• Thunder Road (Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

    Released by: Timeless Media Group
    Released on: April 7th, 2015.
    Director: Arthur Ripley
    Cast: Robert Mitchum, Gene Barry, Keely Smith
    Year: 1958
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    The Movie:

    Produced by and starring Robert Mitchum, who also came up with the original story, 1958’s Thunder Road is a low budget film set in the Appalachian mountains directed by Arthur Ripley with Mitchum cast in the lead as a man named Lucas Doolin. He’s just returned from serving overseas in the Korean War and keen to get back into the family business – running moonshine. His father Vernon (Trevor Bardette) runs a still and his younger brother Robin (James Mitchum, the star’s son) works on the cars. Lucas? He drives… like a bat out of Hell. He’s the man responsible for getting the hooch from Harlan County, Kentucky to market in Memphis, Tennessee and nobody but nobody can outrun the law like he can. When Lucas is in Memphis, he’s got an on again/off again thing going on with foxy chanteuse Francie Wymore (Keely Smith) but back home, things are getting dangerous.

    See, some big city criminal types are bound and determined to move in on the local moonshine operation and make it their own. Of course, the Doolin clan has been running hooch for generations and don’t intend to give up the business just like that, but as things get more intense, Vernon decides to hang up his hat for a little while, until things cool down. But Lucas, he’s got that one last run to make, and the Feds are closing in on him just as fast as the bad guys.

    This was obviously a very personal film for Mitchum, as he not only produced and came up with the lead role specifically for himself but he contributed to the soundtrack and was heavily involved in promoting the film as well. Made outside of the Hollywood machine on location, this film treats its subject matter fairly respectfully and it would seem that Mitchum was well aware of not only the controversy surrounding bootlegging in the area but the cultural significance of it as well. This is solidified in a quieter, character driven scene where he’s asked what he wants out of life. He responds by saying he’d like to turn the clock back – obviously this is meant to infer that he wants to go back to a simpler time, before the era in which the Feds were coming after his people for doing their thing and before a time when it was publicized enough that it would even attract the attention of a larger, wholly criminal empire. This nostalgic, even warm, view of the moonshiners runs throughout the whole movie, though Mitchum’s character is quick to point out, when talking to his mother (played by Francis Koon), that he’ll never let young brother Robin get in on the family business. He wants something better for Robin, something he states in no uncertain terms when he tells the kid of all the engineering opportunities he could take advantage of by using his mechanical skills in a bigger city.

    Mitchum is great in the part. He’s not the most talkative guy here, the script lets him tell more with his facial expressions and body language than with dialogue, but he plays the part really well. He’s cool, he’s tough and he’s dangerous, maybe a little damaged by the war (‘death doesn’t phase him much’ we’re told) – and nobody plays that type of character like Mitchum does. Obviously toiler made for him he excels in the role, making it a bit of a shame that the rest of the cast sort of sleepwalk through the picture. Regardless, Mitchum is so good here that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost. James Mitchum doesn’t have a whole lot of energy or enthusiasm here and while Keely Smith has got a great voice and a really interesting look, she’s not a whole lot more impressive in the acting department. Gene Barry and Keely Smith do okay in their supporting roles, but really, it’s not the least bit surprising that Mitchum carries the film as far as the cast is concerned.

    The movie benefits from the aforementioned location photography, and because of that the backwoods roads are authentic enough. The car chases are shot well and actually look plenty dangerous – probably because they were. Fast paced and quick, Thunder Road turns out to be good drive-in fare. Obviously an influence on the hicksploitation films that would follow and on pictures like White Lightning, it definitely suffers from some dicey acting and glaring continuity errors but none of that really takes away from its folksy charm, awesome cars and cool as ice lead turn from its iconic star.


    Thunder Road arrives on Blu-ray in a gritty, grainy AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. The framing looks fine here (the movie was shot for 1.85.1) and detail is definitely better than DVD could have ever provided, but this still looks like the rough and tumble low budget production that it was. Some minor print damage shows up throughout and yeah, the grain is heavy, but that won’t bother those who know what to expect. Some shots look a bit soft, likely stemming back to the original photography, while others look nice and sharp. Some day for night scenes are a bit obvious but black levels are generally quite good here and contrast is fine. This would seem to be a pretty accurate representation of the movie, warts and all.

    The DTS-HD Mono track sounds about as good as you’d expect it to. Dialogue remains clear and easy to follow if just ever so slightly flat. The music sounds good and the screeches of the roaring tires as the cars corner tightly around the curves of the highway are appropriately piercing. The score and the iconic theme song both sound nice. There are no problems with any distortion but you might pick up on a bit of hiss if you really listen for it. No alternate language options are provided though removable English subtitles are offered.

    The only extra on the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer. Outside of that we get static menus (with Mitchum’s version of the theme song playing overtop) and chapter selection. As this is a combo pack a DVD version of the movie (also including the trailer as its only supplement) is also included.

    The Final Word:

    Thunder Road succeeds for two reasons – bad ass car crashes and Robert Mitchum. The car chases are handled really well for the era and add plenty of excitement to the story as needed while Mitchum plays cool like no one else before or after. The Blu-ray release looks a little rough, but most won’t mind – it does offer a pretty solid presentation. Some extras would have been nice, but hey, at least the trailer is here. Mitchum fans don’t need this review to tell them they need it, they already know that.
    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      You know what? I have never seen this film.