THUNDER ROAD—barreling down a narrow country highway at nighttime, a hood is using his souped-up car to try and push yours into a crash. What to do? If you’re Robert Mitchum, you coolly flip a lit cigarette through the punks open window and onto his lap, sending creep and his ride cartwheeling into a ravine. Make sure to do so to a hot-roddin’ theme tune. Task manhandled, have a snort off the 250 gallons of moonshine you’re haulin’ and rocket on down the line.
‘Lucas Doolin’ (Mitchum) does the hooch run for his family’s moonshine operation, earning admiration as the most fearless driver around. The Treasury Department’s “revenuers” haven’t been able to catch him in the act, and a regional hoodlum wants him out of the way so his syndicate can complete control of the illegal booze biz. Two winsome gals fancy him, his kid brother yearns to follow in his tracks. Combustion is a given, the fates are closing in, but come hell or high whiskey, Lucas has a code. A man’s gotta drive. Fast.
Robert Mitchum gave finer performances in better movies but the honest simplicity of Thunder Road holds a special brief with his fans; it’s a Mitchum role if there ever was one, perfectly suiting his film persona. More, it was a special project for him. Intrigued by the independent mountain folk and their nose-thumbing livelihoods, he came up with the story, produced the picture, and shot it on location in North Carolina—there were at least 1,100 stills in western North Carolina alone. Topping it off, he co-wrote (with Don Raye) the tune “The Ballad Of Thunder Road” as well as “The Whippoorwill”, sung by Keely Smith. In the movie the ‘Ballad’ is done plaintively by Randy Sparks: Mitchum released his own hopped-up version as a 45: it’s the real deal. The instrumental scoring in the film was done by Jack Marshall.
For the role of his brother, he intended his co-star to be Elvis Presley. Elvis, a Mitch admirer, would have been jim-dandy, but The King’s manager blew that ideal gig by asking for too much money. So Bob cast his 16-year-old son James to play the kid. His was one of seven feature debuts in the cast, joining Sandra Knight, Keely Smith, Mitchell Ryan, Peter Breck, Jerry Hardin and 10-year Christopher Mitchum (seen briefly, riffing away on a washboard).
The spare, straightforward screenplay was the work of James Atlee Phillips and Walter Wise; eccentric recluse Arthur Ripley directed. Legendary stunt driver Carey Loftin took the wheel for the wilder auto action. With a bit more care in the visuals (the camerawork is on the flat side) and some more-assured supporting performances it could’ve been a grade-A picture. Wildly popular nightclub singer Smith had charisma, humor and sex appeal to burn on stage, but she’s an emotional void on film, her scenes drag. Nineteen-year-old Sandra Knight (soon to marry a young hopeful named Jack Nicholson) displays considerably more pep.
The weaker elements didn’t prevent the low-budget project from generating a profit (grossing $2,900,000, 77th place in ’58). Then, it just didn’t fade away into B-ville, but instead evolved into a cult item that played on and on, in drive-ins, especially in the South, for years.
With Gene Barry (the Treasury Agent), Jacques Aubuchon (gangster kingpin), Trevor Bardette (a good choice as Pa Doolin) and Peter Hornsby as the thug recipient of that flicked coffin nail: we assume it was a Lucky Strike, unfiltered. 92 minutes.