Monday, November 23, 2009

COUNTRY BLUE (1973)

At first glance, this was one of the more enticing films in Mill Creek Entertainment's Drive-In Classics box set because it was one of the few titles in it to be letterboxed. But it's taken me a while to look at it because the subject matter sounded rather mundane. It's a once-in-a-lifetime triple threat performance by Jack Conrad, who wrote and directed the film and plays the lead role of Bobby Lee Dixon, a drifter out of jail on parole who comes back to his old haunt in Georgia near the Florida border and renews his romance with Ruthie (Rita George, who is profoundly misidentified by IMDB as a Berlin-born actress whose career began in 1919). Ruthie has been faithful to Bobby, but she's been faithful to her husband also, and that disappoints our hero, who was hoping she'd divorce the man we never see. We do get to see his trailer, where Ruthie and Bobby hold a tryst and Bobby expresses his disgust with a cramped small-town existence of grease-monkeying after just two days of freedom. He wants Ruthie to make a commitment to breaking out of their rut by joining him in robbing a bank in nearby Havana. That's pronounced "HAY-vana," by the way.


Country Blue is a movie with a split personality. For two-thirds of its present length it's a slow-paced atmospheric account of small-town Southern poverty with lots of Seventies details to hold my attention. It also gives us two young people taking up the ways of country bandits, but Conrad refrains from romanticizing their exploits. Their initial bank robbery is utterly inept, as Ruthie removes her mask almost immediately, Bobby constantly calls her by name, and she finally does the same for him. All the while a fast-talking bank president (David "the Big Lebowski" Huddleston) poor-mouths his own establishment to convince them that their haul from the tellers' cash drawers is all they're going to get. They leave with less than $2,000 when $40,000, they later learn, was within easy reach. When Bobby reads about it, he can't stand the humiliation, so he robs the bank again and gets the rest of the money. We can give him credit for perseverance, but little else apart from that Southern knack for driving fast and avoiding the police -- and even that fails our pair when they're stopped by a roadblock, chased down on foot and arrested. Up to this point I was debating whether Conrad meant us to see Bobby and Ruthie as pathetic small-timers or whether their ineptitude was really his as a writer-director. I'd decided on the former, in favor of Conrad, until the film's last half-hour, when it suddenly occurred to our auteur that he was supposed to be making an exploitation film for regional drive-ins, but hadn't really been doing much in that line yet apart from having Ruthie take her top off once.



So once we get our young lovers in prison the jailers set about beating the piss out of Bobby while Ruthie must endure the attentions of one or two lesbians in a cell. There's nothing explicit about that part and the lesbianism is all talk, and given the way the women look that's probably for the best. It's the thought that counts. Meanwhile, word of their imprisonment reaches Bobby's good friend Arneda Johnson, a local madam and bar owner in the black neighborhood. Bobby may be white trash, but he's no redneck if that means racism, apparently. Arneda comes to the rescue, visiting the jail with one of her employees in order to blackjack a jailer and free Bobby. Having also freed the less-lesbian of Ruthie's cellmates, the gang finds Ruthie being raped by the head jailer, to whom Bobby administers a sound thrashing. That done, the fugitives pile into a getaway car, only to have the jailers blast a big ol' hole in Ruthie's cellmate. Then Arneda's assistant goes down with a bullet in the head. In a panicky rage, Ruthie grabs a gun and blasts the head jailer (I should say blasts the jailer's head), then finally pushes the two corpses aside so she can close the car door and the survivors can escape. The escalation of brutality is so sudden that it really does seem like a different movie.

We have time for one more car chase and a fiery death for the pursuers, and from there it looks like Bobby, Ruthie and Arneda are in the clear. But this is the 1970s, when the deus ex machina is likely to stomp on a film's heroes like Monty Python's foot. In Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, for instance, the lovers are in the clear only to be annihilated by a train. In Country Blue one wrong turn sends our protagonists into the drink. In another era it might be a way of saying Crime Does Not Pay. But in the Seventies the message more often was Nothing Pays.


But this is not The End. Bobby escapes the watery grave, but the women don't. He limps back home for one final chat with his mentor Jumpy. You might think that Jumpy is the main character of the story, for Conrad generously gave top billing to the biggest name he could hire, longtime western character actor Dub Taylor, who had just done The Getaway and would follow this with a Love, American Style episode. Conrad's generosity didn't extend to a generous wardrobe budget; Taylor wears the same filthy Ex-Lax t-shirt through the entire picture, at home, at work, and at the race track. Jumpy advises Bobby that he's going to have to cope with adversity just like he did once (???), and so off the boy goes in a fresh vehicle. We see him heading down a road, and we see a police car turn a corner to follow him. We get one more shot of a lone car on the road, and the actors appear for the closing credits.

Country Blue is one of those films that makes a minor virtue of its impoverishment. Since poverty is its subject, it achieves authenticity negatively through lack of budget. Conrad found a good place to film in, and the broken-down locations give him all the art direction he needs. He's not a good writer nor a particularly good actor, but he seems right for his self-assigned role as a hapless self-pitying bandit. The main problem with the film is that he doesn't really strike a balance between the more character-driven first part of the film and the slam-bang crash-and-bleed final act. The more violent action shouldn't look like an afterthought the way it does here, where it has almost a square-up quality of compensating for a non-violent first hour. In Conrad's defense, I have to note that Mill Creek's copy of the film is about ten minutes short of its announced running time of 103 minutes, while IMDB claims that Country Blue was originally 110 minutes long. We may be missing footage that would have given the film a more consistent tone, but how likely is it that violent action scenes were cut out of this movie?

Overall, I found Country Blue interesting, if not exactly good, as an example of regional Seventies cinema that tried to say something about the environment it came from while trying at the same time to be a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. It has a historical value apart from its cinematic qualities, such as they are, that might make it worth a look for all-out Seventies buffs -- and the last half hour may make it worthwhile for fans of white-trash mayhem in general. It is definitely a more ambitious film than much of the stuff in Drive-In Classics, but I'd say that box set is probably where posterity would put it anyway.

3 comments:

Rev. Phantom said...

Yet another film in that box set that I haven't got around to yet--but I have thought about it. Sounds like the kind of film I'd pop in when I don't have anything better to watch...which actually happens quite a bit.

Jonny Metro said...

Thanks for this review. This was actually one of the first films out of the box set that I watched (reviewed here), and while I was disappointed throughout most of it, the final third of the film really kicked it into high gear. You're right, it really did seem like a completely different movie.

--J/Metro

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., we'll really be in trouble when we get to the bottom of the Drive-In Classics barrel and feel tempted to try stuff like Throw Out the Anchor or Twister's Revenge.

Jonny, I envy you finding a poster for the film. I lacked the patience to wade through all the image search results. I think Conrad's heart was in the first part of the film, but the type of film he was making needed more action earlier to keep the drive-in audience interested.