DEADHEAD MILES (1972).
Terrence Malick became a cult phenomenon in the 1970s after directing the acclaimed BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN, but this unfathomably wrongheaded road movie was actually his first film gig. A former truck driver, Malick gets full credit for the script, and probably wanted to burn the negative when he saw the rambling mess that first-time feature director Vernon Zimmerman (UNHOLY ROLLERS) made of it. With a title that refers to the trucking term for an empty or nonpaying run, this existential seriocomic goulash plays like an 18-wheeled variation on EASY RIDER, with Alan Arkin starring as a big rig driver who slips behind the wheel of a hijacked semi and heads across America, running into an assortment of oddball characters and half-baked situations. And good lord, it sucks! Filmed in late-1970/early-1971, across Nashville, Knoxville, Santa Fe, and Sacramento, the finished film lacked the support of Paramount Pictures head honcho Frank Yablans and, following one disastrous sneak preview in January 1972, it finally premiered at one Nashville theatre in May 1973 (along with a ridiculously-inaccurate ad campaign) and was promptly shelved... Hauling a truck full of hot carburetors for a bunch of cut-rate crooks, Cooper (miscast Arkin, complete with a marble-mouthed Southern drawl) ditches his shlubby overseer (Oliver Clark) and hits the road, making the occasional pitstop in an unsuccessful attempt to unload his contraband. A philosophical hitchhiker (THE JEFFERSONS' British next-door neighbor, Paul Benedict, who Arkin had earlier directed in a pair of Off-Broadway Jules Feiffer productions -- a 1969 Circle in the Square revival of LITTLE MURDERS and 1970's THE WHITE HOUSE MURDER CASE) joins Cooper on his cross-country trek, with the pair picking up random hauling jobs along the way, amidst a string of seemingly pointless encounters and disjointed conversations. They toss pop bottles at passing road signs and get repeatedly pulled over by the cops. Cooper attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife, only to find an empty lot where her trailer used to be, and then visits a chained-up prostitute. He also dumps a portion of his load in the middle of the highway, nearly runs a car off the road after falling asleep at the wheel, and even clubs a Barney Fife-esque police officer over the head. I guess Cooper is supposed to be some sort of anti-authority rebel, as he casually cons his way through life, but we never get any deeper understanding of this slow-witted, blue-collar character. And in the film's greatest irony, Cooper spends the entire movie driving about, but the story doesn't actually go anywhere! In fact, the film's only vaguely memorable sequence involves a mysterious man in black named Johnny Mesquitero (B-movie vet Bruce Bennett) -- a legendary dead trucker who appears outta nowhere, fixes their fucked-up engine, then drives off in his eerie all-black rig... Meanwhile, the supporting cast is loaded with talent, but no one is given much to do. Hector Elizondo and Charles Durning show up as fellow truckers at a diner; a black-haired, pre-M*A*S*H Loretta Swit is a one-eyed drunk who cons Cooper out of a dollar; comedian Avery Schreiber plays crooked Boss Fulano in the opening scenes, with bald Robert Downey, Sr. regular Lawrence Wolf as one of his employees; in a tribute to Raoul Walsh's THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, George Raft and Ida Lupino make a cameo appearance as their classic Packard is stolen; future-director John Milius pops in as a State Trooper; plus there's used car salesman Bill McCutheon (Dropo from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS), auto parts shop clerk William Duell (POLICE SQUAD!) and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Richard Kiel at a diner counter... Hell, I've suffered through more than my share of wrongheaded films, but this one left me genuinely confounded. All of the dialogue feels heavily improvised and Arkin is continually tossing in quirky little turns that don't add up to much. As a character study, it's thin and foolish. None of the episodes are remotely humorous or dramatic. Its exploitable elements are nil, and the whole thing is boring as hell. At least there's some picturesque scenery, courtesy of cinematographer Ralph Woolsey (DIRTY LITTLE BILLY, THE NEW CENTURIONS), with a soundtrack laced with Dave Dudley renditions of trucker-themed songs such as "A Piece of the Road", "I Won't Go Down That Road Anymore", "White Line Fever", and "One More Mile." With a backstory far more interesting than the finished product, I'm not surprised that DEADHEAD MILES was barely released.
© 2018 by Steven Puchalski.