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THE GREAT MOONSHINE FILM FESTIVAL

by Dennis Cozzalio Nov 17, 2018

Every so often the stars align in such a way as to allow a perfectly inert and “nonproductive” weekend spent in the company of four, or five, or maybe even six movies, the sort of cine-bliss-out designed to decompress the mind and spirit after a particularly insistent week of breadwinning. Back in the salad days, when all thoughts were ostensibly devoted to expanding one’s horizons, this sort of motion picture marathon was known as a typical college weekend. But similar opportunities come far less frequently 40 years later, and when they do, they’re usually accompanied by at least four or five loads of laundry (one per movie, maybe) demanding to be sorted and folded. Thanks to the largely unplumbed depths of my DVR queue, I stumbled into one such marathon last Friday night, and it was a doozy, an entirely unplanned, thematically linked four-picture blast that would have been a honest-to-God B-movie treasure trove if you’d stumbled upon it buried in the movie ads of the local paper. A drive-in all-nighter, perhaps, the likes of which were plenty common back when drive-ins and long theatrical shelf lives were themselves common, when spasms of second-and-third-run programming cropped up every Wednesday or Friday like unkillable weeds. Four big action hits! Show starts at dusk! $5.00 a carload! And I never left my recliner!

It all began innocently enough with a thirst to revisit an old favorite— Burt Reynolds as Gator McCluskey in the 1973 moonshine classic White Lightning. Hal Needham had been a stuntman and stunt coordinator for years before doing this picture—he’d even worked with Reynolds before, as his stunt double on several episodes of Gunsmoke and on his previous outing, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, and he did both duties on White Lightning. But this first of two Gator adventures (the second was Gator, from 1976) isn’t a lark like Smokey and the Bandit, the booze-running comedy Needham and Reynolds would make together four years later. Sure, it has banjo-scored car chases, vigilante revenge, and all the rest of the trimmings that helped make it a big hit in theaters and drive-ins 45 years ago. But under the guiding hand of director Joseph Sargent (whose next movie would be the greatest New York City movie ever made, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) White Lightning emphasizes humid, laconic Southern atmosphere and understated malevolence, beneath the culture and its institutions and often presented at a simmer instead of a boil, that eases the movie right under your skin. Reynolds’ Gator gets himself legally sprung from prison to infiltrate a corn whiskey-running operation when he finds out the fella heading it up, corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), is the bastard who murdered his brother.

That execution starts the movie, a brutal sequence in which Connors presides over the slow drowning of Gator’s kin. Sargent sets the tone with no comment, observing two canoes and four men gliding through the swamp, the sheriff’s deadpan countenance unmoved behind cheap wire-rimmed glasses as he blasts a hole in the hull of one boat and watches its bound-up occupants slowly sink. The setup and delivery of the scene are truly unnerving for the quiet alone, and Beatty, who with one exception barely raises his voice throughout the movie, is probably the scariest of any in a long and storied line of villainous Southern movie sheriffs because of his good-old-boy reserve—there’s no hospitality beneath the mask, only seething contempt and his conviction that his status within the law gives him the right to express it. White Lightning is a cut above the usual batch of drive-in firewater—it has the burn of excitement you’d expect from that title, but like its namesake, it doesn’t always go down easy.

I followed White Lightning with a movie I’d always wanted to see which had eluded me for decades, The Moonshine War (1970), and that blunt title that pretty much says it all. In 1932, a Northern federal treasury agent (Patrick McGoohan) decides to cash in before the imminent repeal of Prohibition and tries to muscle in on the Kentucky moonshine operation of an old army buddy (Alan Alda). But when his pal won’t cut him in, McGoohan incorporates the influence of another acquaintance, a glad-handing gangster (Richard Widmark) and his psychotic second-in-command (Lee Hazlewood), to press Alda into cooperation. When Alda and his very reluctant neighbors, who are in fact his competition, dig in… well, that title does imply a certain expectation of shoutin’ and shotgun fire on which the movie is happy to deliver. Directed by Richard Quine (whose previous pictures, like Bell, Book and Candle, The World of Suzie Wong and the marquee-strangling Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad seemed an unlikely lead-up to a tale of rotgut-fueled intrigue such as this), The Moonshine War goes about its business without a lot of stylish to-do, but it is, however, an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel which happens to have been adapted into screenplay form by Leonard himself, and therein lies the potent spirits which provide the perfectly legal pleasures the movie has to offer.

Widmark, in particular, thoroughly enjoys gnashing his choppers on Leonard’s blunt, snappy, occasionally florid turns of phrase. This creepily insinuating psycho is a great mid-to-late-period role for the wonderful actor, and Widmark feeds off the unexpected enthusiasm and facility of Hazlewood, the heralded songwriter and musician whose only significant appearance as an actor this is. The two make a blackly funny pair whose overarchingly friendly demeanor can and will, as Leonard would often have it, take a hard right turn into decidedly less welcoming territory. The Moonshine War is also a haven for earnest actors and their bad Southern accents, but the prime offender is not, as you might guess, Alda as a backwoods Kentucky moonshiner. His casting, given the 20-20 hindsight of his reign as Hawkeye Pierce, seems sublimely odd, though I thought he comported himself surprisingly well on the linguistic front. It’s the Irish, neutrally-accented McGoohan who you gotta watch out for—you haven’t lived until you’ve heard him wrap his Celtic tongue around a mouthful of Yankee R’s.

The next serving in my intoxicating run of movies devoted (at least in part) to the desperate glories of running illegal liquor came from revisiting an old favorite– Michael Schultz’s Greased Lightning (1977), a high-spirited take on the story of Wendell Scott, the first African-American stock car racer to ever win a NASCAR race, with Richard Pryor in the starring role. If anything, this movie has just gotten better with age (much like Schultz’s previous picture, Car Wash). It captures Pryor just as his status as a full-on movie star was consolidating, before bad choices, in movie projects and certain other lifestyle options, would begin to take their toll—he’s genuinely magnetic. My friend Odie Henderson, film critic for RogerEbert.com, recently marveled to me that in 1974 Warner Brothers wouldn’t insure Pryor to get on a horse for Blazing Saddles, yet here they were four years later sticking him behind all manner of high-speed vehicles, fleeing the police and later in pursuit of glory on the race track—that’s Hollywood. (You can read more of Odie on Greased Lightning and the career of Michael Schultz at his blog, Big Media Vandalism.)

Schultz marks Scott’s achievements with a customary stylistic modesty, but within that modesty he serves the material well, with dignity, spark, good humor, and gravity enough for the audience to register its social significance without being beaten severely with the good-for-you club of history. And though the pendulum has lately swung back toward inclusion and representation in American movies, it’s still kind of thrilling to see a movie given over to a cast populated by the likes of Pryor, Cleavon Little (a de facto Blazing Saddles reunion!), Richie Havens (yet another musician in a supporting role who, unfortunately, doesn’t make the mark here that Hazlewood did in The Moonshine War), Beau Bridges (The Landlord himself!), and memorable, if brief turns from Bill Cobbs, Vincent Gardenia and, in a nod to the politics of the day, SNCC founder and Georgia senator Julian Bond and Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. But the movie’s real revelation is Pam Grier, at the tail end of her reign as the queen of blaxploitation and just about to hit the streets of Fort Apache the Bronx. Grier’s role as Scott’s patient, supportive wife Mary, isn’t distinctive on paper, but loosed from the sexy, leather-clad, tough-as-nails Foxy Brown persona Grier positively glows, and the part gives her a brief chance to expand as an actress in ways which she couldn’t be perceived in the movies that made her an icon. In Greased Lightning she allows us a glimpse of the star that would find her way to glory through Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. Of course, she’s still subservient to Wendell Scott’s story, and Pryor’s pleasurable dominance as an actor, but in this delightful movie Grier provides an electrical charge of lightning that’s all her own.

I saw Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973) in a theater when I was about 13 years old, and its harsh view of humanity and the futility of violence really knocked me for a loop. Before last weekend, I hadn’t seen it since, and as the fourth part of my impromptu firewater foursome I approached revisiting it with eager anticipation, but also with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether my perceptions of it as an adult would reveal it to be less than the movie squirreled away in my memory. Turns out Lolly-Madonna XXX is another adaptation of a well-known novelist—Sue Grafton wrote The Lolly-Madonna War (as the movie was known in some markets) in 1969, years before embarking on the Alphabet series of crime novels that would secure her fame and fortune, and like Leonard with The Moonshine War, she also wrote the movie’s screenplay (with Rodney Carr-Smith).

The X’s in the film’s title don’t refer to the markings on a moonshine jug. In fact, the illegal production of corn liquor is, like in Greased Lightning, only the incidental catalyst to the events the movie is really interested in—the destruction of two mountain families, the Feathers and the Gutshalls, by their own hands. Instead, the alphabetical markings are kisses attached to the signature on a note from a fictitious nymphet, Lolly-Madonna, which is delivered as a prank by the rambunctious Gutshall boys to distract the Feathers from the tending of their still, the better for them to move in and bust it up. But when some of the Feathers run across a young woman at a bus stop, they assume her to be the nonexistent Lolly-Madonna and kidnap her, intending to use her as a bargaining chip in the escalating Feather-Gutshall war over claims to an assuming meadow that sits between their properties. The furious decay in relations between the two clans can’t help but carry echoes of the confusion of conflict in Vietnam, one that was raging full on when the novel was written and when the film was made. But as directed by the significantly underrated Richard C. Sarafian (whose previously film was the inadvertent counterculture touchstone Vanishing Point), Vietnam is never pressed into the foreground, and it certainly doesn’t work as an extended metaphor; yet its presence in Lolly-Madonna XXX feels organic, inevitable, unavoidable, and it lends the film its sense of tragedy without ever becoming an overt ingredient in its dramatic strategy.

Lolly-Madonna XXX also boasts, like Greased Lightning before it, a dream cast of established veterans and up-and-comers that would, if there were any justice in Hollywood history, warrant placing it in the vicinity of legend—the Feathers are comprised of no less than a remarkably restrained, yet seething Rod Steiger as the doomed Feather patriarch, besotted by tragedy, and the horror that he loved his son’s dead wife maybe even more than his son did; plus Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Katherine Squire, Tim Scott, Ed Lauter and a pre-The Las Detail Randy Quaid. Over on the Gutshall side of the holler, there’s Robert Ryan as the timid father figure, torn by a sense of morals and his ineffectual ability to fulfill them—this was the great actor’s penultimate appearance, followed by his grand embodiment of Larry Slade in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, also in 1973, and his Pap Gutshall is a worthy warm-up to that glorious performance. But there’s also Tresa Hughes, Kiel Martin, Paul Koslo and Joan Goodfellow as the rest of Gutshall family, and newcomer Season Hubley as the unfortunate traveler, the would-be Lolly-Madonna, who ends up with a front-row seat to the destruction of two families.

Critic Michael Atkinson wrote eloquently about the film and its unenviably precarious position in the marketplace of the early ‘70s for TCM.com, and he notes:

“The end product is earnestly doom-laden, and inescapably an artifact of its era, a time when movies were freshly subject to a grungy grain-alcohol cocktail of social protest, youth culture empowerment, international cinephilia, low-culture realism, and prole restlessness. Which is to say, Lolly-Madonna XXX, as with so many films of the Nixon-‘Nam days, could never be made today…”

Which might also be why it is so little-known today. But the movie retains the power it had for me when I was a kid, and then some. It is as grungy and mean as Atkinson suggests, but also sensitive to moments of beauty—when one character waxes about how he never wants to leave his mountain home, Sarafian and cinematographer Philp Lathrop provide ample evidence to justify that sentiment, and like that character the movie stays put on the Feather and Gutshall land for the duration because, you sense, it believes this place is the world.

Unfortunately, the movie would never really make its mark, caught as it was in the distribution limbo of an MGM headed by notorious casino builder James Aubrey, who presided over the studio’s erosion in the early ‘70s, and hobbled by a passel of  negative reviews. If ever an unheralded early ‘70s film were ripe for rediscovery, Lolly-Madonna XXX would seem to be one, and its availability on disc from the Warner Archives and streaming on Amazon Prime (where I saw it, in it a surprisingly well-preserved wide-screen transfer) is all the encouragement you should need to make it the cornerstone of your very own moonshine-centric film festival.

About Dennis Cozzalio

DENNIS BIO PIC

Dennis Cozzalio has been writing his all-purpose, agenda-free film criticism blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule since 2004. Cozzalio studied film at the University of Oregon in the late ‘70s and currently resides in Glendale, California where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He spends his (precious little) free time writing, cooking and trying to reconcile himself to a new reality weighted more toward catching up on movies at home, where distractions abide, and less in the overpriced, chatter-infested environs of 21st-century cinemas. His favorite movies include Nashville, The Lady Eve, Once Upon a Time in the West, Fellini Roma, His Girl Friday, Dressed to Kill, Amarcord and 1941, and he thinks Barbara Stanwyck can do no wrong.