Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Macon County Line (1974) & Return to Macon County (1975)



          Max Baer Jr. enjoyed a minor acting career until landing the role of Jethro on the hit 1962-1971 sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Alas, typecasting rendered Baer virtually unemployable once the show ended. Undaunted, he moved behind the camera to produce low-budget movies, the second of which was Macon County Line. The lurid potboiler earned huge profits on the drive-in circuit and opened the door for Baer to become a director of Southern-fried pictures including the respectable-ish Ode to Billy Joe (1978). The reason it’s worth dwelling on behind-the-scenes data is that Macon County Line is an underwhelming cinematic experience—therefore, the fact that it had an impact lends the picture a small measure of significance.
          In any event, the film—cowritten by Baer and Richard Compton (who also directed)—is a straightforward bummer narrative about mistaken identity. In 1954 Louisiana, two young brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life siblings Alan and Jesse Vint), travel the countryside, getting laid and getting into trouble before commencing military service. Meanwhile, a pair of psychotic drifters roams the same terrain. Caught in the middle is small-town cop Reed Morgan (Baer). The drifters kill Reed’s wife, but Reed mistakenly believes the Dixon brothers are responsible. Tragedy ensues. The first hour of Macon County Line is disjointed and dull, lurching from playful scenes of Chris courting cute hitchhiker Carol (Joan Blackman) to grim scenes of the drifters committing crimes. There’s also a peculiar subplot in which Reed educates his young son (Leif Garrett) about the finer points of being a proper Southern racist. The whole thing leads up to a pointless twist ending that Baer and Compton stage like a vignette from a horror movie. Presumably, the combination of a gotcha climax and pandering redneck stereotypes made an impression on audiences, hence the box-office haul, but it’s hard to categorize Macon County Line as anything but a pop-culture aberration.
         Nonetheless, the picture inspired a quasi-sequel, Return to Macon County, which features an all-new cast and all-new characters, although the storyline is basically just a retread of the previous movie. (Compton returned as director, and he wrote the second movie solo, but Baer was not involved with the follow-up.) This time, the horndog young heroes are Bo and Harley, played by a pre-fame Nick Nolte and Don Johnson. The story takes place in 1958, and it revolves around Bo and Harley traveling the country to enter drag races. As in the previous picture, the boys hook up with a pretty girl (Robin Mattson) and invoke the ire of a crazed cop (Robert Viharo). Despite the charisma of the male leads, Return to Macon County is drab and sluggish. The story takes forever to get moving, and relies even more heavily on contrived circumstances than its predecessor. It doesn’t help that Nolte outclasses every other actor in the movie—with his bearish build and rascally intensity, he’s a potent image of youthful rebellion even when’s playing trite scenes and spewing vapid dialogue. It’s no surprise, then, that Nolte rose to major stardom with his very next project, the epic miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). Just like it’s no surprise there wasn’t a third entry in the Macon County franchise.

Macon County Line: FUNKY
Return to Macon County: LAME

2 comments:

Guy Callaway said...

To me, Baer's only worthwhile accomplishment in his career was dating Christy Canyon.

MikeB26 said...

I saw this Macon County Line when it came out when I was 15, and I just loved every minute and every insane plot twist. The sick and twisted evil of racists....the righteousness of good people....and the the horrific violence that overtook all of them....and then there was Alan Vint. A movie star of small movies and small roles....at once so cool, so smart and, deep in his soul, so bewildered. Macon County Line was irresistible.