Thunder Road

(Arthur Ripley, USA, 1958)


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


Sigh …


No appreciation of Robert Mitchum fails to mention that he had a great walk, a great look, a great voice. That he was cool, the epitome and embodiment of cool. But there’s more to Mitchum than his (exceedingly cool) natural attributes. His acting comprises a set of physical techniques that are carefully and precisely performed.


About 30 minutes into the incredible Thunder Road – a true cult classic about moonshining and its dangerous delivery-by-hot-rod in the American South – Mitchum as Lucas Doolin leaves the site of a tense confrontation; it’s the final shot, and the final grace note, of the scene. First, he turns. He turns slowly, in stages – Rainer Werner Fassbinder must have learned a lot, as a director, from studying Mitchum – and as he does so, he pops a cigarette into his mouth. Then he puts the card he has just been handed into his jacket pocket, all the while holding his look at the other guy off-screen. He lowers his eyes and shakes his head very slightly, as if in disdain. Then he turns back, and walks off down the stairs. It’s scarcely eight seconds long, but it’s an indelible piece of action and gesture – because Mitchum knew how to play with time, how to stretch it out on screen.


This, for instance, could have been boring: Lucas on one end of a phone call. Thunder Road has several scenes of this sort, with no alternating syntagm of the person on the other end. In one instance, Mitchum sustains it for a whole thirty seconds with the business of buttoning and straightening his collar. One shot, one block of dialogue, one action.


Mitchum’s acting is cinematic. That doesn’t only mean he could stand very still (as Dave Hickey argues in a chapter of his book Perfect Wave), or give a solid, direct gaze off-frame whenever required (Hitchcock’s complaint, justified or not, about Method actors like Paul Newman was that they couldn’t do this). It means there’s a precise orchestration of Mitchum’s hard-boiled speech, with a definite pause between each phrase; and there are selective, concentrated gestures that either accompany or punctuate the spoken lines. Moreover, those gestures suggest where to cut and change the camera angle. It’s an entire syntax of film performance.


Let’s take a particularly economically organised scene 27 minutes in. Lucas and mechanic Mackenzie (this actor remains uncredited and unidentified) crouch to check a car’s tank. Cut to the inserted detail – there’s still some drops of water in it. Mac, having clearly failed at his task, rises nervously out of the frame, while Lucas stays there for a few more beats; when he lifts, it’s time for a strong matching-cut on action. After taking his testy pause, Mitchum will punch a specific word with a specific cigarette action – sticking it in Mac’s mouth – and then he lights the cigarette! Which makes Mac cough and splutter, as yet another acoustic-guitar-and-trumpet variation on the “Thunder Road” theme starts up on the soundtrack. When Lucas leaves, he once more (as he did in an earlier scene) turns and gives a dirty look, eloquent even at long-shot distance.


But there’s one special thing that Mitchum does that needs to be seen, heard and celebrated. To get control of himself, and of the scene, Mitchum sighs. Sighing: letting your breath out, audibly. It’s a way for an actor to slow down, release accumulated tension, take command of their delivery, to mark out the steps or beats of a scene’s dynamic. And it’s fantastically, if subtly, expressive.


This is evident all throughout Thunder Road. Sometimes, Mitchum will even deliver some of his words in a rush as he expels a sighing breath. And you know his character is really agitated or angry when he stops breathing, and is all pent-up for a few moments – before, usually, breaking the tension with another sigh.


Thunder Road was a special project for Mitchum, since he co-produced and co-wrote it, and also worked on composing its songs. Let’s not discount the contribution of the credited director, Arthur Ripley, an industry veteran who took time out from helping to establish the UCLA film school at the end of the 1950s to helm this project as a favour to Mitchum. His work is fine – finer than allowed for in Rick Thompson’s otherwise justly classic 1969 essay on Thunder Road as a film maudit, reprinted in the great 1975 anthology Kings of the Bs:


[Mitchum] put longtime enigma Arthur Ripley in the director’s chair. The brilliance of this strategy rests on two phenomena: (a) Ripley’s Stone Age flat shooting style; (b) the complete dissipation of Ripley’s minor personal style into ecstatic incoherence whenever a profound theme sneaks into his films. Thunder Road’s themes push Ripley over his line, leaving Mitchum’s conception virtually unaltered. The film looks like a cheap Hollywood imitation of newsreel style. The obviousness of the interior sets confounds one’s perception of reality in the film; it seems that Mitchum is so alienated that he is denied even the reality of shacks, garages and motels. […] The hard actuality of the road sequences playing against the cardboard interiors amplifies the distinction between existence off the road and life on it. (p. 208)


At the very least, Ripley understood well both B movie conventions (including those indeed disconcerting montages of location shooting and photo-projected backdrops, sometimes within the same scene) and what we are calling the Mitchum Syntax. (Aside: one website devoted to car worship credits the direction of this cult film to “Author Ripley”, which is a nice typo under the circumstances.) All the same, we can indeed legitimately say that Thunder Road is Mitchum’s film, that he is its true auteur.


Why? Because everyone from veteran players to relatively untrained newcomers – like Mitchum’s son James and singer Keely Smith – performs exactly within the parameters of the Mitchum Syntax. Even scenes in which he does not appear have the same construction of line, pause and gesture.


And everybody sighs in this movie. It helps them to pause, to modulate the flow of their lines, to be aware of their own breathing in their own body. Exhaling cigarette smoke is, of course, a privileged form of sighing, if you happen to live inside the Mitchum Universe – and even the secondary heavies, here, get to enjoy that gesture. Intriguingly – and systematically! – the chief villain of the piece, Kogan played by Jacques Aubuchon, does exactly the opposite: he’s always loudly inhaling, unpleasantly sucking in his breath between phrases. Surely, Mitchum was the unofficial, all-round acting coach on Thunder Road.


Moreover, if sighing is a way of controlling time in performance, Thunder Road, as a drama, is all about the painful paradoxes of time: time lost, time running out, time out of control. Cinema, as a medium, was born to explore this large and infinitely variable theme. “Death hangs over” Thunder Road in Thompson’s reading, “always linked with the subthemes of mobility and change” (p. 210). That fatalism of the damned and the doomed is there, for sure; but time is also a matter of breath – and breath is life, the apportioning and living out of time, second by second, every day. When Mitchum, in a superb scene, is asked if he’ll ever give up this dangerous racket of moonshining, he wisely replies: “I might as well stop breathing”.


Note from Adrian: after rewatching Thunder Road, I went to bed and had a dream about it. In this dream, I made the astonishing analytical discovery that even the film’s establishing landscape and location shots – shots without any actors visible – are edited mathematically to fit the length of its implied rhythm of sighs.


Well, the movie doesn’t actually go like that – but it should.


The 2019 audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin on Thunder Road, from which the above text is adapted and expanded, is part of our ongoing series The Thinking Machine. The entire series since late 2016 can be accessed via the Vimeo channel of de Filmkrant magazine: https://vimeo.com/filmkrant

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin May 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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