Thursday, February 01, 2018

Ballin' the Jacks: TRUCK STOP WOMEN (1974)

Fans of high-energy strong female-filled crime films from the 60s and 70s by guys like John Flynn and Arthur Marks will rejoice to note that--slipping unobtrusively onto Amazon Prime after being unavailable on DVD for.... ever... rolls-- Truck-Stop Women (1974). One of the better films from long-working Mark L. Lester (Class of 1984), it features the always alluring, ferocious Claudia Jennings, in one of her best roles. It's an air horn hoot, good buddy, with everyone doing their best to deliver more than a mere exploitation truck stop movie, but not too much more. It has no interest in pulling off the highway of cheap goofy asphalt thrills and down into any tar-roof shack cul-de-sacs of working class realism or veiled commie sermonizing. All this Godfather-meets-Mildred Pierce tale of a matriarchal crime dynasty is lookin' to deliver is 90 minutes of speed, bullets, Jacobean betrayals, and bouncing motel beds.

The Mildred is Anna (Lieux Dressler), the owner/manager/big boss madame of a remote New Mexico truck stop / diner / motel / brothel / hijacking ring, and she makes Joan Crawford seem coy. Presiding over a loyal assortment of button men, mechanics, and good ole gal waitress/load hijackin' prostitutes, Anna's operation roars along so smoothly there wouldn't be even a story except her no-good triple-timin' daughter Rose (Jennings) is mighty tired of life as momma's main hooker/hijacker. Oh, and Anna's long-stable mob connection out in Vegas has been shot, and her territory is now up for grabs, meaning goombas galore are sniffing around for a piece. Anna can handle whatever sore thumb wop might muscle her way, but Rose is one piece who wants to git.... anywhere with bright lights. To her the idea of Las Vegas alone is enough to make her betray her own kin.  As Rose is her one weak spot, Anna's whole criminal empire might just topple off its axis.

When word leaks out about a hijackable load of mob-stolen securities stashed in the back of a cattle truck roaring past in a few days, both sides realize it's gonna be the deciding factor in who keeps the territory as whoever gets it can buy enough muscle to rub the other out of business. Anna would rather not rob from the mob, but what else can she do? Thus begins a whole web of betrayal and counter betrayal, as we never quite know which of the two women is on top, if they're secretly working together, or just how it's all going to shake out.

It all hinges on who knows what and whether anyone in Anna's outfit is dumb (or weakened enough by seductive strategies) enough to spill Anna's plan to Rose. Does Rose even know who in Anna's group knows the actual truth and who's been fed bullshit to spill? Consider Curly (Dennis Filmple above), a lower level Anna employee, trying to hold back information from Rose while ostensibly keeping her under wraps in a motel room. He's going to tell her everything, sure, but did Annie presume that would happen? How many layers deep does this go?

We're dealing with levels of intelligence and subtlety far higher than we're used to in shitkicking trucker romps. As with the two Godfather films it may take even a few viewings to piece out these advanced-level connivances, but in the meantime we can just enjoy the action.

But what makes Truck Stop work so well isn't just the impressively high-stakes in-a-low-way plot but the ingeniously-staged, earthy crowded diner scenes at Annie's truck stop. The joint is humming with interlocking life and there's a great, vivid sense of people coming and going, eating, propositioning, overhearing, coffee-refilling, sleeping and scheming, at all hours of the night and early dawn. We feel like we really get a full lay of the land there, it's a kind of paradise of vice, where the motel rooms all have secret cameras so Annie can watch her ladies (including Russ Meyer regular Uschi Dugart) and listen in while they pump the drivers for information on their trailer manifest (i.e. what to hijack later). 

What really sells it all though is the aliveness of Jennings, so good as the restless morally bankrupt Rose it makes it all the sadder to realize she'd be dead in just five years --victim in an accident off the Pacific Coast Highway (at age 30). Here she finds a good match in John Martino as the mafia-dispatched goodfella "Smith" for whom she serves as combination hostage, conspirator, and lover. He should be recognizable as one of Clemenza's button men in the first Godfather. Here he brings far more wit and character than you'd expect, even earning our sympathy on occasion, and has some great chemistry with Jennings. The pair know just how to play a scene, making it always just a little ambiguous whether they're really falling in love or just playing each other. There's a magical scene in their motel room together in the morning after some indefinite period of late night boozy bliss where they're getting dressed and drinking tumblers of morning whiskey, and we realize maybe there is no difference between acting smitten for a (criminal) purpose and being smitten for real with a criminal.

The actors both convey this complexly cross-hatched devious/ developing love/respect without ever tipping their hands to us or each other. Love and trust and sex in films like this often are just asides, Mulveyan narrative dead-ends. But really great hook-ups like this come built-in with a certain element of performance and possible betrayal. Alas, aside from the thing between Connery's Bond and Luciana Paluzzi's Fiona Volpe in Thunderball--it's hard to remember a post-coitus dressing/drinking/nuzzilng scene so full of commingled warmth and danger as we have here between Martino and Jennings. When you belive either side could plunge a knife into the other at any second, even though they just hooked up and are acting lovey dovey then you know it's a true meeting of equals.

And you believe he really does dig Rose. Who wouldn't? Jennings, sublime in all these scenes, really lets loose with all teeth and both hands in these scees, freely heaping abuse on his gross candy bar-eating trigger man as much as she kittens it up with Smith.

The third great element is the roster of great supporting cast of tough-as-nails women, longtime Anna employees, and their grizzled trucker friends, co-workers and off-on-the-road-again boyfriends, all of whom add a layer of real rootsy Americana sadness, the sort that hangs in the wee-wee hours of dawn (reminding me of the opening scenes of Some Came Running.)

That's not to say it's not Tarantino-by-Russ Meyer-esque grindhouse to its core, especially the scene where Anna pulls Rose out of Smith's pool room, kicking and screaming, throwing Rose over her shoulder like a bag of laundry. From there, an elaborate series of double cross counter-moves goes on, and if you're as left in the dark as I was as to who's got what plan underneath the other plan or why they're all meeting at a ghost town to split up the loot, well, sometimes it's nice to not be six steps ahead of the characters. Sure it ends tragically. You forgot it's a matriarchal truck stop hijacking/prostitution ring version of Shakespeare / Mildred Pierce? Crime doesn't pay - but it sure pays well until then.

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