Thursday, August 11, 2011

#6: Country Blue

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 2: Side A

Country Blue opens with white text on a black screen:

16 Miles North of Florida State Line

It’s a distinctive start to a distinctive little movie. I found it funny at first, wondering what the humidity rating would be for other films--The Godfather, Nashville, Star Wars. Then I decided I liked it. It was a nice touch. The time, the place, even the general atmosphere are all established in less than thirty seconds. It’s a storytelling device so efficient, so economical it verges on the postmodern, the self-aware.

The film then cuts to a stock car race on a red-dirt track. Pot-bellied, side-burned men and poofy-haired women watch on from the stands. Everybody’s sweating. What do you expect, what with the humidity? There’s a freeze-frame of an old-timer cheering on the racers and more text flashes on the screen, informing us the old-timer is:

J.J. “Jumpy” BELK
the man who raised. . .

The film cuts to a lanky, red-headed man in his twenties, freezes, and some helpful text explains:

August 19th

It’s a creative, almost playful opening, reminiscent in some ways of something Jean-Luc Godard would’ve done back in the sixties or Quentin Tarantino would do now. It reminds viewers of a time when b-movies often incorporated elements of more respectable, art house cinema--and vice versa. Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations like The Masque of the Red Death share more with the colorful, haunting imagery of, say, Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, than they do most horror films of the 60s. Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine from 1978, which is about LSD-induced homicidal maniacs, calls to mind the paranoia-tinged thrillers The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate. Easy Rider is only one or two steps removed from The Trip or Psych-Out. B-movies nowadays can still be fun, but are generally artless. Take Mega Shark Vs. Giant Octopus or the oeuvre of Nicholas Cage.

The plot of Country Blue is pretty straightforward. Bobby Lee (played by the film’s director and writer Jack Conrad) has just been released from jail and wants to make a better life for he and girlfriend Ruthie (Rita George). 

As he tells an old friend, “ I think I’m gonna go straight.”

“That’s the hardest job you’ll ever have,” the friend says. And indeed, Bobby Lee’s not back but a few days and he’s already starts hatching a plan to rob a small-town bank with Ruthie so the two can run away to Mexico.  

“I’ve been here two days and I’m sick of this place,” Bobby tells Ruthie. There’s a loose, improvisational feel to the early scenes between these two. They argue, make up, then argue some more. The robbery itself is also quite interesting. Bobby Lee picks up Ruthie in his pickup truck. “You wanna get breakfast first,” he asks her. She says no, so they park, go into the store next to the bank and buy some bandanas to cover their faces. In the long, wordless scene that follows they come out of the store, sit on a bench between two elderly men, chat, and try on their bandanas while eyeing the deputy sheriff lounging on a bench across the street. Lazy, twangy guitar music plays on the soundtrack. After a minute or two, the sheriff looks up to see Bobby Lee and Ruthie are gone from the bench. A quick cut shows us they’re in the bank, bandana-clad with pistols raised. It’s almost purposely anti-climactic, as if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to undermine the suspense.

“Sir, you mind getting down?” Bobby Lee asks one of the customers in the bank. Everybody else is already on their hands and knees. The bank president Angus (David Huddleston of Santa Claus: The Movie infamy) tells Bobby Lee the customer is hard of hearing, and Bobby Lee asks Angus to convince the man to get down.

“Maywood, belly down to the floor. I believe this is a hold-up,” Angus tells the man calmly, repeating it once for good measure. It’s a funny scene, and again, almost purposely anti-climatic.

“To tell you the truth,” Angus tells Bobby Lee and Ruthie, “I don’t want you to do no shooting in here. We just had the place painted.”

Bobby Lee and Ruthie collect three thousand dollars and leave.  Angus tries to rouse the near-deaf Maywood from the floor, but he’s fallen asleep. Bobby lee and Ruthie get a new car from Jumpy (Dub Taylor in the dirtiest t-shirt in film history) and take it on the lam. From here, Country Blue devotes most of its remaining time to the obligatory car chases between our heroes and sweaty, smirking southern sheriffs. But there are still a few unexpected twists. Bobby Lee finds out from a newspaper article that there was twenty thousand more dollars in the bank they’d robbed and convinces Ruthie to go back with him and get the rest. Angus isn’t too pleased to see them.

Too bad Jack Conrad didn’t direct any more films. He signed on as the original director of The Howling, but dropped out after conflict with the studio, and that was the end of his career. There’s something genuinely stylish and idiosyncratic about Country Blue, and I would like to see what he would’ve done with a better script, a bigger budget, fewer dirty t-shirts. Maybe he would‘ve been really successful. Maybe he would’ve launched some sort of influential, southern-fried new-wave movement. Maybe movie nowadays would all have a pre-credit humidity rating.

Anybody else seen Country Blue? Did I oversell it? Or is it, indeed, a lost semi-classic? More importantly, what t-shirt gets your vote for dirtiest in film history?

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