THE MOONSHINE WAR (1970; Video Screams).
At first glance, this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prohibition-era, hillbilly drama looks like a sure thing, with its eclectic cast, bloody agenda and, most importantly, screenplay written by Elmore Leonard and based on his own 1969 novel. No surprise, the man responsible for creating JACKIE BROWN, OUT OF SIGHT and the television series JUSTIFIED supplies plenty of colorful characters, but flat direction by Richard Quine (BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE), misguided casting and dumb-ass decisions sabotage the fun... Crooked federal prohibition agent Frank Long (ex-SECRET AGENT and PRISONER Patrick McGoohan) takes a break from enforcing the Volstead Act and shows up in rural Kentucky, determined to steal a legendary cache of aged, home-made whisky (150 barrels = 4500 gallons!) worth a fortune and belonging to local lug Son Martin (a pre-M*A*S*H Alan Alda, back when he was starring in diverse features like PAPER LION and THE MEPHISTO WALTZ). But when this revenuer finds himself seriously outnumbered, he calls in some unorthodox reinforcements -- a trio of city-slicker sociopaths consisting of sadistic dentist Dr. Emmett Taulbee (Richard Widmark), ditzy whore Miley (GET TO KNOW YOUR RABBIT's Susanne Zenor) and his driver Dual Matters (singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood, of "Those Boots Were Made For Walkin'" fame). When Martin refuses to deal with these out-of-towners, Long and his makeshift li'l army move onto harsher, even more underhanded tactics, like threatening his moonshiner neighbors and lynching Martin's black worker Adam (jazz-blues vocalist Joe Williams). Even Long soon begins to regret aligning with these seriously fucked-up individuals, culminating with a siege of Son Martin's home (in a typically cynical Elmore twist, the entire county turns out to watch the carnage, picnicking on a hillside while the two factions kill each other)... Like a lot of Leonard fare, all of these characters have severe faults. They're greedy, vicious, manipulative, or simply self-serving shitheads -- in other words, a believably scummy slice of humanity. Unfortunately, this hit-and-miss effort continually wimps out in order to win a safe 'GP' rating. New York City-born Alda has a lousy southern accent, and the character's obstinance might seem more admirable if his listless performance didn't feel like a contractual obligation. McGoohan overplays his sniveling caricature, Widmark plays his evil bastard with aplomb, Hazlewood is supremely sweaty and sleazy, plus there's (McCarthy blacklist victim and WALTONS-grandpa) Will Geer as the Sheriff, who turns a blind eye to local bootlegging; HOLMES & YO-YO's John Schuck as his Deputy; Bo Hopkins, Harry Carey, Jr. and Charles Tyner are neighbors; plus 22-year-old, brunette Teri Garr has her clothes stolen by Hazlewood. The cinematography by Richard H. Kline (BODY HEAT, WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN) does a mediocre job of making California look like Kentucky, while Neal Hefti's ill-suited soundtrack is peppered with hokey Southern Rock (John Kay's "Moonshine (Friend of Mine)," Hank Williams Jr.'s "Ballad of the Moonshine") and Roy Orbison's soaring rendition of "It Takes All Kinds of People" severely undercuts the film's intense finale.
© 2013 by Steven Puchalski.