Sunday, March 20, 2011
Only Two Things In The World
Gator McKluskey has just learned that his brother was killed by the crooked sheriff over in Bogan County. Sure, Gator is doing time in an Arkansas prison for moonshine but so what—he overpowers a guard and to the thumping power of that Charles Bernstein track Quentin Tarantino used in both KILL BILL VOL. 1 and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS makes his way for the fence. Gator doesn’t make it out of there, of course, but soon enough he’s made a deal with the Feds that sets him loose, ready for revenge as he sets off in the car they’ve given him. As we hold on the star in a big, shining close-up as he clearly revels in being behind the wheel once again, Gator takes off his jacket and tie, beginning to relax. He smiles as the car radio plays, guns the engine and just for the hell of it, leads some cops on a chase. Shortly after that, he stops off in the local town to chat with some cute girls who are excited to see him. As Gator acts all charming and everything the dialogue fades low and the music comes up because what’s being said isn’t important—we just know that Burt Reynolds as Gator McKluskey is definitely the man and from here on we’re going to be with him every step of the way. Since Tarantino has used music from it in two of his films now (a little more the second time around) it’s no surprise that Joseph Sargent’s 1973 action movie WHITE LIGHTNING was one of the films programmed in his March Madness festival at the New Beverly Cinema. The other movie on this bill was the Jeff Bridges-starrer THE LAST AMERICAN HERO, making for a fun night with lots of car chases, lots of moonshine and lots of Ned Beatty who appears in both films (beautiful print on the second film as well, my first ever viewing of that one). Tarantino wasn’t there to introduce the pairing the night I went—when he does show up he likes to keep things on the down low, not announcing it beforehand—but getting to see something like WHITE LIGHTNING on the big screen was more than enough.
As I was saying about the plot, when Gator McKluskey (Burt Reynolds, clean shaven), breezily doing time for moonshine, doesn’t make it over that fence searching for revenge (“No sheriff is gonna kill any brother of mine.”) he makes a deal to go undercover for the feds to expose corrupt Bogan County Sheriff J.C. Conners (Ned Beatty) and reveal the names of others who are trafficking in moonshine over in that county as well. He soon teams up with contact man Dude Watson (Matt Clark) as well as trusted Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins) but even as Gator starts to get friendly with Roy’s girl Lou (Jennifer Billingsley) he begins to feel conflicted over what he’s supposed to be doing about the people he meets as he makes his deliveries. Meanwhile, the sheriff is on to Gator and he’s determined to keep things in his town the way they are any way he can.
With literally dozens of film & TV credits to his name, director Joseph Sargent made WHITE LIGHTNING the year before he helmed the classic THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, a movie that depicts its New York City with a similar kind of vividness that the south of WHITE LIGHTNING, filmed entirely on location on Arkansas, is portrayed. While there isn’t any direct line to draw between the two films as I was watching it this time it occurred to me how the extremely vivid sense of place that connects both films makes them stand out in their own way, adding to the enormous rewatchability each film has maybe more than anything else. I’ve seen PELHAM countless times through the years and its very New Yorkness is something I connect with instantly down to my bones every single time. Now, the most time I’ve ever spent in the South has been when passing through so for me watching WHITE LIGHTNING is practically like watching a foreign film in comparison. While I can’t speak to the degree of authenticity to the world it presents, one where the lead character offhandedly comments “Lee’s a lot better than Grant” at one point, what is portrayed feels so vivid, so accurate that I wonder if I’d grown up there instead I may have become as addicted to it as I’ve always been to that movie set in a New York subway. There’s a lived in quality to every single scene in WHITE LIGHTNING, written by William W. Norton, that feels organic to where the story is set in a way that you don’t often get from movies that have far greater ambitions than this one ever does. Even some of the specific locations are at times striking, like the house with a porch that overlooks a cemetery and the action scenes consistently make interesting use out of wherever the cars are speeding through. It’s this feeling that makes the movie and the actors fit into this place in a way that seems so natural that I can believe that these guys were really out going around delivering moonshine while the crew set up for the next scene. I suppose WHITE LIGHTNING is an action movie and some of the car chases are pretty great but what I took from it more was the vibe of just these characters in scenes together, sweating as much as they do—there’s a lot of sweat in this movie, a LOT of sweat, all the more noticeable on the big screen. The plot never quite kicks into gear as much as it seems it will at first, with no one showing up to remind Gator if his mission or anything like that and any conflict the character seems to be going through about informing on the people he’s getting to know seems to be only brushed on, forgotten about if you go for popcorn refills. The plot turn of what Gator does after briefly meeting somebody who once knew his dad is so tossed off it could be easily missed. Just the casual nature of the moment where Reynolds plays the scene with this bit player sticks with me more than what he decides to do afterward and ultimately it’s things like that in addition to the car chases which stay with me most of all when I think about the movie.
Like I said, I have no particular first-hand affinity for the south but this sort of honest depiction, even if it is just for a popcorn movie, feels totally missing from movies today. Everyone in the film, even the bad guys, is totally and believably human (no lame good ol’ boy stereotypes here), sometimes making asides about offscreen events that aren’t completely explained and have nothing to do with the plot but it makes everything seem that much richer. It’s an earnest depiction of these people and the place, with odd touches like those students in the cafe who seem slightly confused by Gator’s momentary interest in them as well as the unexpected innocence shown by the interest in Gator from those girls at that home for unwed mothers where he’s brought to recover and in never seems smarmy in the slightest. It’s not a case of presenting this Arkansas as a better way of life in a glory-of-the-south kind of way especially with this Sheriff who is worried about integration and the hippies coming to teach in the schools, it just feels casual and matter of fact. This is a bad guy who we hate from the moment we first see him in the opening scene but he’s not some master villain with a big plan--he just wants to keep lording over his district the way he always has without the Feds getting in the way and some of the undercurrent to all this feels like it could even be taking place today. WHITE LIGHTNING isn’t a great movie and it’s not even all that slick a movie—some of the conflict just kind of drifts away in the end a little more than I’d like and compared to the moody day-for-night photography I pointed out recently in DARK OF THE SUN, when it’s used here it comes off looking like bad lab work on the big screen (definitely not the New Beverly’s fault—aside from this, the print looked just fine) and it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on during this section. A handful of what look like editorial shortcuts during some action scenes indicate that the film didn’t have all that big a budget but the most memorable stunt involving Gator’s car trying to reach a certain barge is so effective—and one that was apparently a mistake—that it manages to work almost better than if the stunt had gone perfectly. Sometimes those accidents are the moments that work best.
But even with some flaws, it’s the charisma of the character of Gator McKluskey that sells the film along with the down and dirty excitement of all those car chases. Considering how much Bo Hopkins resembles Jerry Reed (granted, a more serious version of Jerry Reed) and that this is a film about Burt Reynolds going up against a southern Sheriff the film does come off as a more serious, dry run for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT but its earnestness makes it seem like it’s aimed more specifically at this market than the broad laughs of the SMOKEY films. It even allows for some quiet moments near the end, as Gator comes to a realization how little he really knew his brother and how he was the only one who ever tried to accomplish anything in his family. What the hell does it mean, Gator asks, and he never comes up with an answer, unless it’s simply to have one final chase with Ned Beatty. Maybe all that matters is that he came to a point where he was able to ask. Not exactly something you’d expect from a car chase picture called WHITE LIGHTNING. At one point early on Gator tells the Sheriff that there are only two things in the world he’s scared of—women and the police, to be specific. Bandit probably wasn’t afraid of anything and in some ways it makes the more human, flawed Gator McKluskey that much cooler. Bandit would probably never need my help in a jam but the less perfect Gator would. And if there were ever some weird circumstances where I found myself down in rural Arkansas in the 70s, I’d be proud to try to lend him a hand.
Damn right Burt Reynolds is Gator McKluskey and he’s pretty great, a total star every second he’s onscreen making every moment counts whether during the action scenes or the quiet moments. Sometimes Burt overdoes things with that laugh of his and all that, but here it always plays as just right. Ned Beatty is just amazing, totally believable during every moment and painting a portrayal of bland, lived-in evil in a way that you rarely ever get—the complete and total opposite of Buford T. Justice, it probably goes without saying. Jennifer Billingsley almost comes off as a peripheral character who becomes the main love interest out of nowhere, as if the actress herself has decided to drift to the center of the frame and the movie just decided to roll with it. When she brings breakfast out to Gator I can’t remember ever noticing a female lead’s dirty felt more than I notice hers. It’s a touch that only adds to the sexiness she oozes—she seems real, she seems like she’s really a part of this place. It’s a terrific cast all around, featuring strong work from Bo Hopkins, Matt Clark, Diane Ladd (billed as Diane Lad), Louise Latham, Dabs Greer and R.G. Armstrong who has a particularly funny response when asked if he’d like a certain knife shoved up his ass—you bet that got a huge laugh at the New Beverly. And that’s apparently Ladd’s daughter Laura Dern, uncredited in her film debut, playing her own onscreen daughter in the background of various shots.
It was mentioned before, but there’s an undeniable full-bodied nature to that Charles Bernstein score—damn, this music has a pulse—which combines dynamic action cues with a down home, good time feel to much of it as well. The feel from those blaring horns in the more bombastic cues (like the one that turns up in both KILL BILL and BASTERDS) aren’t even all that different from the feel David Shire brought to his PELHAM score for this director, an intriguing comparison point as if he just liked the sound, one of the reasons I love films like this from the seventies. Burt Reynolds’ strong run in that decade continued along after the release of WHITE LIGHTNING which included making his directorial debut for the return to Gator McCluskey in GATOR, released three years later. I still haven’t seen that one (which Jerry Reed is actually in) but looking the film up it doesn’t seem to be as well liked. And of course there was the Bandit, which shot his stardom to a whole different level. I still like that one too. In some ways WHITE LIGHTNING does feel a little tossed off like it was never meant to be anything other than a Burt Reynolds programmer and maybe that’s all they had in mind. But getting to see it at the New Beverly it’s clear that this movie remains strong, remains fun and remains a reminder of the kind of star Burt Reynolds once was and I suppose in some ways will always be. Combining all that action with a lived-in flavor that just feels genuine it’s a movie that in the end plays out as something more than it might otherwise have been. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that, then or now.