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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE MOONSHINE WAR (1970)

Elmore Leonard’s novel tone of narrative authority, delayed menace, side-swiped humor & pop-up violence has proved elusive to catch on film. Even when Leonard does the adapting, as he does here. This Depression Era piece has a devilishly clever scam, mean & funny, that puts Patrick McGoohan’s Federal Agent back in touch with army bud (Alan Alda), a hillbilly brewmaster with a cache of moonshine. It’s 1932 and McGoohan is betting on FDR taking the White House, lifting Prohibition, and opening a window of opportunity for a ready-to-go booze backload before the legit distilleries get up & running. And, should Alda refuse to deal, McGoohan’s partnered up with Richard Widmark & his trigger-happy bootleg boys. Elmore runs his story structure and reveals character quirks with cagey craftsmanship, playing close to the vest to make the most of every plot reversal. But director Richard Quine loses the beat every time the film switches locations, falling back on a dusty Southern Fried Depression patina that’s generic when it needs to be specific. McGoohan does finds a note of cracked authority that's missing from Alda’s slouch, but their cornpone accents are something to wonder at. Heroically awful. Widmark’s really no better, but at least it’s fun to hear him reprise the psychotic whine of his early, showstopping villains. Overall, not enough convinces. But look fast for the naked backside of young Teri (Terry) Garr and for the great jazz vocalist Joe Williams in support as Alda’s protector. His accent is spot on.

DOUBLE-BILL: Elmore was revisiting this territory as late as JUSTIFIED/’10-15.

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