One of the most underrated movies of the Seventies, 1970’s THE MOONSHINE WAR, directed by the equally underrated Richard Quine, comes (at last) to made-to-order DVD-R from the folksy brood at The Warner Archive Collection. An MGM picture from its fade-out days, MOONSHINE is a grim glimmer of dark greatness that the studio had occasionally achieved when not putting on a show in a barn approximately the size of Dallas.
Based on a terrific novel by Elmore Leonard, who also penned the excellent script, MOONSHINE chronicles the unsavory activities of a number of shady characters during the peak of the Great Depression. It’s 1932, and out of a muggy, misty sweltering night drives Frank Long, an IRS agent assigned to track down the makers and flow of illegal liquor. But Long is more than just an imposing, creepy symbol of law enforcement. He’s a greedy racist – out to score the coup of his life. For here, in the small, sleepy Kentucky town, resides Long’s former Army buddy, the genial, stalwart, but defiant John W. “Son” Martin – who also happens to the best white lightening brewer in the territory. While convivial with the rest of the community (they drink, joke and carouse together at his farm), Son’s claim to fame is a supposed stash of 150 barrels of prime stuff. With Roosevelt about to be elected, and the end of Prohibition practically guaranteed, Long wants to partner up with Martin and pass the bootlegged hooch off as the real McCoy before the legit labels can get back to business. But Son doesn’t need any partners (except his pal, Aaron, an African-American confident (whom Long threatens to lynch). If Frank wants the merch, he can pay – like everybody else.
The dichotomy between Long and Martin would be rich enough to fuel the narrative – if this wasn’t simply the hillbilly noir gold mine it is. Long and Son are mirrored bad/good opposites (Frank’s sexual longing for the beautiful manager of the hotel he’s staying at is another connection; turns out, she’s John’s lover). While, as indicated, Long is genuinely spooky, corrupt and bigoted – he’s bad, not evil. This distinction is underlined in blood when the Revenuer calls in assistance to aid his quest. That nightmare arrives in the personification of Doc Emmett Taulbee, a “defrocked” dentist, whose license was revoked for gassing female patients who he subsequently raped. Doc travels with two young ‘uns, at first glance – possibly his children. ‘Ceptin’ they ain’t. There’s the thoroughly psychopathic Dual Metters, one of the most scary SOBs ever to stain a reel of celluloid, and Miley Mitchell, an under-aged teen prostitute simultaneously naively innocent and carnally bankrupt; depending on his whim, Doc passes her off as his daughter, wife, ward…
It doesn’t take a stable genius to figure that the partnership between Long and Doc ain’t gonna hold. Soon the degenerate ex-medical man has called in a company of killers to pose as Feds and (hopefully) confiscate the truckloads of Holy Grail booze for himself.
The sanguinary conflict soon involves the entire locale, including Lizann (the manager), Mr. Baylor (the wily sheriff) and all the neighboring farmers who count on their ‘shine to keep them afloat during these days’ worst times.
As mentioned, the script and direction are top-notch. While at first glance, Quine, mostly known as a comedy director (Bell, Book and Candle, The Notorious Landlady, How to Murder Your Wife), might seem a weird choice for this scenario; not so, as he was additionally a master at depicting the lower depths of Americana. Earlier on, he made a series of noirs, including the superb 1954 Pushover and the brilliant 1960 drama of sexual predators in the suburbs Strangers When We Meet. MOONSHINE ranks as one of his best works.
Of course, none of this would work if it wasn’t for the cast, and THE MOONSHINE WAR is a prime-tier pantheon of thespian versatility. As the quiet, intrinsically decent but no-nonsense Son, Alan Alda has perhaps his best big screen role. And as the slimy Long, Patrick McGoohan definitely delivers his best American movie performance. Top honors, however, may have to go to the actor portraying the terrifying Doc – Richard Widmark, in likely his finest late career appearance. Widmark, who (like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan) could excel as either hero or villain, made cinema history with his breakout 1947 debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Along with his racist turn in 1950’s No Way Out, THE MOONSHINE WAR cements a trilogy of three of cinema’s worst cases of humanity (Doc even has Udo’s laugh). A wild card is the debut of the maniac assistant Dual, spectacularly envisioned by Lee Hazelwood (yep, THAT Lee Hazelwood – the “Boots are Made for Walking” dude). One scene, that had me gasping in 1970, still remains a shocker. In a dingy diner, Hazelwood’s Metters notices a young couple having lunch. He is taken by the man’s tan suit, and compliments the wearer on it. And then tells him he wants it. He systematically forces (at gunpoint) the male to strip, then demands the underwear as well. When the victim’s companion screams to Doc to help, the psychopath turns to Miley, and decides he’d like the woman’s dress for his baby lover. The terrified woman, too, is forced to strip down to her skin. Again, even these roles are wonderfully cast: Claude Johnson and Terri Garr (billed as Terry). Other fantastic actors in the pic include Will Geer (as the sheriff), Melodie Johnson (as Lizann), Suzanne Zenor (Miley), Joe Williams (Aaron) and Bo Hopkins, Harry Carey, Jr., Max Showalter, John Schuck, Charles Tyner, Dick Crockett and Tom Skerritt.
One of the downsides of THE MOONSHINE WAR was its being assigned to MGM’s Martin Ransohoff. A producer with a true feeling for a worthy project, he nevertheless often botched every Metro vehicle he took over (the most notorious being Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers). For all its merits, THE MOONSHINE WAR looks tampered with (obvious to even an untrained eye) via jagged missing continuity. Like the Polanski flick, it still rises to greatness, and remains a must-see for fans of the magnificent actors in the show.
The Warner Archive DVD-R of THE MOONSHINE WAR is near-pristine 35MM, and looks pretty much as good as it did when I caught in 1970. The widescreen MetroColor photography of Richard H. Kline is warm and gritty – a necessary function to invoke the seamy, steamy atmosphere and downright ugliness of the proceedings. The mono track nicely replicates the original release, including the country-tinged (if not a bit anachronistic) score by Fred Karger and Neal Hefti, plus an original Hank Williams, Jr. song “Ballad of the Moonshine,” with lyrics by author Leonard.
A nasty look at the worst of humanity, THE MOONSHINE WAR remarkably remains consistently engrossing. And, when all is said and done, the ending will make you cheer in a classic Bijou popcorn way.
THE MOONSHINE WAR. Color. Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 2.0 mono. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video/Turner Entertainment. CAT # N/A. SRP: $19.95.
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.