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One of the all-time great drive-in movies and probably the best film you'll ever see about Tennessee moonshiners and their midnight runners, Thunder Road (1958) is an impressive achievement for Robert Mitchum. He wrote the original story, produced the film, and starred in it. He also wrote "Whippoorwill," (It is performed in the film by Keely Smith, an ex-wife and former singer for Louis Prima and his band), sang the title song "The Ballad of Thunder Road" on the 45 hit single (but not the film - Randy Sparks sings it on the soundtrack) and chose his real-life son Jim to play HIS BROTHER in the film. One thing Robert Mitchum didn't do, however, was drive his car into those killer power lines at the film's electrifying climax. That job fell to stunt driver Carey Loftin.
In the biography, Them Ornery Mitchum Boys by John Mitchum, the famous scene is recalled. "Before the shooting, Carey dug a trench along the side of the road. When he was satisfied with his trench, he told Bob he was ready. What the moviegoer sees is a perfect sequence of a car careening down a mountain road at breakneck speed. It turns over three times and lands exactly as Bob had wanted. When Bob ran over to the car, Carey grinned up at him. "Is this where you wanted it?"
"Later, I was watching the rushes," recalled Bob, "when I saw something I couldn't believe. I told the projectionist to roll it back, do it in slow motion. There it was: Carey was smoking a cigarette and, just as the car started to careen, he nonchalantly flipped the butt out of the car, leaning into the interior. He was the perfect picture of 'cool'."
And 'cool' is also the perfect adjective to describe Thunder Road, a cult film if there ever was one. Just read this excerpt from King of the Bs in which writer Richard Thompson rhapsodizes about the film:
"Thunder Road disciples envy those who saw it exactly right: at a drive-in, sitting in their customed Fords and Chevs, just after leaving the high school dance and just before juking on down to Shakey's Pizza Parlor...Thunder Road is a film made for those among us who have felt the mystery and elation of driving - not being in a car, but driving - a road at night, the blackness interrupted only by the contrapuntal rhythm of passing streetlights and the opposed streams of headlights and taillights as they merge, maneuver, clash, and vanish - marking motion but not progress."
Thunder Road was a personal project for Mitchum and he loved every minute of it from schmoozing with officials at the U.S. Treasury Department in the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division to filming on-location in Asheville, North Carolina. In addition, he tried to persuade Elvis Presley to take the role of his brother (eventually played by his own son) but the King's asking price, arranged through his manager, Colonel Parker, was more than the budget of the entire film.
In another unpredictable move, Mitchum hired Arthur Ripley to direct. Ripley, a former gag writer for Mack Sennett, was an eccentric talent who didn't function well within the Hollywood studio system but flourished outside it, directing tightly paced, independent films like A Voice in the Wind (1944) and The Chase (1946). Ripley was also a great drinking companion for Mitchum who, no doubt, was anxious to do some serious 'research' on the local moonshine industry. According to former FBI agent, Al Dowtin, in the biography, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press), the actor " was kind of interested in knowing about the white liquor. See, there was a kind of mystique to it. Whenever a still would start running, the first liquor that came out would be about a hundred and fifty proof. Then as the mash would run, it got lower. But all the liquor we confiscated always came out about a hundred percent...so the illegal stuff was always a bit stronger. Bob liked hearing about that, and I'm sure he probably drank a little of it when he was here. Somebody got some white liquor for him."
Once shooting began, Thunder Road evolved into a non-stop party for Mitchum, his cast and crew, and the local residents of Asheville, but it's no less fun for B-movie connoisseurs and film trivia nuts. Look for Sandra Knight, the former wife of Jack Nicholson, in the role of Roxanne Ledbetter. Sandra never quite made it onto the A-list of Hollywood actresses and ended up in laughable dreck like Frankenstein's Daughter (1958). As for that spectacular car crash at the finale of Thunder Road, it later turned up in They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968) and, more recently, in Species (1995) (The alien title character hatches a diabolical plan after watching it on television!!).
Producer: Robert Mitchum
Director: Arthur Ripley
Screenplay: Robert Mitchum, James Atlee Phillips, Walter Wise
Special Effects: Jack Lannan, Lester Swartz
Cinematography: Alan Stensvold
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Original Music: Jack Marshall, Robert Mitchum (songs), Don Raye (songs)
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Lucas Doolin), Gene Barry (Troy Barrett), Jacques Aubuchon (Carl Kogan), Keely Smith (Francie Wymore), Trevor Bardette (Vernon Doolin), Sandra Knight (Roxanne Ledbetter), James Mitchum (Robin Doolin), Peter Breck (Stacey Gouge).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford