(director: John Frankenheimer; screenwriters: novel by Madison Jones/Alvin Sargent; cinematographer: David M. Walsh; editor: Henry Berman; music: Johnny Cash; cast: Gregory Peck (Sheriff Henry Tawes), Tuesday Weld (Alma McCain), Estelle Parsons (Ellen Haney), Ralph Meeker (Carl McCain), Jeff Dalton (Clay McCain), Lonny Chapman (Bascomb), Charles Durning (Hunnicutt), J.C. Evans (Grandpa Tawes), Freddie McCloud (Buddy McCain); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Harold D. Cohen/Edward Lewis; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; 1970)

A moonshine pic that seems like a folk ballad.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A moonshine pic that seems like a folk ballad. It’s based on the 1968 novel An Exile by Madison Jones, it’s written by Alvin Sargent. It got its title based on the 1956 hit song by Johnny Cash, as its original title was September Country; Cash sings five songs, one of which, “Flesh and Blood,” became number one on the country charts. The other songs include “I Walk the Line,” “This Side of the Law,” “Hungry,” and “Cause I Love You.” John Frankenheimer (“Birdman of Alctraz”/”Grand Prix”/”Seven Days in May“) ably directs the crime drama set in the back hills of Tennessee, that has Gregory Peck cast out of type as the weakling married sheriff who becomes corrupted after falling for a Lolita-like teenager whose pa is the local moonshiner. The public didn’t want to see such a flawed Peck character and the pic died at the box office.

Middle-aged sheriff in the small town of Sutton, Tennessee, Henry Tawes (Gregory Peck), follows a pickup truck on a back road that has a child named Buddy McCain (Freddie McCloud) behind the wheel, who escapes by fleeing across the field. Sexy teenager Alma (Tuesday Weld, in real-life age 27) stays in the truck and takes the rap for her younger brother. Sheriff Tawes lets her off with a warning not to drive again without a license.

Later Alma comes to town and seduces the sheriff, who is locked into a loveless marriage with his wife Ellen (Estelle Parsons). The disenchanted, brooding lawman dwells in his humble ranch with his wife, young child and his elderly father-in-law (J.C. Evans, the real-life 82-year-old father of the director’s wife). The sheriff begins a hot affair with the teen and offers her pa (Ralph Meeker) protection to run his still with his oldest son Clay (Jeff Dalton). But things change when Federal agent Bascomb (Lonny Chapman) arrives in town and aims to round-up all the local moonshiners. The redneck lust-driven deputy (Charles Durning) catches on to his boss’s affair and pines for a piece of the action. The deputy also discovers the still and is killed by the moonshiner.

The sheriff’s personal life and career come crashing down, as he can’t give up his jail bait girlfriend seductress and learns the hard way the moonshine family was only using him.

The moody film to its credit is well-acted and captured the behavior of the Southern mountain people: depicting them as weather-beaten locals, people with no hope, who mark time by sitting on their porches and vacantly staring out at the passing cars. As a sad melodrama of a man losing everything because of his weak character, it’s much like a Cash ballad and works fine; but as a Greek tragedy, something it aimed for, it never rises to the level of mythology.