"White Lightning Never Strikes Twice - 'Cause Once Is Enough !"
Looking back on the cinema of the 70’s its perhaps hard for younger people today to realize just how massively gigantic a box office star Burt Reynolds was – and the big difference between actor Burt & movie star Burt. Hugely successful, especially on the drive-in market (it continued to play southern dates well into the 80’s eventually grossing $5,000,000 plus) 1973’s WHITE LIGHTNING came at interesting time in Burt Reynolds's career. He had just come off the highly favorable reviews and box office of DELIVERANCE and in ’73 also would star alongside Sarah Miles in the underrated western THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING.
Watching WHITE LIGHTNING today it’s fascinating to actually see what a wonderfully grim little film it is and how seriously Reynolds (channeling DELIVERANCE) approaches his role. Its huge box office success gave Reynolds the clout to direct GATOR, which would show the beginnings of the “Burt movie star” phase as it has the comedy relief and mugging for the camera that would come to full fruition in SMOKEY and recasts the grim, resolute character of Gator McKlusky from the previous movie into a wisecracking redneck super-hero type figure.
Gator McKlusky (Reynolds), who’s in prison for running moonshine begrudgingly aligns himself with federal agents to go undercover and get the goods on corrupt county sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty). McKlusky’s actual impetuses is that Connors had killed his younger brother and a friend earlier for reasons that while not defiantly explained are hinted at as being related to civil rights. The killing itself is shown in a wonderfully evocative credit sequence that has the boys being led out to a swamp in a canoe and drowned, all set to Charles Bernstein’s atmospheric score (cues of which were used in KILL BILL & INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS).
As mentioned earlier the film takes a very serious approach to its subject matter and the characters all stand out individually without any of the broad stereotypical traits that often appear in these types of films. Beatty in his dress, mannerisms and speech is the very personification of easy going “good ‘ol boy” evil. His first meeting with Reynolds as they silently size each other up in an object lesson in acting without dialogue and later when he crushes an old man’s fingers in door to extract information it’s not the violence of the scene that bothers you, its Beatty’s underplayed and calm demeanor while doing it that does. Beatty later said that this role helped his career immensely as he was in danger of being typecast as wimp after DELIVERANCE. Burt is excellent here as we slowly see him become more and more disgusted with himself for being forced to work as rat against his own people, while all the time trying to keep his festering need for revenge in check.
Also along is character actor Matt Clarke as Gator’s unwilling ally “Dude” Watson, Bo Hopkins (THE WILD BUNCH) as a moonshine runner, a wonderful ditsy performance by Jennifer Billingsley and best of all R.G. Armstrong as Big Bear, a thoroughly repellent moonshiner. Diane Ladd appears as Dude’s wife and in her screen debut is her 5 year old daughter Laura Dern.
Thanks to location shooting in Arkansas (in what looks to be the middle summer), the film has an oppressively hot sticky humid feel to it with the entire cast sweating profusely (you really want to take a shower after watching this). Even though it does play things seriously, there are moments of humor such as Gator ending up at home for unwed mothers and Jennifer Billinsley as Lou brings some light heartiness to the proceedings.
The as expected excellent car chases are handled by Hal Needham - complete with squealing tires on dirt roads & a couple of jumps. Director Joseph Sargent & writer William Norton never let the story lag, but allow it to slow down (punctuated with some startling violence) just enough to allow the characters to stretch out some along the way.
For years WHITE LIGHTNING was only available as a pan & scan DVD (that destroyed Edward Rossen’s beautiful cinematography), but recently was issued in anamorphic widescreen on one of those MGM licensed dbl features sold by Amazon (which usually contain some really oddball pairings). Instead of the obvious choice (GATOR), you get THE END (which is at least a Burt Reynolds movie).