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TCM Underground - July 2018
Remind Me

White Line Fever

Long before the Internet, another form of communication allowed people to develop relationships without ever meeting or seeing each other in person. Indeed, people could pretend to be someone they were not in real life, create a false persona and use a different name to communicate with any number of "good buddies" across the country. Citizens band (CB) radio, a system of short-distance radio communications between individuals, became one of the decade's biggest crazes during the 1970s.

Truck drivers had begun using CB radios in the 1960s, but use escalated during the first gasoline crisis in the early 1970s. Drivers communicated with each other to find gas stations with available fuel and to keep one step ahead of law enforcement intent on enforcing the new 55 MPH speed limit. The popularity of CB radios spread rapidly to the general population, as did an interest in "truck culture." Truck drivers were touted as the "last cowboys" and their lifestyle was equated with the freedom of the open road.

The popularity of truck culture influenced every medium of entertainment: music, movies, television, even comic books. Countless trucker songs were recorded by country singers, the TV series Movin' On and B.J. and the Bear endured success, and DC Comics' Green Lantern took a job as a truck driver. Truck culture reached a high point in 1975 when country singer C.W. McCall's "Convoy" hit the top of the charts. That same year, White Line Fever, directed by newcomer Jonathan Kaplan, was released to theaters and, according to the IMDB, earned about $35 million at the box office.

Jan-Michael Vincent, who was touted as a star of the future at the time of release, plays Carrol Jo Hummer. The film opens with Carrol's return from Vietnam to his loving family in Arizona. He marries his hometown sweetheart, invests in an 18-wheel truck and becomes an independent, long-haul trucker. He discovers that one of his main employers, a successful corporate shipper, is involved with organized crime. The local mob boss, who dresses and talks like a corporate CEO, intimidates drivers into hauling contraband, such as untaxed cigarettes and slot machines. When Carrol refuses, the mob retaliates using increasingly brutal acts of violence against him, his truck and his wife. The trucker refuses to capitulate and decides to fight back.

White Line Fever incorporated a great deal of truck culture into the narrative. Carrol christens his truck the Blue Mule, while details about the truck's specifications are highlighted in the dialogue as though the audience will know the significance. While on the road, Carrol uses a CB radio and engages in the lingo of the time. Fellow truckers are "turkeys," his truck is his "bucket," state troopers are "Deputy Dawgs" and the title refers to a dissociative state that long-haul truckers experience after driving hundreds of miles. They automatically drive, shift, brake, etc., but they have no recollection of the many miles they have driven. The film respects truck culture, even romanticizes it, and offers a sympathetic view of working-class people.

Columbia Pictures had purchased Jonathan Kaplan's script and hired him to direct White Line Fever to cash in on truck culture and the CB craze. Kaplan, who had studied film at NYU, had made his first films for Roger Corman. He was recommended to the legendary exploitation producer by his former film instructor Martin Scorsese, who had also worked for Corman. Like most of Corman's disciples, Kaplan learned how to direct quickly and efficiently on super low budgets and short shooting schedules, while focusing on those techniques that suit exploitation films--pacing and movement. White Line Fever would be his first film for a major studio.

Though a $1.4 million budget was not necessarily low, White Line Fever was considered a B-film by Columbia in that there were no majors stars, the story was formulaic and it was targeted to a specific audience. B-movies thrive on familiar archetypes and a sensational treatment of the story and events, but the joy of watching B-movies by credible directors is their ability to elevate the material through a mastery of filmmaking techniques and conventions. Kaplan invigorated White Line Fever with strong pacing and deliberate camera movements. Shot on location by Fred J. Koenekamp, the film uses long shots of the American Southwest to their best advantage. As beautiful as it is rugged, it reminds viewers of the geography of the Old West. Likewise, the character Carrol Jo Hummer values his personal independence and takes enough pride in his profession not to cross a moral line. When shoved too far, he takes a stance despite the odds against him. The character echoes the cowboy protagonist of Westerns, which audiences would have recognized at the time.

The success of White Line Fever helped launch Kaplan in the film industry. He went on to have an admirable career in Hollywood, before moving to television. A career high point was The Accused (1988), a controversial but much lauded film about a woman who is gang raped in a bar in front of a group of spectators and later seeks vengeance. The film stars Jodie Foster, who won an Oscar for the role. Other highlights of his filmography include Love Field (1992), Heart Like a Wheel (1983) and Over the Edge (1979).

Though early in Kaplan's career, White Line Fever exhibits some of the ideas and themes found in his work. Many of his films have focused on blue-collar characters and their struggles, not unlike the detailed and sympathetic treatment of the Hummers' life and milieu. Like other Kaplan protagonists, Carrol is a populist action hero, who represents one man against a corrupt social institution or business organization. A signature scene in White Line Fever combines a blue-collar declaration of disgust with big business with the expectations of an action film. In his battle against the corrupt shipping corporation, Carrol races his truck through the company's property at top speed, driving through the corporate sign. The cab of the 18-wheeler smashes through the corporate logo, flying through the air in slow motion.

White Line Fever does not transcend its status as a B-movie, but it does offer a window into the trends and fads of another era while representing the beginning of a talented director's career.

Producer: John Kemeny, Gerald Schneider and Mort Litwack with Sheldon Schrager for International Cinemedia and Columbia Pictures
Director: Jonathan Kaplan
Screenplay: Ken Freidman and Jonathan Kaplan
Cinematography: Fred Koenekamp
Editor: O. Nicholas Brown
Art Direction: Sydney Litwack
Music: David Nichtern
Stunts: Buddy Joe Hooker, Carey Loftin and Nate Long
Cast: Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jerri Hummer (Kay Lenz), Duane Haller (Slim Pickens), Buck (L.Q. Jones), Pops (Sam Laws), Cutler (Don Porter), Prosecutor (R.G. Armstrong), Lucy (Leigh French), Birdie (Dick Miller), Clem (Martin Kove)
1975 Color 90 mins.

By Susan Doll



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