Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Macon County Line (1974)

There’s something very appealing about the languid pace of these mid 70s drive-in movies. It’s as if nobody is in a particular hurry to get anywhere or do anything. “Free and easy” was how I remember them describing that mood in the 70s, which I barely remember at all. The teens in current movies seem very uptight by contrast- always rushing places and snarking at each other. Did they even have snark back in the 70s? I think part of the reason I watch these old movies is simply because they offer a reassuring picture of a world in which young people bum around and don’t worry terribly much about their ‘careers’ or consumer items. Well, until they get cut up with a chainsaw that is.

Here, we focus on two brothers, Chris & Wayne Dixon , played by real-life brothers Alan & Jessie Vint, who are “catting around” the South on one last fling before one of them enters the Army. It’s 1953 and the film is a bit of a nostalgia piece with great rock and gospel songs a la American Graffiti. The film starts with the brothers having sex with a woman in New Orleans before her husband arrives and chases them away in that classic sexual archetype. There’s also something reassuring about these old saws- we all know how they’re going to end. The laughs come easy.

After dining and dashing from the local diner and picking up a cute hitchhiker Jenny (Cheryl Waters), they run into some car troubles and have to stop in a sleepy little Southern town of the sort where everyone forgets what they were saying in the middle of a sentence and the local lawman seems like his name should be Jethro- in fact, he really seems this way as he’s played by Max Baer Jr., Jethro Clampett himself. Baer stars, produces, and co-wrote the script, and it seems likely that he’s trying to overcome his Jethro image here- his character Deputy Reed, is a hardnosed, racist, closed-minded hick with a badge: in other words, the worst nightmare of the teens that would have seen the movie in a drive-in back in 1974. He’s also a stereotype, of course, and we know that, eventually, he’s going to come after those free’n’easy teens and try to blow a few holes in them.

The catalyst for this is a pair of traveling criminals who invade his home and brutalize and murder his wife in a genuinely disturbing scene midway through. One interesting touch- she’s watching a television report about Senator McCarthy at the time, which might be pure nostalgia, but seems to say, “Hey, America, you’re worried about the Reds? Here’s the real threat to worry about breaking into your house as we speak!”

Meanwhile, Jenny and Chris are having sex in a nearby barn with the car broken down outside of the Sheriff’s house, while he’s driving around with his son (played by a young Leif Garret) teaching the kid to avoid black children! Soon Sheriff Jethro is stalking the kids in the woods turning their idyllic romp into a bloody nightmare. This, of course, happens in the last twenty minutes and the movie takes its sweet time getting down to business. No doubt drive-in audiences of 1974 weren’t terribly concerned about plot mechanics and liked seeing the lawman as the villain. The film ends with inevitable pretensions of really being about the wages of violence and intolerance, which might have been what made the film a smash hit in 1974. Or it was the naked girls and shotgun violence. Either way, it’s still a solidly-constructed time waster.

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