert Mitchum. He financed, wrote and produced this flick himself. He even wrote the theme song.

The story is about Lucas Doolin, a war veteran who comes home to the mountains of Tennessee and continues the family trade of moonshine running. His father makes illegal liquor in the hills and Luke takes it to distributors in fast cars where the boot has been replaced by a 250 gallon tank for the moonshine. His younger brother Robin is the mechanic. Robin is played by Mitchum's son Jim. It looks like nepotism but the physical resemblance between father and son works to carry the relationship in a way that two non-related actors would not.

Luke finds himself as the meat in the sandwich between the government revenuers lead by Troy Barratt (Gene Barry) and the criminals lead by the corpulent Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) who want to incorporate Doolin and his friends into his syndicate of drivers and moonshiners. Drivers are being killed by Kogan's gang or captured by Barratt.

So basically the movie is fast cars, guns, nightclub singers (Keely Smith who sings well but acts less so) and a community of hillbillies who have been making whiskey their own way for around 250 years and see it as a basic human right.

Mitchum filmed Thunder Road partly on location in Tennessee, using real moonrunner cars that he bought from actual moonshiners so that they could buy newer and faster wheels. It's not a perfect movie production-wise -- some of the studio shots are a bit too obviously indoors, but overall it does have a keen authenticity, enhanced by Mitchum's acting. He plays Luke as an intelligent, sophisticated individual who is very aware of the pros and cons of what he's doing but is partly doing it as a way of supporting an economically depressed community and also as a means to live life on his own terms.

Yes, this is very much a bloke's movie, but it's a good one. It's still a cult flick in the Southern United States, where it's seen as having a subtext of southern independence, and a must have for any good DVD collection.

(Originally posted Saturday, February 26, 2005)

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