Drive-In Saturday Night 4: WHITE LINE FEVER (Columbia 1975) & HIGH-BALLIN’ (AIP 1978)

Breaker One-Nine, Breaker One-Nine, it’s time to put the hammer down with a pair of Trucksploitation flicks from the sensational 70’s! The CB/Trucker Craze came to be because of two things: the gas crisis of 1973 and the implementation of the new 55 MPH highway speed limit imposed by Big Brother your friendly Federal government. Long-haul truckers used Citizen’s Band radios to give each other updates on nearby fueling stations and speed traps set up by “Smokeys” (aka cops), and the rest of America followed suit.

Country singer C.W. McCall had a massive #1 hit based on CB/trucker lingo with “Convoy”, and the trucker fad was in full swing. There had been trucker movies made before – THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, HELL DRIVERS, and THE WAGES OF FEAR come to mind – but Jonathan Kaplan’s 1975 WHITE LINE FEVER was the first to piggy-back on the new gearjammer craze. Kaplan was a Roger Corman acolyte who started with films like NIGHT CALL NURSES (and later directed Jodie Foster to an Oscar in THE ACCUSED, based on a real-life incident that happened RIGHT HERE in New Bedford, MA). WHITE LINE FEVER was his first movie for a major studio, and though the budget was still small, it resonated enough with audiences to make it a surprise box office hit.

The late, great Jan-Michael Vincent stars as a returning Vietnam vet who marries childhood sweetheart Kay Lenz and buys himself a big rig (christening it “The Blue Mule”), hoping to live The American Dream. That dream is shattered when Vincent refuses to play ball and haul contraband for his sleazy bosses (including Slim Pickens, L.Q. Jones, and Don Porter), and attempts to unionize his fellow truckers.

Jan-Michael gets blackballed and lands in a whole heap o’trouble before taking matters into his own hands at shotgun point, and there’s lots of 18-wheel action, car crashes, explosions, and other good stuff. Meanwhile, a subplot unfolds when Kay discovers she’s pregnant and considers an abortion, a hot button topic at the time (as I always say, the more things change… ). The Bad Guys set Our Hero up for the murder of Slim, and the trial features a crooked prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong) and crooked witness (John David Garfield, son of the former Warner Brothers star).

Our Hero is acquitted, so The Bad Guys ramp up the nastiness, trashing The Blue Mule, killing his good buddy Pops (Sam Laws), and beating Jan-Michael and Kay severely, then burning their house down! Vindictive bastards! Kay loses the baby (conveniently skirting that pesky abortion issue) and is told she can never have children, so Jan-Michael’s had just about enough, leading to a slam-bang smash-up finale with Our Hero vs Porter’s Evil Empire, going down in an Exploitation Blaze of Glory!

Reportedly, WHITE LINE FEVER is where Jan-Michael Vincent was first introduced to cocaine, a drug that swiftly sent him on a personal downward spiral (I can relate!). He did some excellent work in movies and TV during the 70’s and 80’s, but sadly drugs and alcohol held him back from realizing his full potential. Beautiful Kay Lenz was a personal favorite of mine for films like BREEZY and THE GREAT SCOUT & CATHOUSE THURSDAY (and the Rod Stewart video “Infatuation” , directed by Kaplan) who remains active today, mostly in episodic TV. And besides those previously mentioned, the ubiquitous Dick Miller has a small role as one of Jan-Michael’s fellow haulers; Kaplan and Miller pay tribute to their mentor by naming Dick’s character ‘Birdie’ Corman, who drives a rig called ‘The Brat’!

And now let’s hit the snack bar before our next feature…

Everybody loaded up on popcorn? Good, because next up is pure popcorn movie bliss, 1978’s HIGH-BALLIN’…

This underrated little Trucksploitation flick came out at the height of the CB/Trucker craze, and stars SMOKEY & THE BANDIT’s Jerry Reed as an independent trucker battling another Evil Empire… this time a trucking magnate (Chris Wiggins) who wants to force the indies out of business and work for him. Enter Jerry’s good ol’ buddy Peter Fonda , who first appears riding up to the truck stop on a motorcycle because… well, because he’s Peter Fonda!

There’s plenty of exciting action to be found in this Canadian-made entry, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Jerry and Peter are being chased by bad guys down the highway while hauling a load of stock cars – you can’t get much more redneck than that, good buddy! HIGH-BALLIN’ also costars the sexy-cute and extremely underrated Canadian actress Helen Shaver as Pickup, a tough truck drivin’ chick (who shares the obligatory 70’s sex scene with Fonda). David Ferry (Detective Dolly of THE BOONDOCK SAINTS) is on hand as psycho henchman Harvey, who winds up in a cowboy-style showdown with Fonda at the film’s conclusion. Keep an eye out for Canadian actors Harvey Atkin (TV’s CAGNEY & LACEY) and Michael Ironside (SCANNERS, V: THE FINAL BATTLE, TOP GUN) in minor roles.

HIGH-BALLIN’ may be low-budget, mindless entertainment, but it’s good for what it is, with lots of action, trucker lingo (“Keep the shiny side up, keep the greasy side down”), and likable performances from Fonda, Reed, Shaver, and young Chris Langevin (who now works as a prop man) as Reed’s son Tanker, a rare instance where the little kid isn’t annoying in one of these action flicks. So keep the bears away from your back doors as you leave the drive-in while we listen to C.W. McCall’s smash “Convoy”, from the glory days when Kenworths and Peterbilts ruled the roads – and the screens!:

  That’s a Big 10-7 from me, Good Buddies!

Highway Star: VANISHING POINT (20th Century Fox, 1971)

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VANISHING POINT is one of the best films of the 1970s. Much more than just an extended car chase, the movie explores the eternal struggle between the individual and the system. Though a product of its time, it still resonates as an exploration of the rejection people have for the establishment and the desire for liberty.

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The film starts at the end, as we see the police setting up bulldozers to block the road. News media are arriving, people are gathering in the streets, and helicopters fly overhead. A white Dodge Challenger, driven by a man only known as Kowalski (Barry Newman), is heading straight for the dozers at full speed. He bangs a U-turn, only to have three cop cars coming at him in the other direction. After smashing through a barbed wire fence to avoid the cops, he stops for a moment near some junked cars, then turns back on the road and heads toward the bulldozers….

The movie then switches gears to two days previous. Kowalski drops off a car in Denver and decides to immediately take another one to San Francisco. He stops at a biker bar to cop some speed from his dealer. Telling the dealer he’s going to make it to Frisco by tomorrow at 3:00pm, they make a bet that Kowalski won’t make it. He cruises down the open road at breakneck speed, when two motorcycle cops tell him to pull over. Kowalski runs then both off the road and the chase is on. Blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little of BLAZING SADDLES) acts as his eyes and ears, guiding him past the police by monitoring their radio frequency. When some local yokels crash Super Soul’s station, beating up the DJ and his engineer (John Amos), Kowalski discovers he’s truly on his own, as police in three states try to hunt him down.

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We learn Kowalski’s background through a series of flashbacks. He’s a Vietnam veteran (and Medal of Honor winner) who became a cop. Discharged form the force on trumped up charges, he raced motocross and stock cars. His girlfriend (Victoria Medlin) died in a surfing accident, and Kowalski dropped out of society altogether, trying to outrun life itself by swallowing copious amounts of speed and delivering cars at a fast pace. He’s always on the move, restless, dissatisfied with the world as he knows it. Kowalski represents the last of the rugged individualists, a free spirit who’s decided to create his own world unencumbered by the restraints of establishment standards.

There are short vignettes through the picture highlighting Kowalski’s brief encounters with other humans. While driving through the desert to elude the cops, he gets a flat tire. A rattlesnake threatens him, but an old man (veteran actor Dean Jagger) appears and captures the snake, putting it in his basket with others. He’s also a societal dropout, trading the snakes for coffee and beans. The old timer helps Kowalski hide from police helicopters under some tumbleweeds, then takes him to some hippie “Jesus freaks” (led by character actor Severn Darden) to get some gas. The old man has what Kowalski longs for…total freedom from the world at large. But Kowalski always has to keep moving, unwilling to put roots down in one place.

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A biker named Angel (Timothy Scott) passes him on the highway, giving him the thumbs up. Kowalski is now a media sensation, thanks to Super Soul and the public’s hunger for sensationalism. Angel invites Kowalski to his shack and gives him more speed, when they hear Super Soul broadcasting the only way out is through Sonora. But the DJ’s voice sounds “mechanical, square” according to Angel’s completely nude (and uninhibited) girlfriend (Gilda Texter). Angel heads down the highway to check. Sure enough, there’s a roadblock waiting for Kowalski, so Angel devises a way for the Challenger to get through. Kowalski continues to the California border, as we see scenes of the ultra-efficient California Highway Patrol machine determined to stop him. The film circles back to the beginning now, as Kowalski heads towards the bulldozers. Putting the pedal to the metal, he rams head-on into them, going out his own way in a final, defiant blaze of glory.

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Director Richard C. Sarafian made some good movies (this one, MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING) and some clunkers (SUNBURN, STREET JUSTICE, SOLAR CRISIS). VANISHING POINT is his best, from a script by Guillermo Cain. The beautiful Western scenery was shot by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who cut his teeth on documentaries, then went on to lens Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA, HAROLD AND MAUDE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN (Osacr nominated), FAREWELL MY LOVELY, and SCARFACE. Editor Stefan Arnsten got his start with Hugo Haas (HIT AND RUN), then did mostly television; his film credits include HARPER and KID BLUE.

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The soundtrack features Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (who also appear as the Jesus freak’s hippie band), Mountain (doing their classic “Mississippi Queen”), Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Reed, Kim Carnes, and the Doug Dillard Expedition. VANSHING POINT was an influential film, inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. The movie’s iconic ending was paid tribute in the series finale of SONS OF ANARCHY. I first saw it at the drive-in, and wanted a Dodge Challenger bad (I still do)! And I still want that elusive freedom sought by Kowalski, still elusive to many in this uptighter than ever world.