White Lightning (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Corrupt Sheriff gets smacked.

Corrupt sheriff J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty) drowns a young man and woman in a backwoods swamp because they were ‘young hippie protesters’ who dared talk back to him. The victim’s older brother Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds) finds out about it and swears revenge. Although he is in prison he is let out when he agrees to work as an undercover agent for the feds who are after the sheriff for various unsolved crimes, but unable to attain enough evidence for a trial and conviction.

The story and scenarios are formulaic to the extreme and offer nothing new to an already uninspired genre. The characters are annoyingly clichéd southern stereotypes.  The pacing is poor and filled with drama that is stale and action that is lacking.  The dialogue is derivative and there is not enough tension, or plot devices to hold the viewer’s interest.

The opening sequence done over the credits is probably the best scene in the film. It takes place in a swamp with just enough dead trees sticking up above the water line to give it a nice gothic feel. There is no dialogue and the slow banjo ballad is perfect for the southern atmosphere. I was dismayed that the score, by Charles Bernstein, didn’t stay on this level throughout as towards the end it starts to sound too much like something from a 70’s action flick, which is not as effective.

A few car chases are the only other thing that allows for mild diversion. They certainly are not on par to the ones from Bullit, or The French Connection, but they are photographed well enough to offer some excitement. I liked how during the final chase the point-of-view shifts back and forth between the police cars and Gator’s. There is a sequence where, in an effort to avoid an oncoming cop car, Gator lofts his car from a river bank onto a moving barge. It was not a perfect landing as only the front end of the vehicle manages to connect with the ship while its rear-end hangs out over the water, which was apparently a mistake. However, I thought this offered good realism as most drivers, especially those going at high speeds, would be unable to judge the distance enough to even hit the boat. This also offered a brief exchange in which Gator is informed that the car’s under carriage is damaged as most car chase films never deal with the good guy’s auto getting wrecked even though it should, but still no explanation for how he was able to pay for it when it his informed it will be costly, which he instead just laughs off.

It was great to see Bo Hopkins, who plays Reynold’s partner in crime, in a likable role for a change. R.G. Armstrong on the other hand gets straddled with doing another slimy character, but he does it so very well that it never gets tiring. Jennifer Billingsley is enticing as the oversexed, flirtatious nymph. Matt Clark is fun as Dude Watson, who argues incessantly with Gator before finally agreeing to work with him.

Ned Beatty is horribly miscast as the sheriff. He has been a terrific character actor in countless other roles, but he is overwhelmed and uncomfortable here. He is unable to convey the necessary menacing and intimidating quality to make him a memorable bad guy. The character never shows enough psychosis, or stupidity for me to believe that he would kill a young couple over something petty and expect to get away with it.

Reynold’s has always been able to convey an almost effortless charm and charisma, but here it is barely able to carry the film. His goofy good-ole-boy laugh becomes obnoxious and irritating. I was also not too impressed with the character’s parents (Dabbs Greer, Iris Korn) who seemed more than willing to let the mysterious death of their younger son go without any investigation, or uproar, which to me seemed pathetic.

The on-location shooting done in Arkansas may be the film’s one and only saving grace. I have traveled to the state and felt that the locale was captured perfectly and allowed for a vivid southern feel, but it is still not enough to make this worth seeing.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 8, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 41Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joseph Sargent

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

One response to “White Lightning (1973)

  1. You evidently didn’t grow up in the south. Especially when the federal government were still hot on illegal whiskey. Ned Beatty played the southern sherrif perfectly. You movie critics are so elitist that you don’t know the real south. The old south that was still hanging on in the ’70s.

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