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. Thank God, good buddy, that it has no interest in pulling off the highway of cheap goofy asphalt thrills into anywhere like working man sanctification, like overdue truck payments, crooked unions, and hungry children. All this Godfather-meets-Mildred Pierce tale of a matriarchal crime dynasty is lookin' for is speed, bullets, and a motel bed, and an easy mark. Anna (Lieux Dressler), as the owner/manager/big boss madame of this remote New Mexico truck stop / diner / motel / brothel / hijacking ring, 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 that her long-stable mob connection out in Vegas has been shot, and her territory is now up for grabs, meaning goombas galore sniffing around for a piece. She can handle whatever wop cowboy might come her way, but she has one fatal flaw: her no-good triple-timin' daughter Rose (Jennings) who's mighty tired of life as momma's main hooker/hijacker. She wants to git.... anywhere with bright lights. Even Vegas, and her eagerness to betray momma may set big Anna's whole criminal empire off its axis.
Jennings is so good here it makes it all the sadder to realize she'd be dead in just five years, in an accident off the Pacific Coast Highway (at age 30). With a cunning glee that stacks her up with your average primo Russ Meyer vixen, and then beyond, she links up with a mafia-dispatched goodfella "Smith" (John Martino) becoming a combination hostage, conspirator, and lover. When word leaks out about a hijackable load of 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. Anna would rather not rob from the mob, but what else can she do? That money is earmarked for the muscle that would rub her out of business. It all hinges on who knows what and whether anyone in Anna's outfit is dumb (or weakened by hot babes coming onto them in motels) enough to tell Rose. Does Rose even know who's been told the truth? Certainly we aren't. This is a movie that plays its cards pretty close to the vest, which I love. We're dealing with levels of intelligence and subtlety far higher than we're used to in shitkicking like this.
Feminist Side Note: sure, Truck-Stop Women is--on the surface--crassly exploitative (my original post title was "Jennings balls the Jack" or variations, but I toned it down as I got scared of being tarred by what is at the moment a pretty wide-swingin' brush) and there are objectionable montages of uninhibited back-of-the-cab balling and jacking, and leering. But I'd argue that compared to things that do get a pass from a lot of feminists, like Game of Thrones or American Pie, I'd stick up for this movie, and the cult of the Jennings, any day. Don't forget there are as many middle age working gal side characters as buxom hotties here, and the most complex character in the bunch is Annie, a woman of advancing years with bad teeth, fake hair, and a larger than life, uneducated but way street smart savvy that makes her all the more dangerous for knowing how to maximize all the advantages of being labeled a lady. I may sound like I'm justifying old school sexism but as I'll be mansplaining in future (or past) posts, babes like Claudia Jennings, Tiffany Bolling and Pam Grier all showed there's a kind of sexy feminism at work in some of the movies from this era I wouldn't advise you to try and demonize along with the surrounding dirty bathwater, because then even I, your longtime fourth-wave supporter, will turn on you like you've gone rabid. Or I maybe by then I too will have, and we can roam the countryside eating the locals like in I Drink Your Blood. (End Side Note)
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, that it's really a place, a kind of paradise of vice, where the motel rooms all have secret cameras so Annie can watch her ladies work (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). And what chance to these guys have? 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?
That's the issue - so many of the big trucker movie productions, like Burt Reynold's Smokey and the Bandit or Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose, presume both the characters depicted and their film's target demographic, are really, really dumb. Everything is so broad and overstated, the idea being the more of an uneducated yokel you are, the fewer things you get to feel superior to, therefore you love any film (or TV show, as evinced so well today) that lets you feel like a relative genius. But the characters here are no idiots. Lester lets them shine with levels of devious Russian doll plotting craftiness worthy of a Corleone.
Speaking of which, the actor playing 'Smith,' John Martino, should be recognizable as one of Clemenza's button men in the first Godfather. He brings far more wit and character than you'd expect, even earning our sympathy in spots, and has some great chemistry with Jennings. Each actor knows just how to play the scene and each other. There's a magical scene in their motel room together in the morning, getting dressed and drinking tumblers of whiskey, and we realize there is maybe 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 come built in with a certain element of performance and possible betrayal and--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 either side could plunge a knife into the other at any second, even though they just hooked up. 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, 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 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, who cares? It's nice to not be six steps ahead of the characters for once. 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.