Thunder Road (Arthur Ripley / U.S., 1958):

Along with Out of the Past and The Lusty Men, the distillate of Robert Michum's fatalist-vagabond wryness. "Oh let me tell the story, I can tell it all/About the whippoorwill who ran illegal al-kee-hol..." Moonshine-trafficking is the metaphor, Mitchum's "real stampeder" of a transporter is at once independent artist and mule driving in circles. Tennessee has its backwoods traditions and rackets, "pressing business" dissolves from Sunday sermon to community elders huddled in a shed decorated with hanging furs and a dozen different textures of wood. Bootlegging is a trade like any other and thus vulnerable to takeover, the hero is soon wedged between the brutal gangster (Jacques Aubuchon) prone to shooting competitors and the government agent (Gene Barry) seeking help. "Moving fast in the middle, the nature of my business." Renoir's The Southerner and Karlson's Kansas City Confidential comprise the bedrock of Arthur Ripley's approach, with a certain Bressonism in the forthright starkness of a lunch prayer, a whiskey mill in the woods, a porch shindig. Still, Mitchum's is the main authorial voice, from story idea to song lyrics to the life-worn interaction with his son James (playing his gearhead brother) to the low-key snap of his humor (he pulls a demolished Ford into the garage after storming through a roadblock, "car's just conked out, thassal"). Amid the skiddings and explosions, a courtly note in the farewell to the chanteuse (Keely Smith)—last song and coin in jukebox, vacant booth and engine roar—very close to the poet who once noted "the anguish of my solitude is sweet." The list of influences is extensive (Goldfinger, The Last American Hero, Smokey and the Bandit), though the most striking effect may have been on Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, another profound expression of a star's private mythology. With Trevor Bardette, Sandra Knight, Francis Koon, and Mitchell Ryan. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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