WELCOME TO 2017! It's a new year and we have new life here at Retro Movie Nerd. A little respite was required in order to handle the things that life throws at you, and there really wasn't any room for writing about the one thing that we're supposed to be writing about: movies. Just to refresh your memory, the focus here is on action/horror/sci-fi genre films from the 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s. We just want to give more focus to older films because we feel there is a plethora of gems in these genres that get forgotten whenever the hot new film comes out that gets people talking.
So let's kick-off our return with a trip to 1973 as we take a look at the action film White Lightning.
The movie opens with a shot of an Arkansas swamp, where Bogan County Sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty) has towed two young people in a boat. He shoots a hole in the boat, leading to the drowning death of the two youths. Well, one of the young 'uns just happened to be the younger brother of Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds). Gator is serving time in prison for running moonshine and learns of his brother's death. When he learns that the sheriff may be responsible, he devises a plan to get his release from prison by working with the feds on taking the corrupt sheriff down. The feds have him connect with mechanic Dude Watson (Matt Clark), a man who is also working with the feds in secret. Through Dude, Gator hooks up with Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), who is a runner working for Big Bear (R.G. Armstrong), a man who is in cahoots with the sheriff. The plot thread of Gator taking notes for the feds is literally tossed in the fire and forgotten about, as the film shifts gears from a southern corruption thriller to a car-chase-filled revenge flick. We're also treated to a dramatic thread involving a love triangle between Gator and Lou (Jennifer Billingsley), who is Roy's girlfriend. This thread also has an unsatisfactory conclusion, as Gator and Lou flee from the bad guys while Roy slinks off and disappears into the background.
The man behind the camera was Joseph Sargent, director of such other films as Colussus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987). Sargent had spent time in both major features and made-for-TV projects like The Night That Panicked America (1975), a TV movie about the Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Steven Spielberg was slated to get the director nod for this film and was even involved in pre-production, but he realized he wanted to do something more personal, so went off and filmed The Sugarland Express instead. The screenplay was written by William W. Norton, who also penned the scripts for Big Bad Mama, Brannigan and the sequel to this film, Gator. He had a most Hollywood-esque life as he attempted to run guns to an Irish paramilitary group, getting arrested in the process, and also spending some time in communist Cuba during Castro's rule. The screenplay here in White Lightning brings forth some good ideas like southern-fried corruption and some anti-progressive viewpoints which are then put aside for the revenge plot.
It is the cast that shines through this material, as Burt Reynolds was at the peak of his career. Long before he was an unfortunate punchline in the late 80s-early 90s, Reynolds was a sought-after leading man. White Lightning began a trend of Reynolds taking the role of the good ol' boy and would follow this up with the sequel Gator, along with the Smokey and the Bandit series. His natural charisma shines through here, as he makes a likable lead even with the character's checkered past. He shows off his acting chops when it comes to touching scenes with his parents and trying to understand the loss of his brother. Ned Beatty as Sheriff Connors is thoroughly seedy as the bible-thumping, old school lawman with his hands in the pockets of every moonshiner in the county. Beatty is at his best in the role when the sheriff is at home in his office attempting to find ways to circumvent the rule of law in order to suit his way of dishing out justice. Bo Hopkins, as Roy, provided an enjoyable performance as both a moonshiner and a jealous boyfriend right up until the plot decided that he wasn't needed anymore. Jennifer Billingsley, as Lou, relied on her flaky personality moreso than her looks, which made her more believable as a love interest.
Another element in this film's favor is the setting: the dirty south. The hot sun, the sweaty skin, the dirt clinging to arms and necks; it all permeated the screen. It looked and felt uncomfortably hot in Bogan County, as it should. White Lightning looked like it had more dirt roads than paved roads, which aided another element of the film: the car chases. As much as one would have liked to have seen the story develop more of the corruption angle, the perfectly staged chase scenes give a little back in terms of enjoyment. There is something picture-perfect about a Ford Galaxie 500 driven by Burt Reynolds on a dirt road in the south being chased by police that is both comforting and exciting.
White Lightning: A promising plot shifts down to a conventional revenge story, but is buoyed by the efforts of leading man Burt Reynolds, an interesting villain in Ned Beatty, a believable setting and plenty of well-filmed car chases. ***