I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that screen icon Robert Mitchum was at the height of his box office pull when this tightly budgeted black and white feature was released. He had just come off three big studio pictures in 1957 with some high priced co-stars. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison with Deborah Kerr, Fire Down Below featuring Jack Lemmon and Rita Hayworth followed by The Enemy Below opposite Curt Jurgens. Among that trio of titles, Thunder Road, stands out as an oddity. A small picture in comparison but is the only one to have gained a cult status in the years following it’s release giving Mitchum a perfectly tailored role as that of a moonshine runner running out of time and road.
Spear headed by Robert Mitchum himself, the original story is credited to him, Thunder Road, is really the perfect movie for the late 50’s drive-in circuit with a rockabilly score, car chases, violence and the true King of Cool, Mitchum, looking laid back with a streak of violence brewing just beneath the surface. He stars as a war veteran who has returned to his homestead in Harlan County where the family business is producing moonshine that is being transported to Memphis under the threat of prison from U.S. Treasury Agent, Gene Barry.
Mitchum has that devil may care attitude working for him and when a big city mobster played by Jacques Aubuchon tries to muscle the hillbilly moonshiners into working for him, Mitchum, has an enemy for the balance of the film after a young driver is killed by hoods in Aubuchon’s employ. Not only is Mitchum trying to outwit Barry’s men when speeding through mountain roads with a customized car holding 250 gallons of moonshine but he’s trying to avoid Aubuchon’s men who are attempting to force the mountain families to heel or be pushed off the curved roadways to their deaths.
Keeping Mitchum on the road with a customized car is his younger brother played by Mitch’s real life son, Jim Mitchum. Considering he looks so much like his father it’s a good fit and a whole lot less expensive for this budgeted affair than Mitchum’s first choice to take on the role, Elvis Presley. Supposedly Mitch met with The King who was just getting started in the biz about the role but according to legend, The Colonel, got in the way of anything coming of the casting. Just another reason why plenty of Elvis fans (me included) think that Tom Parker was the worst career move Elvis ever made.
Best scene in the film? When Mitchum goes in to see Aubuchon face to face and is subsequently threatened with “Now how rough do you want it?” Mitchum goes from laid back to lighting quick violence laying his opponent out cold. Trust me it’s worthy of a rewind. I played it three times before carrying on with the film. The end result of this confrontation is it puts Mitchum in front of Gene Barry through happenstance. Barry wants answers and the two spar with TV’s Bat Masterson warning Mitchum his capture with a carload of “shine” is inevitable. Tempting fate, Mitchum’s response, “But first you gotta catch me. If you can.”
The violence will only increase leaving both a friend of Mitchum’s and Barry’s partner dead. While Barry plays by the book and is closing in on his target, Mitchum, has no sense of legalalities and in the film’s second best scene he sets the tempo for what is still to come with a threatening phone call to Aubuchon …. ” You finally made the big mistake tonight, Kogan. Niles Penland was a mistake… Jethro Moultrie and Williams – that was a mistake, that was a big mistake, a bad mistake, but tonight you made the *big* mistake. You put your dirty, fat hands on my kid brother. I swore I’d *kill* anybody who tried to make him a whisky runner. I’m on my way into Memphis right now, and when I get there you’re gonna find out that I meant *exactly* what I said.”
In between whiskey runs and taking on Barry and Aubuchon, Mitchum romances lounge singer Keely Smith when in Memphis while trying to stay one step ahead of Sandra Knight who clearly has her eyes focused on catching the big man for herself. Both Smith and Knight were making their film debut’s in this production fronted by Mitch’s DRM company. Smith’s movie career never went anywhere and as for Knight, she also starried in the camp classic Frankenstein’s Daughter the same year as Thunder Road. You may also recall her from the famous Corman production, The Terror, opposite Boris Karloff and her then husband, Jack Nicholson.
Utilizing Asheville, North Carolina, as a location, Thunder Road, carries an authenticity to it and at times I wonder if some of the background characters with a line or two of dialogue were locals. The men running the stills or voting on whether or not to give into Aubuchon. Perhaps I’m correct. Francis Koon playing Mitch’s mother has the look of a weathered homesteader and according to her IMDB list of credits, this was her one and only film. She apparently died in 2006 …. in Asheville, North Carolina.
Jim Mitchum was not the only son of Robert’s to appear in the film. His younger son, Christopher, has a bit in the film. Both boys would go on to score a number of film credits of their own in the years ahead. With Jim I often think of the violent 70’s vigilante flick, Trackdown. Where Christopher is concerned I associate him with Big Jake versus the many overseas films he made in the 70’s and 80’s. Another actor making his film debut in Thunder Road was Mitchell Ryan who went on to a long and successful career as a character actor.
If you’re a Robert Mitchum fan this one’s a must see. He’s the essence of cool with a hint of Max Cady bubbling to the surface. The scene in the car where he flicks a cigarette at an opponent on the road is classic Mitch. Though he was no Elvis he did land on the music charts writing and singing the theme song to the movie, The Ballad of Thunder Road. As I love to reminisce, when this title was released to VHS it came with a bit of fanfare. By this time it had garnered a cult following and even scored a poster for it’s home video debut. Yup, I still have it years after I had it taped to my bedroom door in the house I grew up in.
As for that song Mitch wrote, here it is in a youtube grab but beware, it’s got some spoilers in the accompanying video.