Macon County Line (1974)
When this low budget independent film went into release at drive-in theaters around North America in 1974 movie going audiences were in for a surprise when Sheriff Max Baer Jr. turns up wielding a shotgun and leveling a stern warning at a trio of youngsters passing through his county or telling his young son that blacks and whites just don’t mix. If you know who Max Bear Jr. is better known as then you’ll also understand how jolting this might appear.
Up to this time Baer was known worldwide as the lovable but intellectually challenged Jethro Bodine on the hit comedy series, The Beverly Hillbillies. When the show ended I think it’s rather safe to say the young actor was severely typecast. With apparently little in the way of job offers he set about writing, producing and co-starring in this increasingly intense story of two brothers and a girl road tripping through the south who find themselves in great danger when Baer believes they have committed a gruesome murder.
Taking place in 1954 the film offers up a smart feel of the time period. The soundtrack kicks off with 1954’s hit song Sh Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) and introduces us to Jesse and Alan Vint. Real life brothers playing the same on screen. The pair of youngsters are driving a 1949 Chrysler convertible and while not quite outright criminals, they are troublemakers at heart having a good time. They won’t think twice about skipping out of a roadside diner without paying the bill by exiting the washroom window smiling the whole time. Thrilled knowing they’ve gotten away with a minor felony. It’s while touring the countryside they’ll come upon Cheryl Waters at a bus stop looking for a ride of her own. She’ll find an instant kinship with the pair and the road trip continues as a trio.
The boys flirt and the lady plays along. All of which is cut abruptly short when we cuts to Baer pointing a shotgun at the camera. He’s in a gun shop owned by old time character player Emile Meyer (the heavy in Shane) making arrangements to buy a new weapon as a gift for his ten year old son, Lief Garrett. At this point there’s a hint of Jethro as Baer is jovial and friendly to the old timer. Max is married to Joan Blackman. You may recall Miss Blackman from playing the love interest in one of Elvis’ more beloved films, Blue Hawaii.
The script leads our trio into Baer’s jurisdiction. They’ve got car trouble and find themselves at a filling station operated by Geoffrey Lewis. This character actor has long been one I’ve championed from my early years of movie discovery, mostly thanks to his long time association with Clint Eastwood. With no cash money to pay for a new fuel pump, the best Lewis can do is mend the faulty one so they can get themselves back on their free wheeling road trek.
A good thing because this is where the trio have met up with Baer who isn’t overly friendly to the trio and threatens vagrancy from behind those darkened sunglasses if they don’t move on as soon as Lewis gets their Chrysler running.
It’s at this point that our story (which according to the opening credits is based on fact) is going to take a deadly turn towards a bloody coincidence. Also passing through the region are a pair of deadly ex-cons played by James Gannon and Timothy Scott. The latter of which delivers a terrifying performance. Apparently the based on fact was a ruse but added to the overall impact of the film by the time the ending plays itself out.
There’s a perfect storm entering the plot that is going to lead to a violent climax that delivers a solid blow to film goers then …. and now provided you’ve yet to see the film. The innocence and fun loving film of the first half is going to become an intense thriller for the remainder of the 88 minute running time under the guidance of director Richard Compton. He’d go on to direct the sequel in name only (so I’ve heard) starring another pair of actors on the rise to bigger things, Nick Nolte and Don Johnson. I do have the film on the shelf so will be sure to give it a go in the near future,
Loving to reminisce about the experience of movie going, I believe I may have seen this at the drive-in as a child. While I couldn’t recall the film itself, making this seem like a first time viewing, I seem to remember the chatter amongst my parents and older sister about seeing the one time lovable bear of a man, Baer, playing it violent with a shotgun and far from friendly. I’d wager there were plenty of households having that same discussion after seeing the film prompting word of mouth around the continent and beyond. The film supposedly went on to become a major hit at the box-office earning back over 30 million worldwide on a $225,000 budget. Full marks to Baer. For his next project he wrote, produced, directed and starred in 1975’s The McCullochs to far less success though he does seem a natural to costar alongside Forrest Tucker who had the lead role.
The Vint brothers were likable enough on camera with not so surprising natural chemistry. Older brother Alan had already been in films including the cult favorite Two-Lane Blacktop. The younger Jesse, was getting started with some TV work and if I hadn’t seen the opening credits I’d swear he looked more like character actor Scott Wilson’s younger sibling than Alan’s.
Back to that soundtrack. It’s perfectly suited to the times and includes music from Bobbie Gentry. She belts out a song titled Another Place, Another Time. Guilty as charged. I thought she was going to be covering the Jerry Lee Lewis country classic when I saw her name and the song title in the opening credits.
Two to thank here as I wrap this up. Shout Select for putting this out on blu ray featuring an engaging interview with the film’s editor, Tina Hirsch, and of course to Max Baer Jr. for stepping out of his comfort zone and challenging the system that had typed him as a comical punchline.
If you love cinema of the 70’s this one’s easy to recommend to others but like me, do so without divulging any secrets of the latter half of the film.