Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Great Smokey Roadblock (1976)

          From the title and packaging, you’d think this was a brainless boobs-and-beer action flick, but buried amid the usual scenes of amiable prostitutes and crooked redneck cops is a poignant story about a dying man struggling for dignity. However, if you think 18-wheelers, hookers, and mortality seem like incompatible story elements, you’re absolutely right, based on the evidence of this incredibly erratic movie. Working from a novel titled The Last of the Cowboys (which was also this film’s original title), writer-director John Leone unsuccessfully attempts to cushion the melancholy main storyline with outrageous high jinks, and both elements suffer: The drama feels diminished by the sleazy context, and the comedy feels superfluous.
          At the center of the narrative is “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda), a trucker whose rig was repossessed while he was hospitalized and unable to pay his bills. John busts out of the hospital and steals his rig, heading down the highway to hook up with his paramour, a salty madam named Penelope (Eileen Brennan). Along the way, John picks up a Bible-quoting hitchhiker (Robert Englund) and tries to steer clear of an unscrupulous hustler (Gary Sandy) who wants to sell the stolen truck for illicit cash. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Penelope and her girls move into John’s trailer, turning the fugitive’s semi into a brothel on wheels–and for reasons that are even less clear, one of the prostitutes (Susan Sarandon) falls in love with the pious hitchhiker.
          Suffice it to say that the main storyline of John seeking one last adventure before death gets lost in the shuffle, despite Fonda’s valiant attempts to sell crying scenes and testy dialogue exchanges. At one low point, a redneck sheriff (Dub Taylor, of course) arrests John and the women, so the prostitutes claim their cell is too hot and strip, angling to “barter” with the corrupt lawman and his deputy. Taylor cheerfully accepts their proposal, and trust me when I say that you’ll have trouble erasing the image of grizzled old coot Taylor wearing just boxer shorts while he hops up and down and yells, “Where’s that thermostat?!!” Yet a moment later, Taylor delivers genuinely tasty dialogue: When his deputy expresses guilt over having availed himself of the women’s services, Taylor crows, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you in your life, junior, then I’m gonna follow you to the ends of the world, because you’re gonna have remarkable passage.”
          It’s hard to completely dislike any movie containing chatter that colorful, to say nothing of such a robust cast, but there’s a reason this mess of a flick sat on a shelf for two years prior to its release.

The Great Smokey Roadblock: FUNKY

No comments: