James Atlee Phillips' Thunder Road (1958)

James Atlee Phillips' Thunder Road (1958)

There’s a surprising amount of cultural baggage that goes along with understanding the 1958 film Thunder Road. Firstly, the flick was something of a pet project for Robert Mitchum, who’d been attempting to suss out a narrative for a good long while prior to production being figured out. Mitchum’s penchant for playing good bad-guys (folks who break the law, but seem as if they’re on the up an up) was surely considered when all of this was being solidified. But for whatever reason, the actor found it difficult to get the screen play to where he wanted it.

Enter James Atlee Phillips (father of guitarist, singer and composer Shawn Phillips).

As a crime writer, in addition to working all over the globe in a variety of different positions, Phillips was tapped to complete the script. But with Mitchum at the helm, the entire production was run with an air of lackadaisical charm most likely absent from every other Hollywood production.

Shot on location, Thunder Road attempts to make use of its bucolic setting as Phillips was apparently writing scenes just before they’d be shot. What that did, though, was to make the entire endeavor reek of reality. Granted, the film, which centers on a southern family of bootleggers and how they disseminate their product, was rendered in filmic terms by people not necessarily connected with the South – although, Phillips grew up in Texas.

If folks aren’t too familiar with this particular feature, it’s not surprising. Thunder Road didn’t do a brisk business at the box office. What happened subsequent to its initial release, though, counts as a cultural oddity. Since the bootleggers portrayed in the film where related in terms acceptable to various and sundry outlaws, Thunder Road apparently made a great deal more money in its life as a drive-in movie standard around the Southern confines then during its first run in theaters.

Embraced by the South, the film details Mitchum’s character coming back from the Korean War and picking up the business that he left behind a few years back. His younger brother – Mitchum’s real life son, thus the astounding resemblance – and mechanic lionizes the speed-racing bootlegger and yearns for a chance to get behind the wheel as opposed to just fixing cars. Mitchum recuses his sibling, but thanks to growing competition, the younger brother eventually finds himself in a perilless situation at the hands of some big time gangster.

And it wouldn’t be a Robert Mitchum feature if he didn’t go after the bad guy. So he does.

The remainder of the narrative, which takes occasional and ill-conceived sidetracks into a romantic subplot, is all given over to Mitchum being a tough guy. He does it pretty well, obviously. But for the most part, the film’s pacing leaves viewers waiting for something exciting to happen. There doesn’t seem to be any action occurring unless it’s happening in a speeding car. Exiting as it is when there’re chase scenes, the staid camera work of the rest of Thunder Road doesn’t do too much to make the film a classic.