Wednesday, April 4, 2018


by Heath Holland
“Cam and Eddie have just witnessed a murder...but there’s no one they can tell….because in this town the cops are the killers!”

In a lot of ways, the generically-titled Moving Violation from 1976 (not to be confused with Moving Violations from 1985, which stars Jennifer Tilly) feels like deja vu. On the surface, this movie shares so many elements with its fellow mid-seventies kin that it seems to have nothing to offer that other movies we’ve already discussed haven’t done better. Here we have a road movie produced by Roger Corman with a ton of vehicular stunts and a California country soundtrack that keeps things moving along. As I write this, I feel like we’ve been here before. But as many similarities as it shares with other films, Moving Violations stands on its own. When you cut away the car chases and the banjo music, we’re left with a movie that it is essentially a very tender love story that is tempered by extreme violence and horrifying circumstance. In many ways, this feels like a precursor to the Tarantino-scripted True Romance, (this movie isn’t as good as True Romance) in that it is essentially a love story surrounded by a criminal element with danger at every turn.
Here’s the premise: a drifter played by Stephen McHattie (Watchmen, The Fountain) wanders into a quiet country town and strolls up to a hamburger stand, where he immediately begins flirting with the woman behind the counter (Kay Lenz, White Line Fever, House). Within moments they’ve struck up the kind of hot relationship that feels bizarre but totally believable for a movie from this time period, and soon they’re smooching on the grass in some neighborhood behind a nice house with the hamburger stand now distant memory. They’ve only known each other for a few minutes, but they seem totally devoted to each other. Ah, the seventies! Meanwhile, a local sheriff (Lonny Chapman from Hitchcock’s The Birds) and his deputy coincidentally end up at the very same house where our lovers are snogging nearby, only these lawmen aren’t there to smooch. There’s a blackmail attempt gone wrong that ends with the sheriff gunning down his deputy in cold blood. What he didn’t count on were to two witnesses who were petting behind the bushes and saw the whole thing. Our drifter witnesses flee for their lives, and what follows could have been your typical seventies car chase movie as all the forces of the law pursue these two runaways who have no one to rely on but each other.

On paper, that premise sounds worn and familiar, but this movie doesn’t seem to have any intention of being the movie we expect. It frequently surprises, and for all the car stunts and good-ol’-boy spirit, there’s a serious streak of darkness running through this film. Yet through it all, this intense love affair between our two leads really serves as the core of the story. It’s a bizarre mash-up of Smokey and the Bandit, First Blood, and It Happened One Night. There’s your blurb for the poster!
Way back at the beginning of this series on 1976, I wrote about a movie called Vigilante Force. There are a lot of similarities between that movie and Moving Violation; they both film in rural parts of California, and they both have a laid-back swagger that suddenly swings into explosive violence. I called it “tonal whiplash,” and that exact same drastic swing in mood is present in this movie. Consider this evidence: the steamy couple of McHattie and Lenz are fleeing a motorcycle cop on the back roads as yeehaw music plays. We’re having fun! It’s like a scene out of The Dukes of Hazzard as the vehicles slide around on dirt roads and tires squeal in protest. We know the cops won’t catch our drifters because they’ve got the righteousness of LOVE on their side, so we’re just enjoying the chase. All of the sudden, McHattie hits the brakes and the motorcycle cop slams into the back of his car…HARD. The cop (who we realize must be a highly-trained stunt man) is carried by his momentum over the trunk and on to the top of the car, and then falls to the ground with a sickening thud like doll dropped from a tree. His body is crumpled in ways that a body shouldn’t be, and he’s not moving. It’s a brutal stunt and it looks like the guy might have seriously been injured (IMDB says the stunt man broke his leg). AND YET, within thirty seconds (no joke) the movie has moved on to a sexy shower scene. TONAL WHIPLASH. I believe this was director Charles S. Dubin’s only feature film; he spent his entire career working in television on shows like Hawaii Five-0, so maybe that informs how quickly we transition scenes and moods.

Speaking of stunts, there are some that I associate with other movies that this movie did first. Do you remember the stunt from Smokey and the Bandit where the cop car goes under a concrete block and instantly becomes a convertible? This movie does it first with an 18 wheeler instead of a concrete block. Comparisons to Smokey and the Bandit seem inevitable, as this movie often feels so much like it, and I can’t help but wonder if it was a big influence on Hal Needham’s production the following year. But this movie feels a lot more dangerous than Smokey and the Bandit, and in that way it reminds me of another Burt Reynolds movie, White Lightning. Whereas Smokey and the Bandit always feels safe and we know that we’re not going to see anyone get hurt too badly, White Lightning is entirely different, with an undercurrent of menace just below the surface for most of the film.
Moving Violation has that same feeling of menace. It’s worth mentioning that White Lightning was written by William W. Norton, who contributed to the screenplay of this movie, so this is not a coincidence. This is the movie Smokey and the Bandit might be if Burt Reynolds had an assault rifle and some explosives. McHattie and Lenz are in real peril for the entire movie.

Speaking of McHattie and Lenz, they’re fun to watch. McHattie is affable and really comes across as a free spirit who is all about living in the moment in the ways that a lot of Vietnam veterans who had seen and done too much really were during this period in history. I’m convinced that Kay Lenz was the seventies version of Kate Mara: doe-eyed and petite, which gives the illusion of vulnerability, but strong and capable underneath it all. What’s most important for this movie is how they interact with each other, and I believe that the two actors have really good chemistry on screen. It’s easy to understand what they see in each other, but it’s also evident that their relationship is being tempered by the extreme circumstances surrounding them.

Ultimately, it’s that core of sweetness set against a deadly backdrop that makes this movie work for me. I have to admit that other movies better represent the individual elements seen here: Moving Violation doesn’t have the witty banter and the fun spirit of Smokey and the Bandit. It doesn’t have the grizzled intensity of Kris Kristofferson as seen in Vigilante Force. It doesn’t have the crackling dialogue or cinematic knowledge of True Romance.
Still, in writing about the year 1976, I’ve been amazed by how much variety existed at the cinema, sometimes even in the same movie. This is another example of that, with Moving Violation veering from comedy to action to romance to thriller, sometimes within the space of just a few seconds. You can tell from the marketing material that 20th Century Fox, the distributor, didn’t quite know how to advertise this movie. In some promos, it’s a car movie, while it’s a pursuit thriller in others. The truth is that it’s both, and it exhibits a different kind of ambition that doesn’t necessarily make for a great technical experience, but that feels very approachable and human. As always seems to be the case, I’m far more drawn to smaller movies like this that show a lot of human fingerprints (and flaws) than I am with more technically successful films that end up feeling too slick and over-produced. Moving Violation tries a lot of things and doesn’t necessarily excel at any of them, but it’s a great example of what makes seventies cinema so approachable and unique. Count me as one of this movie’s fans.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!

1 comment:

  1. Damn, a young Stephen sounds like this movie has that special '70s bonkers quality that can be charming or infuriating, but I definitely want to check it out. Thanks.