TCM Underground: Macon County Line (1974)

Macon County Line was one of many movies at the time that had claimed to be based on a true story to attract audiences, but was never based in anything factual.  It’s about two brothers, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life brothers Jesse and Alan Vint) from Chicago, having a two week trip of booze, prostitutes and various debauchery in the South before having to enlist in the Army, part of a plea they made with a judge to not have to face jail time for crimes they committed.  The year is 1954 and the movie makes good use of a period soundtrack and some original songs to sell us the time and place it’s set.

While on their trip, they run afoul of some local law enforcement and their mere presence upsets local sheriff Reed Morgan, played by none other than Jethro Bodine, Max Baer, Jr., who also co-wrote and produced Macon County Line.  Upon first meeting the brothers, along with a hitchhiker they picked up named Jenny (Cheryl Waters), at an auto mechanic, he takes an instant dislike.  He lets them know, under no uncertain terms, that it would be beneficial for all parties involved if they were to get the hell out town once their car got fixed up.  Not wanting any further trouble from anyone, they agree to these terms.

Meanwhile, a pair of psychotic drifters make their way through town and, in one of those coincidences that could ever happen in a movie, rape and murder the sheriff’s wife.  The drifters escape and murder a sheriff’s deputy when they get pulled over and are hauled off and booked for the murders.  Sheriff Morgan is unaware of any of this, heading home from a long trip with his son, who’s on break from a private military school.  Witnessing the murder scene of his wife, he sets his sights on the wrong pair of drifters and goes gunning for the innocent Chris, Wayne and Jenny.

Macon County Line is an interesting mess of a movie.  None of it is particularly bad, per se, but it’s comprised of a lot of parts that don’t seemingly work together as a cohesive whole.  The wackier parts don’t mesh with its more serious moments.  The film begins like an episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard” if it were directed by John Waters, with comedic car crashes, narrow misses with the police and a lot of “yee-haws!”  The scene where the Sheriffs wife is raped and killed is surprisingly free of too much exploitation, focusing on the face of the killer and flashing back to his own past torment.  It’s almost a no-nonsense scene that you’d find in something like In Cold Blood.  Everything that follows that is straight out of a horror movie, with Morgan a relentless murderer on a mission for revenge.  Each part by itself is pretty good, and it works together well enough, but some of the tonal whiplash is particularly jarring.

Here’s a perfect example:  Max Baer, Jr. does a great job as the sheriff.  The problem is, he’s too nuanced for this movie.  When everyone else is so one-note, we have a character who’s a balancing act of menace, altruism and general shittiness.  Sheriff Morgan belongs in a much more serious movie and the Dixon brothers belong in a “Dukes of Hazzard meets Route 66” adventure road trip movie.  There’s a scene where Morgan explains to his son why he doesn’t want him playing basketball with black kids anymore.  It’s such a bizarre scene that has no place in this movie, but it’s so well-acted and provides such insight into the character, that it would be a masterstroke in a drama about Morgan and life in the South as a police offer in the 1950s.  He explains that segregation just seems make life a little easier for everyone and when his son objects, he takes it as a personal favor to himself to not hang out with those black kids anymore.  Morgan’s reinforcement of this racism warps this kid’s mind into violence.

Not that it’s a bad movie, on the contrary I actually liked it quite a lot for everything it tried to accomplish and for its pretty stellar production values, but I was blown away to see how much money the movie made.  Including box office and video rentals, it made $30 million off of a $225,000 budget and is considered the most profitable film of 1974 when looking at from a cost-to-gross ratio.  Then again, that same year The Trial of Billy Jack made almost $90, so maybe it’s not that weird, all things considered.

Macon County Line spawned an in-name-only sequel which also played on TCM Underground, but on some weekends I can only watch one part of the double feature.  Considering how much I liked this one, if it comes around again, maybe I’ll review the sequel separately.

Next Week: Eye of the Devil (1967)