Veteran Luke Doolin (Robert Mitchum) comes home from the Korean War to the mountains and takes over the family moonshine business, all the while chased by the police.
Now the local bootleggers have a new threat in the shape of Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), a businessman who is buying up the stills. If they refuse to hand over their profits to Kogan, he will take them by force, and starts by shooting one of the drivers.
Luke stays composed and laid back throughout: When he gets slapped in the face by a woman, he doesn’t bat an eyelid; when he finds a little liquor left in the tank after it was supposed to have been drained completely, he shows his displeasure by shoving a cigarette in his contact’s mouth and lighting it; and when his girlfriend’s nightclub act is interrupted by a customer’s raucous laughter, Luke walks over to him and chokes him with his own tie to get him to shut up.
We’re treated to high-speed car chases to liven up the action, and Luke drives a car that releases oil onto the road to hinder anyone pursuing him. Kogan’s men have a tendency to shoot at him, but Luke always outruns them – when they set up a roadblock of two cars, he just smashes straight through.
Kogan gets at Luke by trying to hire Luke’s little brother into the racket, much against his wishes. The Doolin family business is trying to resist this takeover bid, and Luke, a changed man since his wartime experiences, doesn’t want his brother ending up the same way he has.
Thunder Road was a pet project for Mitchum, as he produced it, wrote the story (James Atlee Philips and Walter Wise wrote the script), starred in it, cast his son in it, and even co-wrote the songs on the soundtrack. It’s really Mitchum’s film all the way, mostly because he plays the most interesting character, and also because his charisma outshines everyone else in the movie.
Lucas “Luke” Doolin
Dale Van Sickel