White Lightning (Joseph Sargent, 1973)
Good ol’ boy convict Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds), serving time for running moonshine, agrees to a release from an Arkansas federal pen to infiltrate corrupt small town lawman JC Connors (the inimitable Ned Beatty, one of the – if not the — greatest character actor who emerged from 70’s Hollywood cinema) who he happens to believe has murdered his straight-arrow brother and girlfriend.
Along with the fact that White Lightning has the requisite 70’s-style exciting car chases (with the grand finale a particularly epic one) and simple yet effective action sequences, this was also the time when emerging mega-star Reynolds was still giving genuinely textured and interesting performances, not yet over-relying lazily on that cocky laugh that became his trademark, and his subtle, simmering performance (and presence, of course) is also an element that elevates the film (if with one major misstep however — at the end where he acts way too broadly and smug, at the crucial moment that really demanded a greater emotional payoff from him – ah, well… it was Burt… so you can’t expect to have it all).
Along with the aforementioned great Beatty, the film is peppered with all those wonderful character actors of the time, just brimming with colorful personality and peculiarities (crazy man Bo Hopkins, director Sam Peckinpah’s larger-than-live favorite RG Armstrong, Diane Ladd, Matt Clark, etc)… in other words, this is one supremely well-acted film, enough so that when Burt’s attention-seeking laugh occasionally shows up, it doesn’t hurt the film.
The murder of McKlusky’s kid brother is a powerful tone setter to introduce the film, made even more so because of its quiet and somber presentation (as the opening credits play over it), and the film loses little steam from there. Director Sargent, one of those journeyman filmmakers who managed to carve out quite a fascinating career over a number of genres, creates what seemed to be almost a norm for films of that decade (including even the cheapest of indie drive-in horror films that were shot down South) – that is, a real sense of a southern town (helped substantially along by the obvious contribution of local settings and local players in key roles) controlled by corrupt officials and held down by poverty. These are gritty views of life that would slowly get kicked out of the Hollywood perspective as the decade came to an end (and the corporate forces took back control from those pesky auteurs).
It’s a 70’s film, in which the characters really feel like adults with experience inhabiting the world (unlike, say, self-absorbed buff 20-somethings pretending to have a clue). I would say I miss the days of films like this, but then again, all I gotta do is put on a film like White Lightning and I’m right back there where I belong (I mean, not in the South, exactly, but in a cinematic land of adults).
With the huge success of White Lightning though, I’m really interested now to get my hands on its sequel Gator to see if Reynolds (who, along with returning as McKlusky, also grabbed the directorial reigns) still kept his humility – and that giggling laugh — in check.