Wednesday, September 19, 2012

White Line Fever

This is one of those movies that should have been on the original Movie A Day Project. I had more than a hundred films listed and I simply started with the ones that were on my shelf at the time. As the summer went along that year and the project progressed, I started looking for copies of the movies on my list and ordered them or found them in local retail outlets. There were several movies that were not available anywhere that I looked and so they got bumped from the project. A couple of things could be rented on i-tunes and a couple had been uploaded to YouTube, but White Line Fever was one that escaped me. About a year back I saw that it was available as a disc on demand on the Warner Brothers site. These discs are bare bone films in the best available format the studio has. Sometimes the prints have flaws or the sound and color are not as sharp as they might be, but the movies don't have enough cache to demand re-mastering and a major release. With internet streaming they may end up being made available without any packaging or modification at all. I still like physical media, and collecting a library that someone can see when they come to the house is fun. I finally sprang for the DVD on demand and it came yesterday so I could not wait.

 The 1970's were an interesting time to live through. International conflicts, political upheaval, changing social mores, they had them all. Fads have come and gone for centuries and I can't say that the 70s invented them, but when it came to social trends and movies, the 1970s may have had the greatest number of inexplicable cultural fads of any decade. Buried in the middle of the decade was an obsession with the "Trucking" lifestyle. The CB radio became ubiquitous, and there were TV shows, movies and hit songs that all featured truckers. "White Line Fever" is a relic of that time period, Truckers were the modern day cowboy, riding the ranges in their eighteen wheelers and living the truly free lifestyle that so many of us envied. With the oil shortages and government regulations at the time, there were regular protests by truckers of injustices that they saw. "White Line Fever" played out many of the themes of those times, abuse by public officials, manipulation by power crazed distributors and financial hardships created by the cost of buying gas. For the most part, it is a very traditional story of one man fighting against the system. It's not quite "On the Waterfront" but the general objective is the same, the difference is the means by which it is achieved.
This is the old Alhambra Theater. I saw many of the seventies based movies I write about at this theater. The Facade in the picture shows it as the Twin Theaters but in the decade before, it was divided as the Alhambra and the Gold theaters. The main house had a huge auditorium that could accommodate maybe 800 audience members. This is where I first saw the film with my friend Mark Witt. It may have been one of the last movies we went to together because soon after graduation, he and his family moved to a farm community in Central California. Mark and his brother Dick, were in my Scout troop and they were farm boys trapped in suburbia. The trucker aspect of the movie would have appealed to Mark, because if he wasn't going to be a farmer, he'd have been a trucker. I know I saw this movie several times and at least one of those times was in the smaller Gold Theater at this complex, if had seats for maybe 200. The ceiling in that theater was very low and the feeling was cramped compared to the spacious cavern of the main house. I had two or three circles of friends, and it is interesting to me that although my best friend Art, worked at the Alhambra Theater, he and Mark never socialized with me at the same time.

The movie stars Jan Michael Vincent, who spent most of the 1970s on the cusp of big stardom but for some reason never seemed to make it to the next level. His later life was a mixture of personal problems and professional dead ends. In this movie he plays a headstrong, independent young man who wants to make his way in life as a long haul trucker. He is supported by his hard working wife but she worries that the job will keep them apart. For much of the film, that is not an issue because he can't get a job hauling anything. He once worked for his father in the trucking business and they shared some basic values, including knowing what is legal and right. His unwillingness to move contraband along with the legitimate products is the reason he is blackballed by the local trucking collective. It is hard to imagine that a guy could get away at one point with hijacking a job at gunpoint, but that is a plot point in this film and it kind of makes sense. There are several other actors of note in the film. Kay Lenz plays his wife and she was on TV and small movies all the time in the 1970s and 80s. Her biggest role was in the mini series Rich Man, Poor Man and she also appeared in another of the Movie A Day Projects "The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday". She is still working and appears in television programs on a regular basis. Her character here is nearly as head strong as Vincent's is. They made a very believable on screen couple. The great Slim Pickins is in this movie, but it is one of the few performances I've seen him in where he does not seem to be putting much energy into it. He will be better remembered for his work in 1975 in Blazing Saddles than this. He does however get a pretty effective death scene and it was disturbing enough to me to be able to recall it vividly before I watched this again for the first time in thirty plus years. L.Q. Jones is in the movie as well. L.Q. was a buddy of Strother Martin, the actor who was my Mother's cousin. I always keep an eye out for him in movies because he is a connection to those days. I was told recently that he had died but that turned out to be premature and the woman I know who is writing about Strother, has had some contact with him. He is especially slimey in this film, they gave him a pair of black leather pants to wear and he looks like some nasty peckerwood who is trying to be something bigger than he really is.

An exploitation film like this really thrives on a couple of things, either gratuitous nudity (none here) or spurts of violence (several set pieces here). There is an nice action scene where our hero climbs on top of his big rig and has a shotgun shootout with the bad guys. Most of the violence was basic fisticuffs rather than gunplay or martial arts. The fights are well staged but often feel like there is not much resolution because the antagonists will be dukking it out again in a later scene. The climax of the picture is a well lit night time truck stunt that looks pretty spectacular but it is not clear in the story how it would resolve anything. The idea that the truckers can come together to fight against the corruption they are faced with is a solid one, but the cartel that controls their business seems to be more cartoon like than is needed. In the long run, the story is only moderately satisfying, but the theme and road images made the picture memorable. There is some casual use of racial epithets, and I know I heard people speak that way and not think twice about it in those days. Today such language would be an anathema for most of us. I'm glad to check this one off of the list and it was great to revisit it, even if it was not a great film.

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