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Days of Thunder

Moonshine. White Lightning. Mountain Dew. In the backwoods of the southeastern United States, rural people have long produced their own illegal, untaxed corn whiskey in homemade stills. Though the practice has declined (in 1970, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms seized 5,228 illegal stills, by the mid-’90s it was seizing less than one still per year) it has formed a vital part of the myth of hard-scrabble mountain folk who have no respect for government or its laws.

While some city-slickers might regard moonshining mostly as a quaint pastime for bumpkins, moonshining and its risks have a hold on the American national consciousness that is difficult to loosen. In the mid-’50s, Hollywood’s pre-eminent bad boy, Robert Mitchum, had been fooling around with the idea of a movie about the running battle between U.S. Treasury Department agents and moonshiners that was at that time quite newsworthy. Mitchum, with the help of writers Walter Wise and James Atlee Phillips, created a script about a Korean War vet who returns to his mountain home only to become embroiled in the raging struggle for control of the illegal liquor industry. In fact, the story was so good that Mitchum couldn’t restrain himself to one medium. His recording of his self-penned “Thunder Road” theme song spent a total of 21 weeks on the Billboard charts, first in 1958 when the film was released, and for a second time in 1962. Get a copy of it, available at the end of Mitchum’s Calypso – Is Like So Ö album, re-released by Scamp Records. Mitchum’s drawling, Bonanza-like melody is so good, it is likely to find itself on the charts again.

Thunder Road is significant for fans of Mitchum, one of film’s legendary tough guys, as it represents the only time he penned a film’s story or produced one of his films. Also, despite his character’s propensity for violence, womanizing and cutting remarks, Mitchum is unambiguously the hero of the film. This is not so much a departure, since among his 130+ film roles, Mitchum often played tough, sardonic heroes (he once said he played only two types of characters: on a horse and off). He had a hellraising reputation, mostly earned by a short stint in prison for marijuana possession in 1949, which he described as being like Palm Springs, only without the riff-raff. As I said, tough. However, his best roles, such as the sinuous, crafty Max Cady in Cape Fear and the repellent counterfeit minister Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter, often tended to obscure his heroic turns.

Also, there is the matter of the Hays Code, still tenuously in effect in 1958, which dictated that cinematic crime could never be profitable, nor its perpetrators live happily. Thunder Road makes a limp gesture towards respecting this bluenosed edict by means of an opening narration lauding the efforts of brave Treasury agents to stem the tide of illegal liquor sales. A lecture by one of the agents in the penultimate scene also reminds us that crime doesn’t pay. Yet only the most credulous and naive of viewers would actually take these nods in the direction of propriety seriously. Crime does pay when you’re Robert Mitchum, starring in your own film. You get the girl – two in this case: a willful, fiery mountain beauty and a sultry city chantoosie – and you get the respect, the money, the guns and the fastest cars. Contrast this with Gene Barry’s dopey Treasury Agent in the film: he’s determined, upstanding and married to a bland ’50s housewife. He’s about as much fun as an evening spent sitting outside the barbershop, sniffing the customers as they come out.

Thunder Road willfully subverts the Code, respect for the law and whatever shreds of post-war conformity still flapped slowly in the wind in 1958. Though the film does not offer the finest Mitchum performance, the best supporting cast or the most adroit direction, Thunder Road stands out as a strident and heartfelt evocation of the rebel spirit in American culture.

Thunder Road, Rated PG. Directed by Arthur Ripley. Starring Robert Mitchum, Gene Barry, James Mitchum. Showing Monday, Oct. 21 and Tuesday, Oct. 22 at the Oak Street Cinema, (612) 331-3134
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