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THUNDER ROAD (director: Arthur Ripley; screenwriter: from a story by Robert Mitchum/James Atlee Phillips/Walter Wise; cinematographers: David Ettenson/Alan Stensvold; editor: Harry Marker; music: Jack Marshall; cast: Robert Mitchum (Lucas Doolin), Jim Mitchum (Robin Doolin, brother), Gene Barry (Troy Barrett, Treasury Agent), Jacques Aubuchon (Carl Kogan), Keely Smith (Francie Wymore), Trevor Bardette (Vernon Doolin, father), Francis Koon (Sarah Doolin, mother), Sandra Knight (Roxanna Ledbetter), Peter Breck (Stacey Gouge), Peter Hornsby (Lucky,Kogan’s henchman), Betsy Holt (Mary Barrett), Mitch Ryan (Jed Moultrie), Dale Van Sickel (Mike Williams, Treasury Agent), Jerry Hardin (Niles Penland); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Mitchum; MGM; 1958)
“The ultimate road movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A personal project for Robert Mitchum: he wrote the story, composed the theme song, produced, stars, and has his son Jim play his kid brother. Arthur Ripley (“The Chase” 1946) directs with a crude but appropriate passion for film noir and B-films. It tells of Appalachian dwellers in rural Tennessee as illegal transporters of alcohol. The moonshiners in the backwoods are treated in a stark unsentimental way as they face dangers from treasury agents led by straightshooter Troy Barrett (Gene Barry) and a new organized crime syndicate located in Memphis that is headed by the ruthless Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon).

After returning from the Korean War Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) rejoins his family’s traditional moonshine business by transporting the whiskey in his souped-up Fords (as the song goes: “Thunder was his engine and white lightnin’ was his load”) that his teenage mechanic brother Robin (Jim Mitchum) services. His pop Vernon (Trevor Bardette) runs the still, while his mom (Francis Koon) runs the household and frets about the dangers of bootlegging and has made Lucas promise to never allow Robin to be in the business. Lucas swears he will kill anyone who tries to make his brother a whiskey runner.

The bachelor Lucas is the best driver in Harlan County and the men admire him for that but are also envious, while hillbilly teenager Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight) gushes over him because she can’t get him out of her mind. But the independent-minded Lucas is sweet on Memphis nightclub singer Francie (Keely Smith), whom he meets with after making his dangerous run to the city.

Murders start taking place when city gangster Kogan wants to combine all the stills in four neighboring states under his rule, but the independents under Lucas’ leadership refuse. It leads to the death of one transporter (Jerry Hardin) by Kogan, as his henchman’s (Peter Hornsby) rifle shots make the driver’s car go off the road into a fatal spill. When an agent (Dale Van Sickel) and a moonshiner (Mitch Ryan) are killed by a car bomb from Kogan, the agents close most of the stills in the county. Pressured from both the treasury agent and the gangster, Lucas makes one last run to Memphis.

Pleasingly anti-authority, having a good feel for local ways, featuring a powerful performance by Mitchum and with exciting highway chases along nighttime back roads, the crime drama remained gripping. It has become a cult favorite, and covers that backwoods area as well as any film ever has and has become the ultimate road movie.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”