Crashing 70s trucker action, with handsome knothead Jan-Michael Vincent gear-jammin’ it down the road of exploitation thrills and thoroughly confused politics.
By Paul Mavis
You know the other day, while I was gathering my wits about me in a ditch, having just been cut off on I-90 by one of those noble “kings of the roads,” I thought to myself, “I haven’t seen a good trucking movie in a coon’s age.” Luckily enough, the tow truck driver got me home in time to greet the mailman delivering Mill Creek Entertainment’s retro VHS-lookin’ Blu-ray disc of White Line Fever, the 1975 Columbia Pictures smash hit starring Jan-Michael Vincent, Slim Pickens, Kay Lenz, L.Q. Jones, Don Porter, and of course, the “Blue Mule.” Co-written and directed by Jonathan Kaplan, White Line Fever makes a few stabs at social commentary (not surprising with Kaplan), in-between the gear-smashing violence…but it’s far more successful just being a rousing 18-wheel Western.
Vietnam vet Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent) is back in Tuscon, Arizona; he’s newly-married to high school sweetheart, Jerri (Kay Lenz), and he’s ready to take that heavily-financed 1974 Ford WT9000 cabover rig with the 350 NTC Cummins turbo diesel engine and the RTO9 513 tranny “Blue Mule” truck of his…and start ownin’ and operatin’, just like daddy did. He’s in for a rude awakening, though. At the local produce-shipping firm, where his deceased father’s pal, Duane (Slim Pickens) works, there’s a side cargo everyone has to deliver: contraband cigarettes and slot machines. Carrol Jo says, “No go,” against Duane’s advice, and for his principled stance he gets his trailer slung with manure and he gets handcuffed and beaten by the side of the road, courtesy of a corrupt sheriff and head goon, Clem (Martin Kove).
Finding himself blackballed in the independent hauling business, Carrol Jo discovers that the shipping company’s manager, Buck (L.Q. Jones), is merely the conduit for the corrupt “Glass House,” a high-class syndicate located in Phoenix. Carrol Jo refuses to buckle to the increased pressure put on him (various beatings, rattlesnake in the cab, vandalism of said cab, even a trumped-up murder charge), to the point where people he loves start turning up dead. Will Carrol Jo and Jerri survive to haul ass another day?
If you grew up during the 70s, then you’ll know that White Line Fever came out right after the independent trucking strikes of 1973-74, when owner/operators in several states staged blockades and highway shut-downs to protest OPEC oil price increases and the new 55 mph federal speed limit (in my state they even called out the National Guard). To some people, those truckers became outlaw heroes who were willing to step up to the Feds to demand their right to earn a living. To a lot of other people, these truckers were the guys that further drove up food and goods prices during a recession, while tens of thousands of affected workers got laid off.
White Line Fever doesn’t get into any of that messy argument, opting instead for a classic Western storyline of the loner homesteader trying to eek out a living with his small family, while the corrupt (take your pick) land/cattle/sheep/timber baron pressures him into either playing his corrupt game…or killing him off. Kaplan does try to lard in some social commentary, but it comes off as either facile or fuzzy, particularly in contrast to the well-executed melodrama and violence.
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For instance, a potentially interesting subplot, involving Carrol Jo’s father’s friend, Pops Dinwiddie (Sam Laws) and his militant son, Carnell (Johnny Ray McGhee), goes nowhere for lack of development. When Carnell throws out a provocative jab at Carrol Jo (“You won’t get anywhere pulling your fly boy heroics,”) before attacking his own “Uncle Tom” father, who supports Carrol Jo without hesitation (“You’re not his daddy’s ngger no more—I don’t have to kiss his ass,”), the Carrol Jo character never responds to this charge. The screenplay just lets it drop, nor is it brought up again. Nor is race really a factor with the movie’s main villain, either—Buck—who lumps “jiggaboos and white trash” together as common dupes who need to be brought in line with the Glass House’s corrupt operation (“Next thing you know we got nggers and crackers acting like they’re above the law,” he tells the crooked executives).
Kaplan stated in an interview that he wanted White Line Fever to be a “counter” to all the “right-wing vigilante” movies that were out at that time (the Dirty Harry movies and Death Wish, I would imagine). How he ever intended to do that, though, is beyond me…when his hero is a right-wing vigilante. Now that’s not a pejorative in my book: they’re my favorite kind of movie protagonist. However, Kaplan can’t attack the function if he uses the same form (and then fails to invert it or twist it to serve his agenda).
The very first time that Carrol Jo fights back against his blackballing, that fight comes not from a phone call to the appropriate authorities or a lawyer…but from a shotgun leveled at everyone who works at the shipping company (you could do that back then, and people still thought you were cool). The local cops are corrupt…but he could have gone higher. He didn’t. As all good exploitation heroes do, he took the law—and vengeance—into his own hands, and he continues to do so throughout the movie.
Where White Line Fever’s politics could have really become intriguing are unfortunately right where the movie ends: SPOILER when Carrol Jo’s final “sacrifice” leads to an independent trucker strike. Everything before that moment is strictly Western B-oater melodrama, with big wigs and low henchmen squeezing the little guy out. Once that fade-out strike happens, though, Carrol Jo would have been transformed into a political figure. Had Kaplan stayed true to the facts of the 1973-74 strikes, there were some messy, unpleasant side effects from those demonstrations, including goon tactics against independents who wanted to stay out of it. The same tactics, funny enough, that were used against Carrol Jo (the same old liberal conceit going on today: social violence is okay if it’s in the name of our cause) No, I don’t think lefty Kaplan would want to go anywhere near the true, lasting effect of Carrol Jo’s fictional strike, as it played out in real life after ’73: the de-regulation of the trucking industry.
Despite Kaplan’s stated social and political intentions, his opening sequence belies it all. What we think is a cool, gritty, Academy ratio cinema verite opening, with a real reporter “KXIW reporter Arnold Jeffers” interviewing honest, tough, fair-minded owner/operator “Bud Brown” (“How far would you go to protect your rig and your profession?” “You never know…till you’re put to the test,”), is really just a dodge: they’re actors, using their real names…but actors still the same. Jeffers’ lament about TV and movies selling a brand of “real” drama that “only happens to affluent people, people who live in and near the cities—you might say to so-called sophisticates,” is supposed to set White Line Fever’s true-to-hardscrabble honesty credentials. But it’s really just a goof on the viewer…like all movies are. White Line Fever isn’t social commentary; it’s a B trucker action thriller.
And a pretty good one, too, when it sticks to the genre conventions. After that verkakte opening, there’s a simple yet remarkably effective credit sequence that’s the best thing in White Line Fever: the lives of Carrol Jo and Jerri up to the trucking parts. In a series of filmed sequences and photo snaps, we see uniformed Carrol Jo return from the service (greeted happily by Jerri); married in a church, before we get a flashback to their high school yearbook photos, with their names in script below (a surprisingly powerful moment of bedrock Americana). Then follows glimpses of Thanksgiving celebrations, football, and days in the park. All of this is accompanied by the aching, haunting theme, Drifting and Dreaming (of You) by Valerie Carter. If you grew up in small town or middle America, you knew (or were) couples like Carrol Jo and Jerri, and you can’t help but root for them after that beautiful credit sequence evocation of the American dream.
That sequence wouldn’t hold for the rest of White Line Fever, though, if Vincent and Lenz weren’t able to bring the characters to life. I’ve always been a fan of Lenz; she’s naturally beautiful, of course, but she has a quiet, still quality and an openness here that’s matched by Vincent. Vincent’s later self-implosion (some date the beginning of his drug use to this movie) often dominates discussions of him, but what’s forgotten is what a sensitive, natural performer he was when first starting out. His physical presence is more than suited for the action sequences, but his rather sweet, unaffected reactions to Lenz’s equally warm turn are critical in keeping Carrol Jo and Jerri firmly in our corner.
Kaplan’s sympathetic, perceptive direction of Vincent’s and Lenz’s domestic scenes are contrasted quite well with his sure handling of the action set pieces. With the help of ace cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp (Patton, The Towering Inferno), Kaplan keeps the frames interesting and dynamic (even a simple overhead shot of Pickens walking into his office, in high black and white contrast, is unusual for this type of B outing), while the pace is sure-footed. There’s a fun Duel-esque truck chase, with lots of vertiginous reverse zooms over hilly roads, and an intense fistfight and long foot chase between Vincent and Jones that’s notable. Some critics didn’t appreciate the level of violence here (Pickens smushed by a truck; Laws getting a wrench in his eye), but this is a B drive-in actioner; you can’t just have sweet domestic scenes and talking heads.
Of course everyone remembers that final gag—the “Blue Mule” smashing through the giant Glass House lighted sign—but that’s hardly surprising since it’s featured on the one-sheet poster and it was flogged incessantly in the trailers and TV spots. Seen now it’s both cool and totally pointless, plot-wise (what was Carrol Jo going to accomplish doing that? It’s even vaguely suicidal, which totally goes against the character as previously drawn). But it’s a reasonably explosive capper for a drive-in thriller with unfulfilled pretensions…and successfully executed conventions.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.