In a nutshell, Bored and Dangerous says: “Mitchum has such a natural, badass, rebel quality about him.”
“So it begins. Saw a corpse bird the other day, hadn’t seen one in years, shoulda known it was an ill omen.”
I know that being traditionally tough and emotionally distant has nothing to do with masculinity in 2016, but that doesn’t stop me from kind of admiring it in a lot of Hollywood stars of the 40s and 50s. Sure, John Wayne was a right wing conservative, but I still find myself being impressed by the fact that he could kick the ass of any modern day movie star. Wayne, along with guys like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and William Holden all represent a time long before mine, a time I never experienced, but a time that I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for. And the more I see of his work, the more I think the epitome of what I love about that time, was Robert Mitchum. A theory that only got stronger by watching Thunder Road.
A returned Korean War hero, Lucas Doolan (Mitchum) has joined the family business. While his old man (Trevor Bardett) brews moonshine, Lucas runs it across state lines in his suped up car. His job gets a little harder with the arrival of over eager federal agent, Troy Barrett (Gene Barry). Things get even harder still with the arrival of rival bootlegger, Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon). He offers to buy the Doolans out and expand his control on the illegal liquor market, but these good ol’ boys have no interest on working for anyone but themselves.
Lucas’ problems just keep on growing when he realises that his younger brother and mechanic, Robert (James Mitchum) is at risk of moving out from under the hood to behind the wheel. In a classic crime movie trope, Lucas’ main motivations for getting hands on with the crime is so his brother never has to. And as if things aren’t already complicated enough, a love triangle is thrown into the mix between Lucas, nightclub singer Francie Wymore (Keely Smith), and girl next door, Roxanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight).
Robert Mitchum gets credit as the lead actor, producer and story originator, and even sang and co-wrote the movie’s theme song. So to call this a passion project wouldn’t be an over statement. And when Robert Mitchum got passionate, I love that it was with a big middle finger to authority. He had his own brushes with the law in real life, and there’s something (admittedly childishly) cool about using his Hollywood clout to make a movie like Thunder Road.
Made at a time when the Hays Code was doing its best to keep American movies as one dimensionally moral, bland and boring as possible, there are certain inevitable plot points. But even then, Mitchum has such a natural, badass, rebel quality about him, that Thunder Road technically sticks to the rules of the code, while basically shitting all over it at the same time.