Thunder Road (1958)

Thunder Road (1958)

“I reckon you can do all you say, only first you got to catch me — if you can.”

A Tennessee moonshiner (Robert Mitchum) whose younger brother (Jim Mitchum) is eager to enter the family profession visits his singer-girlfriend (Keely Smith) as often as possible in between carrying out his work and refusing to make a deal with a bigwig bootlegger (Jacques Aubochon) hoping to take over all business in the area. Meanwhile, Lucas (Mitchum Sr.) is hunted down by a U.S. Treasury agent (Gene Barry) and pursued by a local beauty (Sandra Knight) who worries (rightfully so) about his safety.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Bootlegging
  • Car Chase
  • Deep South
  • Robert Mitchum Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “drive-in favorite” — written by, produced by, and starring Robert Mitchum — is “the first and choicest of the many car-chase films in which lawmen race after moonshine runners on twisting Southern backgrounds.” He notes that the “picture has exciting scenes and offbeat touches by director Arthur Ripley, but its reputation is inflated” given that “the low budget hurts” and the “supporting actors — including Mitchum’s son, Jim, who plays his younger brother [Robin] — are weak” (agreed).

Indeed, Peary argues that senior “Mitchum carries [the] film alone on his massive shoulders.”

He adds that the film includes “interesting, if not always proper, use of music” — though I’m not quite sure why he considers it improper. In one scene, for instance, Lucas listens to his girlfriend (Smith) singing at a club:

… and we see how he handles a patron who won’t shut up during her performance, which adds to our understanding of his no-nonsense, take-care-of-problems nature.

The film’s drive-in appeal makes sense, given Mitchum’s stardom, an action- and conflict-filled storyline, and behind-the-scenes glimpses at how a moonshine operation works:

… but it’s also (unintentionally) humorous at times, thanks primarily to Mitchum Jr.’s earnest but wooden performance:

… and singer Smith’s similar lack of acting experience (her voice is beautiful but she’s an interesting choice to play Mitchum Sr.’s love interest).

When Mitchum advises lovestruck Knight, “Find someone content to punch a time clock, plough a field, have a mess of kids,” and she responds, “I would — if they looked like you”:

… we can’t help thinking how convenient it is that there’s someone who looks ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE HIM waiting in the wings (Mitchum, Jr.).

Favorite random line (Mitchum Sr. speaking to Smith): “I’ve been across an ocean, met all the pretty people. I know how to read an expensive restaurant menu. I know what a mobile is.” (?!?!?!)

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Lucas Doolin

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status.


  • Cult Movie


One thought on “Thunder Road (1958)

  1. A once-must because… Robert Mitchum!

    As per my 4/25/20 post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “… ’cause I don’t fix. I don’t buddy-up with one livin’ soul.”

    ‘Thunder Road’ (1958): Bruce Springsteen wrote a really cool song of the same name – taking inspiration from the movie poster, without having seen the film. Until now, I hadn’t seen it either – but, hell, I think I’d watch *anything* with Robert Mitchum in it.

    Mitchum had his hands all over this one, concocting a fact-based story idea (said to have been obtained from James Agee) into a film he produced and co-wrote a couple songs for. (It’s also believed that Mitchum directed much of it.) The role of his younger brother was intended for Elvis Presley – whose manager set a price tag that exceeded the film’s entire budget, so the part went to Mitchum’s own son James (who doesn’t do a bad job).

    The plot is concerned with moonshine-running, involving not only a local syndicate that wants to rub out a long-standing family business but the feds (led by Gene Barry) who want to muscle in on everybody. For a low-budget flick, it looks pretty good, moves along quickly, and has a capable cast largely made up of unknowns… with the result having a kind of documentary feel to it.

    It seems the film had strong legs in southeast drive-ins, staying popular in them through the ’70s-’80s.

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