|Macon County Line|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 08 February 2000|
Now remembered only by fans of drive-in movies -- a dying breed -- and movie historians, MACON COUNTY LINE was one of the sensations of 1974, and one of the biggest hits of the year. Made for around $200,000, it grossed $35 million, the biggest hit to that time for disreputable but beloved American International Pictures. Not only did it spin off a sequel (starring Nick Nolte and Don Johnson), but it helped to spawn a short-lived but very vigorous subgenre about the dangers awaiting innocent northerners who dare venture below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Though that concept is what MACON COUNTY LINE is known for today, when it's remembered at all, oddly enough, that is not what the movie is about. Our two northern boys, brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon from Chicago (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint), are generally treated fairly by the Georgia locals. Even Deputy Sheriff Reed Morgan (Max Baer) is apparently suspicious of them not because they're damyankees, but because they're drifters without much money.
The story itself is relatively simple: it's 1954, and the Dixon brothers are wandering about the South in their 1948 Chrysler woody convertible, raising mild hell before going into the service. They pick up hitchhiker Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters), but they treat her well enough. When their car breaks down in a small Georgia down, Deputy Morgan tells them to be on their way, but while he's obviously throwing his weight around, he does it in a relatively understated manner. But unknown to Reed, there are two other guys, Lon (Timothy Scott) and Elisha (James Gammon), wandering about the area, and they're far badder news than the good-natured Dixon brothers.
He heads off to a neighboring town to pick up his ten-year-old son Luke (Leif Garrett) from military school. Reed has just bought him a shotgun, and hopes to take the boy hunting. He doesn't know that Lon and Elisha have broken into his house, and are terrorizing his wife (Joan Blackman).
The movie takes its own sweet time getting to the violence, but the time is sweet. The script by Baer and director Richard Compton is very well-developed, both in terms of characters and the way the story gradually shifts from bawdy hi-jinks (we first meet the Dixons as they're having fun with a hooker) and mild comedy to something much more serious.
This is a remarkably smart movie, which is true of more drive-in classics than most people are aware. It's an authentic portrait of a region, though it was shot entirely in California's Sacramento delta country. The early-50s period is evoked mostly through clothing and well-preserved cars, plus some good stuff on the sound track (the title song is "Sh-Boom"). But the characters and story feel timeless; unlike most other movies from 1974, MACON COUNTY LINE has hardly dated at all. There's a lyrical love-making scene which shouts '70s, but otherwise the movie could have been made last year.
It was made at all because "The Beverly Hillbillies" ended its network run, and Max Baer ("Jethro Bodine") had some trouble landing other jobs. He began work on a movie shot in the South, but it was so amateurish it collapsed before completion. He got the idea of producing, writing and starring in his own film, and teamed up with Richard Compton to make MACON COUNTY LINE. They called in favors from a lot of actor friends, explaining the very satisfying cast of character actor favorites, including Emile Meyer and James Gammon. The priceless Geoffrey Lewis, as a dim-witted garage mechanic, has a great scene with comic actor Doodles Weaver (Sigourney's uncle), and lot of very funny byplay with the Vints.
Baer himself is a little too Jethro in his first scene, but smooths out into a strong characterization thereafter; Morgan is too in love with the idea of being a Deputy Sheriff, but he's not an evil man. There's a tender scene between him and Garrett as he uncomfortably tries to explain why white boys can't play with black ones; it's an unusual scene because we see a fundamentally decent man trying hard to explain something fundamentally indecent. Ordinarily in such movies, today as much as in 1974, such an explanation would be given by someone who's obviously a villain. Not so here, which makes the scene all the more powerful.
At the time MACON COUNTY was made, Alan Vint was by far the better-known of the acting brothers, but his career faded over the next decade, while Jesse's star rose, though never much above the level of exploitation films. Alan seems to have retired from acting, but Jesse still turns up occasionally, including in the documentary included on the DVD.
This documentary, "Macon County Line 25 Years Later," is relatively weak as such things go; the impression is that director William Lustig didn't have enough time with any of the interview subjects, except a cheerful Max Baer. (Who looks very strange.) Lustig's interview with director Compton, carried as a narration track, is far more interesting and entertaining, almost a model of such things. Compton points out where scenes were shot, praises the actors and cites why he's praising them, admits to blunders, and in general fills in fascinating details about the film.
For example, the movie was heavily promoted as being based on a real incident, with only the names and places being changed. This, it turns out, is completely false -- the movie is fiction from beginning to end. They cleverly chose the "true story" gambit to offer an explanation for some highly questionable coincidences that the plot made unavoidable -- but hard to miss.
Compton and Lustig also discuss the excellent cinematography by Daniel Lacambre. He'd been an assistant cameraman on Lelouch's A MAN AND A WOMAN, and shot the Beatles' MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, then came to the United States where he worked on almost nothing but low-budget features. But those include some of the more interesting cheapies of their period, such as THE VELVET VAMPIRE, SWEET KILL, THE LADY IN RED and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. He shot MACON COUNTY LINE almost entirely with available lights; they didn't even have a generator. Richard Compton only directed one more movie, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY, then went into television, where he's been very busy with made-for-TV movies and episodic dramas ever since.
As big a hit as MACON COUNTY LINE was, it didn't seem to do very much for the careers of those who made it. Max Baer made two more movies, this time directing himself, and then became a kind of professional Beverly Hillbilly. The Vints, as mentioned above, continued to work mostly in low-budget films, sometimes as the stars, but their fine performances here were overlooked, probably because the film was mostly popular outside the big cities.
But it's now available on this DVD, and is well worth viewing, perhaps even owning. The surprise ending turns out to have been all too predictive of events to come; the acting is of a remarkably high order, and the overall tone of the movie evokes a sense of time lost and the past remembered in melancholy regret. Pretty good for a drive-in movie.