Roger Corman learned years ago that it didn't take a big movie budget to make a bundle of money. Well, Corman didn't produce or direct this 1974 release, "Macon County Line," Max Baer, Jr. co-wrote, produced, and co-starred in it; but Baer knew where the money was, and this Corman look-alike made a ton of it. It became a so-called "drive-in movie classic," and it inspired dozens of films like it, including a direct sequel. I suppose nothing succeeds like success.
So, what was the secret of the movie's box-office success? Mostly good old sex and violence, a dash of Southern charm, and a heap of injustice thrown in for good measure. In most ways, it's a model DAM: a Dumb Action Movie. Yet as dumb as it is, it has its moments, with a fairly suspenseful and exciting climax, which makes it worth a watch for fans of the genre (although, to be fair, fans of the genre have probably already seen it multiple times and need no encouragement).
Nevertheless, non-fans beware.
The setting is 1954, and the story involves a pair of fun-loving brothers from Chicago who have enlisted in the army and have two weeks to kill before they report for duty. They decide to spend the two weeks on a road trip through the South. Little do they know (because they never had the chance to see all the movies to come) that young folks driving through the South always run into either mad slashers, demons, cannibals, or redneck sheriffs. In the case of Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), they have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Deputy Sheriff Reed Morgan (Max Baer, Jr., doing his best to erase his squeaky-clean image from "The Beverly Hillbillies") comes gunning for them.
So, the brothers are "cattin' around, havin' a ball," as they say, and wind up in Louisiana, where they pick up a young female hitchhiker, Jenny (Cheryl Waters), who is on her way to Texas, and the three of them go their merry way until their car breaks down. It's at a garage where they're getting it fixed that they run into Morgan, who takes an immediate dislike toward them. Something about city boys and country sheriffs, I guess. Shortly thereafter, a couple of miscreants murder the sheriff's wife, and the sheriff jumps to the mistaken conclusion that it must be our heroes. The rest is a chase.
In writing his story, Baer borrowed from other successful movies of the day: He uses a soundtrack filled with period songs (rock-and-roll, country-western, gospel) a la "American Graffiti" and puts his two wandering protagonists into various episodic escapades a la "Easy Rider." If you're going to borrow, borrow from the best.
Baer also tries to project a good ol', easygoing Southern tone in the picture by taking his sweet time spinning the tale. The brothers and their newfound friend mosey here and there and do a lot of jawing before the main conflict begins. My guess is that both "American Graffiti" and "Easy Rider" had an influence here, too, because both of those films took a rather casual approach to storytelling. However, those films had some memorable characterizations working for them and a notable social conscience. "Macon County Line" is mostly, as I say, sex and violence.
Indeed, the movie gets right off to a randy start with a sex scene in the first few minutes. Expect nudity and guns, gratuitous in both cases. Then expect to wait for something to happen. And wait. And wait. The movie is two-thirds over before the sheriff starts hightailing it after the trio with a bloody vengeance. Basically, this is a thirty-minute story padded out to nearly an hour and a half, with the excuse that it's being earthy and neorealistic. Nope, it's just slow.
The final half hour of the movie does pick up some good momentum, but it's a long time coming. Then the last few minutes get tense, and the story ends in a series of ironies. Whether that's worth the wait is up to the individual viewer. It wasn't for me.
Trivia: Baer prefaces his film with the words "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed." I don't know if he meant that as a joke or not, but I've read that the story is not true. Baer made it up. Still, it seems like a "Blair Witch Project" or "Cloverfield" kind of thing years before anybody else invented it.
More trivia: Although the movie takes place in Louisiana, Baer filmed it around the Sacramento Delta in central California. A few years earlier, filmmakers made "Cool Hand Luke," also set in the South, in and around Lodi and Stockton in central California. Hollywood magic; you go where it's cheapest.
Yet more trivia: Look for character actor Geoffrey Lewis in the part of a garage mechanic. You'll recognize him instantly because you've seen him so often. Yet, like most good character actors, his name is not exactly a household word. The thing about him is that he never changes. He's thirty-odd years older now, but he still appears regularly in motion pictures and still plays almost the identical role. Comforting, you know? The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Speaking of "things," things in the video department do not exactly get off to an auspicious start with an opening nighttime sequence so grainy it looks as though the filmmakers shot it with a gauze pad over the camera lens. Luckily, the excessive print grain clears up considerably during the daylight scenes, even though it retains a soft, dull, light-toned quality throughout. To the good, WB present the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer that displays no extraneous scratches, lines, or age marks. In fact, the image looks like something you'd expect to see at a drive-in movie theater thirty or forty years ago.
There's not much to say about the sound. "Macon County Line" was a super low-budget production, and the audio suffers accordingly. The disc offers it in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural processing that comes across a little hard and pinched, with limited frequency and dynamic ranges but an interesting sense of depth.
There are no extras to speak of. You get nine scene selections, but they don't even appear on a selections menu; you have to use your remote to click forward or back. English is the only spoken language option, with French subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Viewing "Macon County Line" today, it's hard to see why it became so popular, even among the drive-in theater crowd. Yet if we look at it in the context of the times, the mid 1970s, it did enough things new and copied enough things old to seem almost innovative. The trouble is, we have to look at it now, and, frankly, it doesn't offer much to justify one's time.