[box cover]

White Lightning

People don't just sweat in Joseph Sargent's southern revenge saga White Lightning (1973), they cascade, leading one to wonder if there was a prohibition on air conditioning in the deep south of the early 1970s. But it's not just the heat in Bogan County that's oppressive, it's the crooked Sheriff, J.C. Connors (Ned Beatty), whose penchant for murdering the local college hippies and collecting an informal tax from the area's bootleggers has everyone being careful not to rock the boat lest they get sunk aboard it with a pair of cinderblocks tied around their ankles. This is precisely how Connors dealt with the younger brother of the perpetually incarcerated Gator McKlusky (Burt Reynolds), and now this stand-up good ol' boy is out for some down-and-dirty backwater revenge by... playing ball with the Feds? After a failed, but rousing, escape attempt in which he literally walks out of the county jail, Gator is approached by the warden and a federal agent who ask him to take names of bootleggers and establish proof of their payments to Connors. This may not be Gator's preferred method of revenge — his father, an old 'shine runner himself, seems more horrified by this idea than he is by the recent death of his youngest son — but he'll take any chance he can get; ergo, the Feds put him in touch with a tax-dodging mechanic named Dude (Matt Clark), who, in turn, hooks Gator up driving as a "blocker" for Roy Boone (Bo Hopkins), a successful bootlegger with close ties to Connors. But Gator's still got a bit of the rogue in him, meaning he can't keep his hands off of Roy's comely, bucktoothed floozy of a girlfriend, Lou (Jennifer Billingsley), who keeps tempting the recently paroled felon with samples of her "shaky pudding." When the suspicious Boone finally confronts Gator on the issue, our hero retorts, "Are you gonna marry her, or what?" Touché. Boone's befuddled reaction — after all, that would be the good Christian thing to do — is kind of symbolic for the greater confusion of a south just coming to terms with integration and the anti-war movement. Connors represents the old guard, resorting to intimidation and murder as he attempts to beat back those "Federal sons of Yankees" from turning his sweltering little fiefdom into Mother Russia. Though Gator is a semi-enlightened fella — meaning that he fraternizes, when necessary, with blacks as apparent equals — he's not the social crusader that his late brother was; his quarrel here simply is one of kin. Later in the film, he speaks proudly of his brother being the first member of the family to attend college, while lamenting his own squandered potential. Still, someone who can drive like Gator is worth a thousand pseudo-intellectual hippies, right? Reynolds, coming off his watershed year of 1972 in which he infamously posed nude for Cosmopolitan and co-starred as a virile outdoorsman in Deliverance, gives his first legitimate movie star performance, as evidenced from reel one where he's introduced fixing an engine bare-chested, telling a joke, and punctuating its punch line with that trademark hyena-esque laugh. But good as Reynolds is, it's hard to imagine this movie working nearly as well without the presence of Beatty as Connors, who's gone from squealing like a pig to playing one with an enjoyably sleazy relish. Meanwhile, television veteran Sargent does a bang-up job capturing the lazy atmosphere of the deep south while pulling off a number of thrilling, high-speed car chases with the invaluable assistance of his second unit director and stunt coordinator, Hal Needham. These efforts combine to make this a fairly potent double-shot of redneck exploitation. Reynolds connected with the character so much, he'd return to the role in the 1976 sequel Gator, which also marked his feature directorial debut. MGM presents White Lightning in a clear but disappointing full-screen transfer (1.33:1) that's been modified from the original aspect ratio (this probably is open-matte from the 35mm source), with monaural Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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