Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Truck Turner (1974)

...Dedicated to the late great Isaac Hayes, who would be celebrating his birthday today...

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I have what is probably a fairly annoying habit, when I watch a film that I am excited about, of announcing that ‘this is pretty much the greatest film ever made.’ My girlfriend is typically the one subjected to these grand claims that I make every month or so on films ranging from vintage Italian Horror to modern American comedies as the genre really doesn’t matter. It’s just my way of celebrating a film that really sums up everything I love about cinema.

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Most recently I made the statement during our memorial for Isaac Hayes when Kelley and I watched Truck Turner, her first viewing and my sixth or seventh. As the end credits rolled and my joy spilled over I began the proclamation which Kelley finished for me because we both knew in that moment it was true…Truck Turner is pretty much the greatest movie ever made, or at the very least it contains all the elements that go into what makes me fall in love with the movies over and over again.

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Truck Turner has it all...action, laughs, violence, a lovable cat, hookers, pimps, cool side-kicks, Yaphat Kotto and one of the most bad-ass and coolest title characters in screen history. Truck Turner might not be the most important blaxploitation film of the seventies but it’s the most perfect one.
An American International Production co-scripted by the men responsible for such varying scripts as Enter The Dragon (1973) and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Truck Turner benefits the most from the energetic and inventive direction of 25 year old filmmaker Jonathan Kaplan, a director probably best known for his 1988 film The Accused but who did his best work here in the early seventies in the exploitation genre.

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The son of soap opera star Frances Heflin and composer Sol Kaplan, Jonathan Kaplan was born in France in November of 1947. After bouncing around quite a bit during his childhood, Kaplan naturally fell into the world of cinema just past his twentieth birthday when he began various jobs under AIP’s tutelage. Like many figures connected with the company in the sixties and seventies, he worked on a variety of jobs ranging from editing to acting to scriptwriting. He got his first directing assignment in 1972 with the memorable Night Call Nurses, a film which featured a stronger than usual script courtesy of George Armitage.

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Proving himself as more than capable in the director’s chair, Kaplan became an AIP favorite and he quickly delivered the delightful sexploitation romp The Student Teachers and the exciting Jim Brown vehicle The Slams back to back in 1973. Both films would show Kaplan as a director of great promise who had obviously cut his teeth watching and soaking up as many new wave European films from the sixties as he could. He was a smart director and he brought that intelligence to all of these early productions, no matter the subject matter or limited budget.

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Isaac Hayes was on a major and influential role at the same time in the early seventies. The top selling performer at the legendary Stax Studios and the first African American to win an Academy Award for composing, for Gordon Park’s Shaft, Hayes had quickly become one of the most respected and wealthiest musicians in the world so the leap to the big screen was only natural.

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While Truck Turner is often remembered as the debut performance by Hayes, it was actually preceded by the Italian co-production Three Tough Guys in the spring of 1974, a lesser film made memorable by the pairing of Hayes with Fred Williamson and Lino Ventura. Truck Turner is the classic though and it should have made Hayes one of the great leading men of the seventies although it would prove to be nearly his swan song as it remains one of his only starring roles in a career made up of memorable supporting turns.

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Truck Turner is one of the ultimate AIP movies from the seventies. Mixing humor with slices of rather shocking violence with a little sex and social commentary thrown in for good measure, Kaplan’s film can make a legitimate claim to being one of the ultimate examples of the blaxploitation genre at its storming and provocative best.

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Mack “Truck” Turner is a no-nonsense former football star turned bail bondsman on assignment with his partner to find a pimp named Gator. When Gator is killed, things really heat up for Truck when his world is turned upside down when Gator’s vengeful woman and and-coming pimp on the move named Blue go to war.

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Kaplan’s film is a real joy to behold. From the hilarious opening scenes where we see Truck’s domestic life as he tries to care for his girlfriend’s (whose in the slammer for a month for shoplifting) cat to the chilling final scenes featuring one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema history, Truck Turner is one hell of a wild ride and I’m hard pressed to name a more purely entertaining film from the seventies.

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Truck Turner is also a film that could have only been made in the seventies under the kind of company like AIP. Watch the amazing opening credits sequence set to Hayes astonishing score (which I have always thought was the equal to Shaft) made up of stolen shots of urban squalor in Los Angeles, that have the feel of more of a vintage hard hitting socially aware documentary rather than a commercial exploitation film, and look at the more tender moments between Hayes and lovely Annazette Chase that feel closer to the European Art films that Kaplan no doubt sucked up in the sixties. Truck Turner is, simply put, unlike any other blaxploitation film from the seventies and yet it belongs proudly in the category.

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Technically, despite being shot on a low budget, the film is superb. Kaplan’s expert framing and ingenious visual storytelling ability is matched by the editing of future Close Encounters of the Third Kind cutter Michael Kahn and Oscar nominated veteran cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler provides the film's memorably gritty look.

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In front of the camera joining the iconic Hayes is an impressive cast of character actors and cult figures including Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, Scatman Crothers, Dick Miller and Charles Cyphers. The real star of the show though outside of Hayes is the incredible Kotto, fresh from his role in the James Bond pic Live and let Die (1973), who gives one of the most intense and powerful performances of his career as the vicious and ambitious pimp Harvard Blue.
Hayes is extraordinary in the title role and watching the film today serves as a potent reminder to his talents in front of the camera. His soundtrack is just as good and the album it spawned remains one of the most memorable funk albums of the seventies...if you haven't played it in awhile be sure to give it a fresh spin.
Kaplan's terrific film played in some areas as Black Bullet and it did fairly well on the drive in circuit throughout 1974, although it failed to catch the public's attention like Shaft and Super-Fly had in the couple of years before. The film's soundtrack did better and sold fairly well although again not as much as Hayes previous releases had.
Isaac Hayes would appear in just one more film in the seventies, 1975's It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and his next major role wouldn't come until his iconic turn as The Duke in John Carpenter's legendary Escape From New York in 1981.

The undervalued Kaplan would make four more films in the seventies, including White Line Fever in 1975, and would find success in the eighties with the terrific Heart Like a Wheel (1983) and of course The Accused which garnered Jodie Foster her first Oscar. He currently works almost exclusively in TV, with the underrated Claire Danes-Kate Beckinsale prison drama Brokedown Palace being his last feature.
Today Truck Turner is widely regarded as one of the best examples of the blaxploitation genre. It has been praised by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, who would use bits of its score in Kill Bill (2003) and Turner's bail-bondsman character no doubt at least partially inspired the unforgettable Max Cherry in Jackie Brown (1997).
The film is currently available on a nice widescreen DVD from MGM with only a trailer as the extra and it makes the ideal film (along with Wattstax) to watch if your looking to have a tribute to Isaac Hayes, or just to remember a period in American cinema when a film this fresh and alive could be made.


Ned Merrill said...

Very nice write-up. If I'm not mistaken, some of the music was changed for home video, at least I think I recall seeing a note about it on the old Orion video jacket. I'm certain that some of these blaxploitation titles were rescored on home video, which is a shame since the soundtracks are almost always vital to these films.

Don't forget what is perhaps Kaplan's greatest film, OVER THE EDGE! Maybe not "the greatest film ever made" it caps what you rightly call Kaplan's best decade. Unfortunately, Kaplan's had a much harder time remaining relevant in the subsequent decades, HEART LIKE A WHEEL & THE ACCUSED, not withstaning. I wish more of his exploitation greats, particularly WHITE LINE FEVER, were widely available on DVD.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Ned...I've never seen OVER THE EDGE. I will have to track that down...thanks for commenting.

The King Of Cool said...

It's been awhile since I've seen this film. I've been meaning to watch it again since the passing of Isaac Hayes. Plus your write-up really inspired me even more to see it again. Great job you did. This is definitely one of my favorite blaxploitation films. It definitely does so much so well. The cast is amazing. Everything else about the film from the music on is out of sight. I love this movie.

J.D. said...

I'm ashamed to say that I've never seen this film but based on your excellent, indepth article, Jeremy, I must track down a copy!

I love Isaac Hayes AND Yaphet Kotto and to see them in a film together sounds like an awesome combo.

Great write-up!

Marty McKee said...

Oddly, Annazette Chase played Hayes' daughter on a ROCKFORD FILES, which always gives me a creepy feeling.

Oh, and best shotgun death ever!

ShaunDoesMusic said...

Nice write-up. I love Truck Turner. This movie has it all: comedy, action, romance, and beautiful women. I am doing a tribute to this movies soundtrack and will be remixing/reproducing all of the songs from the soundtrack.