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July 06, 2015

Truck Turner

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Jonathan Kaplan - 1974
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

A bit of a disclaimer here. I knew of, but wasn't personally acquainted with, Jonathan Kaplan, at the time we were both at New York University. I probably crossed paths with him a few times without know it, and there were a couple of people we both knew from the film department. I never directly encountered Kaplan until several years later when Heart Like a Wheel was presented at the Denver International Film Festival.

Kaplan has a commentary track on the new Blu-ray version of Truck Turner, and it is very informative about the making of the film. Kaplan signed up for what he was told would be an action picture to star Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum. After signing the contract Kaplan found out the star was to be Isaac Hayes, and that American International Pictures was more interested in the anticipated profits of an Isaac Hayes soundtrack album. The dark and gritty action movie AIP thought they were going to get was turned into something frequently humorous and occasionally warm as a result of the collaboration by Kaplan and Hayes. Kaplan is also generous in discussing the work of editor Michael Kahn, who became a member of Team Spielberg as a result of his work here, as well as crediting Oscar Williams for his contributions to the screenplay.

For those not familiar with the film, it revolves around a skip tracer, former football star, Mack "Truck" Turner. Taking the job to find a pimp named Gator, the pimp is killed in self-defense. Gator has a stable of prostitutes managed by a madame, Dorinda. Various pimps look to take over from Gator. Dorinda offers a stake in the stable to whomever kills Turner. The deadliest of those in this competition is a pimp named Harvard Blue.

I saw Truck Turner at the time of its initial release in 1974. There is a lot of hand slapping, racial epithets, a pink Lincoln-Continental, and questionable fashion statements. Whatever one might feel about blaxploitation movies in general, or this film in particular, Isaac Hayes' music has definitely held up after forty years.

The pleasures are in the casting and the personal touches. The opening shot pans across Turner's apartment, littered with beer cans and packaging from fast food restaurants, a glimpse of an Otis Redding album, before settling on Hayes' world famous, clean shaven, top of his head. "That guy", Dick Miller, appears, wearing his own pink sports coat. James Millhollin, one of those character actors I've seen many times in film and television, without knowing his name, makes a brief appearance. There is also Scatman Crothers as a retired pimp. Nichelle Nichols, in the gap between Star Trek the TV series, and Star Trek the film franchise, plays the foul mouthed Dorinda.

Kaplan talks about the relative freedom he had in making Truck Turner. The most distinctive scene involves the death of Harvard Blue. While it's not mentioned, I think there is some inspiration from Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties, with Yaphet Kotto shot in the back, staggering for what seems like an extended moment, down the steps of a building, opposite of James Cagney, who staggered up a flight of stairs for Walsh. The soundtrack is silent. Kaplan filmed close-ups of Kotto, whose eyes have the look of someone stunned to discover his vulnerability, that his life may by ending on someone else's terms. The close-ups of Kotto alternate with point of view shots of Kotto approaching his car. The silence ends when Kotto falls head first onto the steering wheel, with a blast of the car horn.

The Blu-ray includes part of an appearance by Kaplan discussing Truck Turner at the New Beverly Theater in 2008, host by fellow Roger Corman alumni, Joe Dante. There is also the "Trailers from Hell", presented by cinematographer and director Ernest Dickerson.

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Posted by peter at July 6, 2015 08:29 AM