Robert Mitchum never directed a movie, but he came damn close with 1958’s Thunder Road. Mitchum wrote the story, produced, cast the actors (including his son, Jim, playing his sleepy-eyed kid brother) and composed the soundtrack. He’d later record the title song, “The Ballad Of Thunder Road”, himself for a single, sounding like Gene Vincent relaxing with a jug of whiskey. To direct, he brought in another maverick—63-year-old Arthur Ripley, a former gag-man for Mack Sennett and WC Fields who’d been in movies since 1908; but, in his own phrase, Mitchum “designed the shots”. It’s the nearest he got to self-portrait.
Far from being some glossy Hollywood vanity project, however, Mitchum’s film is an exemplar of fast, dirt-cheap, disreputable B-movie-making. Thunder Road is raw and strange, from the gutter. It looks like it cost about a buck-fifty to make. In an article for The Hollywood Reporter, Mitchum described the film’s genesis in inimitably languid manner: “Home crouched on the couch one night, it occurred to me that we might get a motion picture out of moonshiners and Government tax men trying to outwit each other in the southeastern area of these United States…” That’s the surface. Filmed around the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Asheville—where locals still recall the shoot’s epic carousing in whispered tones—Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, quiffed-up moonshine transporter from a tiny community in the hills. A local legend, he drives by night, fast and furious, running his daddy’s booze from the backwoods to the bright lights of Memphis. He’s so successful that Treasury agents are staking out the area, looking to end his illicit trade. Simultaneously, a powerful crime syndicate from the city seeking to muscle in on the local bootlegging is killing off Luke’s fellow moonrunners on the road. He finds himself in the middle, trying to evade both the law and the mob, as nets close around him.
With its deep understanding of impoverished hillbilly communities and the sweet, gut-burning moonshine trade (handmade stills hidden in the trees had never been filmed with such documentary authenticity) and, most of all, with its outlaw hero outwitting the law in his roaring, hopped-up Ford Coupé, trashing cars left, right and centre while alleycat rockabilly and fast-picked banjo twang on the soundtrack, Thunder Road became an instant legend on the South’s flea-pit cinema circuit. Twenty years later, it was still playing to whooping drive-in audiences. Its success led single-handedly to that rash of good ol’ boy car-crash antics which peaked with the Smokey And The Bandit movies and the Dukes Of Hazzard TV show.
Scratch the film’s surface, however, and you find philosophy: deep, dark, delinquent existentialism. Mitchum had made his name playing calm, doomed, outcast anti-heroes over and over in noirs like Out Of The Past and Angel Face, and shadowy westerns like Pursued, a cycle of movies that explored the concept of The Outsider. This, his most personal movie, confirms that all that was no coincidence. Luke Doolin’s barely-mentioned back story is that he was ripped from the bosom of his closed backhills community, sent away to fight in the Korean war. Since he’s returned, one of the local old-timers comments, “He’s got a machine-gunner’s outlook. Death doesn’t phase him…” Back from the other side of the world with a head full of slaughter, he’s unable to fit in anywhere, in the city or in his home town. He’s just looking to get killed, biding time by driving an endless, lawless circular run along unlit highways, with increasing recklessness.
Mitchum’s movie is about fatal loneliness, boredom, about roads at night, about running forever, to nowhere, about always crashing in the same car, and it ends in a flaming, twisted auto-apocalypse. As such, Thunder Road stands as spiritual granddaddy to all those ‘60s and ‘70s road movies that take the endless American highway as existential parable, the tough, nihilistic root from which the anti-establishment likes of Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point sprang. But none of them ever made death-tripping this much fun.