Ever wonder, while watching Justified, what was going on in Harlan Country, Kentucky back in the '50s? Well, wonder no more. All you have to do is take a squint at Thunder Road. If this movie is to be believed, the forebears of those Justified hillbillies were making enough moonshine to service the entire South, and fearless guys like Robert Mitchum were risking their hides to get it to market.
I found this to be a mighty interesting film, on several levels. Aside from the Elmore Leonard connection, there's the song, "The Ballad of Thunder Road." I've heard it many times over the past fifty-odd years (and no, I'm not talking about that pale Springsteen rip-off), so it was fun to hear it done fast, slow, frantic and subdued at various times throughout the movie. (I invite you start the song now, so you can listen to it while perusing the rest of this review.)
Next up, there's Robert Mitchum, ultra-tough and ultra-cool, at exactly the age he should have been when playing Philip Marlowe. The Italian poster above captures some of that cool, while the U.S. poster (at bottom) is flat out ridiculous. It makes Mitchum look like he's about to crap his pants, an expression he never wears in the film. To be fair, he never leans out the passenger window pointing a gun, either, but that poster still works.
Then we have the TV cowboys. Gene Barry was just about to begin his four-year run as Bat Masterson, and Peter Breck would soon star in Black Saddle, then pop up all over the West before settling in The Big Valley. And Trevor Bardette, who plays Mitchum's father, guest-starred in just about every TV western you could name. Another familiar TV face, from Dark Shadows and dozens of later shows, is Mitch Ryan.
If that ain't enough, we get a couple of songs and some passable acting from Louis Prima's favorite chanteuse, Keely Smith. She managed to sing "Bill Bailey" and make me like it, and that's saying something.
Mitchum and Keely Smith.
Thunder Road is a Robert Mitchum vehicle from start to finish. He not only starred, but wrote the original story, produced the film, cast his oldest son James as his brother, and released a single of the song.
Mitchum, as mentioned, plays a whiskey runner with hidden tanks built into this souped-up Fords to transport the hooch. In this movie, the runners (the outlaws) drive Fords, while the Feds (the establishment) drive Chevies.
Mitchum's character is descended from a noble line of distillers, stretching clear back to Ireland. At one point his father says they've been making whiskey in Harlan County for 250 years. To these men, moonshine represents freedom.
The villain of the piece is Carl Kogan, played by Jacques Aubuchon, a Dixie Mafia-type trying to consolidate all the whiskey-running in the South. He's the one Gene Barry (of the Alcohol and Tobacco Division of the IRS) is after, and Mitchum is the only man standing in Kogan's way. One of the best scenes is near the end, when one of Kogan's thugs tries to run Mitchum off the road. As they roar side-by-side down the highway, Mitchum casually flicks a lighted cigarette into the other guy's face, causing him to crash and burn.
Frisked by Barry? No problem.
Mitchum's son James, who is "introduced" in this film (though it's actually his second) is not a great actor, but is thoroughly believable as his younger brother - a loyal but dumb cluck whose mistakes send Mitchum thundering down the road for the last time.
Mitchum and son.
Gotta say I enjoyed every minute of this one. Why not make some popcorn, take your shoes off and watch it right here?
More Overlooked Films at SWEET FREEDOM.
Sheesh. This poster really sucks.