White Line Fever (Jonathan Kaplan, 1975)
The surprisingly de-masculinized monikered Carrol Jo Hummer (having just followed the exploits of Clint Eastwood’s Philo Beddoe in Every Which Way But Loose from the night before, it beggars the question, what’s with the odd character names in this series?), played by a young, strapping Jan Michael Vincent, arrives home from his service in Vietnam with the goals of settling into humble domesticity with his new bride Jerri (looker ‘It’ girl of the time, Kay Lenz) and making a simple living transporting goods in the trailer truck he purchases with a bank loan… only to discover his dreams slowly unravelling when he discovers the county’s truckers are all forced to deliver illegal contraband, under order by the monolithic and threatening company that controls all, ironically (well, not so much by the end) named Glass House…. And the ominous strong-arming company isn’t too fond of the fact that Hummer’s stand against them is not only leading to him emerging as a sort of folk hero, but is fomenting a growing unionization amongst the truckers… and they’re not gonna have it.
It was the 70’s, and – hard to believe from the perspective of today’s almost entirely corporate and consumerized society — independent-minded, socially-conscious filmmakers, on both the studio and independent levels (and on into porn!) were thriving (drinking in the zeitgeist of that socially tumultuous period as they were), including amongst the emerging youthful cabal who graduated from the school of (exploitation-minded) cinematic hard knocks of legendary producer Roger Corman, of which White Line Fever director Jonathan Kaplan was a prime example (if less celebrated than eventual genre faves who emerged, such as Joe Dante, for instance).
I have no idea how close this is, or was, to the actualities of cold-hearted big business corruption within the trucking business or is speaking to any actual events, but, hey, any film that celebrates the demolition and overturning of corporate power through the empowerment and dignity of the Worker (you know, the victory of that little ol’ thing called socialism) isn’t gonna have to fight particularly hard to win me over. Fortunately, it’s also a well told tale, with lots of engaging performers (and, in the spirit of the film’s idealism, it’s also dotted with obvious non-performers playing various truckers and other small parts in the film).
It was perhaps the last great decade of the character actor and “White Line” provides a handful. Gregarious one time rodeo performer Slim Pickens manages to (somewhat) pull back on his over-the-top antics to deliver a performance with some pathos, as Duane, a truck dispatcher caught between wanting to do the right thing, but also not wanting to jeopardize his own career and safety (leading to the most shockingly realized death scene in the film). LQ Jones and RG Armstrong, plucked from brilliant wild man director Sam Peckinpah’s Western ensemble, show up as baddies, and they’re always welcome.
Jan-Michael Vincent, who physically approaches the kind of beauty that an early Stagecoach John Wayne had (the angelic kind that supersedes masculinity into an almost ethereal androgyny), with nary a sign of the ravages of out-of-control drug and alcohol abuse that would define most of his tragic life right up until his death, has a laid back manner to his performance that works well enough, if never quite elevating his character’s plight into the intensity it could have used (perhaps giving a glimpse why he never became the big star the studios were certainly eventually hoping for).
In another one of her fairly thankless roles as the wife who veers between being supportive of Hummer’s risky stance and angry at him for putting himself (and their family unit) into harm’s way, I’ve always thought of Lenz as an underrated performer, hampered by the perception that comes with Farrah Fawcett Majors looks. I find any time she’s asked to have her character emote (even in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown which I just watched last night – but more on that in a later post), she brings a lot to the table. There was a wonderful performer in there that never really was given the chance to thrive (or maybe I just have the hots for her).