by Leonard J. Leff
Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 6-7
Midway through WHITE LINE FEVER, truck drivers Pops Dinwiddie and Carrol Jo Hummer discover a pair of desperadoes trying to push them off an Arizona highway. With youthful assurance, Hummer arms himself, sidles out of the cab window, and inches across his still speeding trailer. Carefully he aims at his pursuers’ radiator and with a couple of well-placed shots manages to set their cab afire and run them into a stone wall. The scene is representative since the film is stocked with requisite violence: beatings, arson, vandalism, fisticuffs, stabbing, vehicular homicide. Hummer’s bravado and the film’s violence, however, are only gleamings on the water’s surface.
The political undertow, which sporadically tugs at the viewer, suggests that WHITE LINE FEVER essentially is about the political education of Carrol Jo Hummer. In high school, he was taught that the U.S. economic system is structured to reward individual initiative. In trying to operate independent of an oligarchic trucking firm to exercise initiative, he quickly learns of the distance between theory and practice. Unfortunately, so tenuous is the relationship between surface and undertow, between text and subtext, that what has the potential of a smallscale OCTOBER culminates in something more spiritually akin to Ma Joad’s boosterism at the end of Ford’s GRAPES OF WRATH.
The film begins with a lot of promise. A Tucson television newsman says that movies show only the affluent, but that interest—indeed, “great human drama—lies elsewhere on the economic spectrum. The use of an obviously sympathetic local reporter rather than a button-down Cronkite suggests that the film may present a working class perspective. Furthermore, through emphasis on the word “drama,” the audience may reasonably anticipate a conflict between the working class, which struggles for an equitable share of the wealth, and the monied class, which preserves wealth undistributed. The reporter turns to a trucker, an independent, and asks how far he would go to protect his “rig” and his “profession.” The answer—you never know till you're put to the test—is less interesting than the question.
“Profession” here is no idle euphemism, even in a society that encourages class distinctions. As a cap elevates the cursing school graduate and wings elevate the airman, so the trucker perceives that he ascends upon acquiring his rig. No matter that The Bank, the means of his pride, controls this professional’s livelihood in a way it controls that of no other. To the trucker, the rig certifies entry into a U.S. mainstream: he is propertied. Uppers and coffee and CB chatter alone won't get a load of avocados to Salt Lake City on a 24 hour run. A commitment to professionalism will.
After the reporter scene, a montage sequence introduces Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent). He returns from military service, reunites with his family, and marries Jerri Kane (Kay Lenz), the girl he left behind. Some stills, grainy and in sepia or muted colors, capture a high school memory, a birthday, a Thanksgiving dinner, and other family affairs. Then Hummer secures his loan, shakes hands with the bank officer, and buys his rig. The narrative proper has begun against a backdrop rigorous in its adherence to the ideology of textbook civics, especially in the brief bank scene. Superior to a similar preface in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, the sequence illustrates Hummer’s acting upon expectations that social and academic experience have aroused within him. His practical education lies ahead.
Over the CB radio, Hummer announces that he’s an owner-operator and “you gotta operate to own.” His philosophy is first tested when he picks up a haul from Duane Haller (Slim Pickens), a Red River trucking manager. Before departing, Hummer learns that contraband merchandise is aboard and orders it removed. Haller first appeals to his friendship with Hummer’s late father, hypocritically invoking and thus mocking a value that Hummer cherishes, family. When Hummer is unmoved, Haller says. “Nobody’s getting hurt ... but Uncle Sam.” Haller’s easy disregard for not only the family but the community intimates that Hummer is naïve. Realistically, capitalism’s flow of goods precedes community and family values. Hummer steadfastly holds in contempt the Glass House, a giant corporation that controls Red River and all of Arizona’s other shippers and brokers. Mr. Cutler (Don Porter), the owner of Glass House. hears of Hummer’s righteous indignation and orders first his elimination from the business and then his death.
From this point, one may glorify the remainder of WHITE LINE FEVER by calling it a romance—a perilous journey climaxed by a grand struggle and the hero’s exaltation. Or one may demythologize it by calling it a cut above-the-average, saturation-advertised action movie for the neighborhoods and drive-ins. Neither stance constitutes a radical film criticism. A third alternative, then, is to examine the film to see how its principal action at once proffers yet undercuts a viable solution for Hummer. In order to understand this ambivalence, one must recognize that Hummer’s disillusionment and the film’s climax proceed from the implied discrepancy between capitalism’s ruddy exterior and its worm wrought core. Oddly enough, nowhere is this promise and frustration theme shown more incisively than in two brief yet realistic scenes involving Jerri. Their brevity probably results from the filmmakers’ desire to avoid antagonizing (or calling to arms) an audience altogether familiar with the problems of alienating work and unwanted pregnancies.
After suffering broken ribs in a beating, Hummer is forced to recuperate and rely on his wife’s economic support. The short scene of her at work in a Dr. Pepper canning plant is powerfully understated. A serpentine tracking shot discovers Jerri standing beside a machine that automatically spits out faulty cans at her as they travel through the last lap of the assembly line. The rejects clang into a bin on her left, and she must empty the bin periodically. Jerri’s work is not unlike her husband’s. Her job does not demand great physical strength; it actually produces nothing, it’s performed alone, and it involves a machine. But Hummer is master of his machine: he drives it, not vice versa. It is a totem, an extension of himself so animated that it even has a name, “Blue Mule.” Because Jerri is handmaiden to rather than operator of a machine, her automated work is absolutely dehumanizing. It’s solitary and unfulfilling. Momentarily she pauses just as a young female supervisor, clipboard in hand, passes by and barks: “You're paid to work, relax on your own time.” In retaliation, after the supervisor has turned away, Jerri shoots her the finger.
The factory scene—minus the gesture—is reminiscent of one in A BRIEF VACATION, but whereas Vittorio De Sica uses the system to illuminate character, WHITE LINE FEVER director Jonathan Kaplan uses character to illuminate the system. The Italian heroine escapes out of the molten city into the cool, white mountains. In this new environment, ironically at government expense, she regains the human qualities that the exigencies of Milanese life had darkened. Having cured the woman, the state returns her to Milan, her predicament approaching that of CATCH-22’s man-in-white. Although De Sica’s focus remains less political than psychological and more descriptive than argumentative, Kaplan’s seems to posit a radical solution. The film’s factory scene suggests that a society theoretically prizing individuality and economic mobility actually frustrates both. Again, if a worker attempts even momentarily to impede capitalism’s flow of goods, he or she is rejected like an imperfect can.
Moreover, the system creates schisms where solidarity should exist: Jerri and her supervisor, though blinded by the artificial designations “labor” and “management,” are two women jointly serving the same master. The point of the bottling scene is that the work is superior to the worker and the profit superior to both. Jerri’s insignificant act as human being rather than as automaton threatens to lead to rebellion, so she’s immediately and harshly reproved. The Glass House gang’s assaults against Hummer are almost credible when seen as part of the same world in which one woman verbally abuses another for stopping to wipe her face.
The bleakness of Jerri’s world is suggested further in the scene in the public clinic’s waiting room. She suspects she’s pregnant and seeks confirmation. The camera, in medium shot, begins with the patient seated opposite Jerri. Slowly and silently it circles the waiting room towards her, finding one unexpressive face after another, expectant fathers as well as mothers. Like the bottling plant scene, this one also has a disquieting effect. On the walls are cheery posters with greeting card sentiments or health care tips for pregnant women, but people’s faces in the room register only grim anticipation. And the circling camera has knit them all together in a common biological trap. The ultimate act of creation, serviced here on an assembly line, holds little promise for persons locked into a class system. Their faces reveal resignation, a lesson naturally learned within a society whose promise is like a carrot on a string. So when her pregnancy is confirmed, Jerri is despondent. She contemplates abortion, but her brother Jamie strongly counsels against it, adding that Hummer would share his feelings.
Even as Jamie and Carrol Jo oppose exploitation outside the home, they unwittingly further sexism. Jerri’s victimization not only as a person but as a woman gives her more exposure than her husband to capitalism’s contradictions. Thus, when Hummer is framed for homicide, she urges acceptance of the prosecuting attorney’s deal. She recognizes realities Hummer is blind to—that her husband will have a two-bit lawyer (whom a fellow teamster duly supplies) and that the monied interests will own the government prosecutor (which the Glass House does). During the climax of his struggle with the Glass House, Hummer tells Jerri, “I can't be fighting the whole world and you at the same time.” Rather than fight with him, she withdraws. No fantasy violence in WHITE LINE FEVER has the intensity and grittiness her two scenes achieve so economically.
From an artistic standpoint, the central weakness of WHITE LINE FEVER is its failure to supply realistic adversaries for Hummer. The formulaic plot and stereotyped characters are generic as defined by recent films such as BILLY JACK and WALKING TALL, and in their reassertion of the familiar, they are undoubtedly crowd pleasing. But finally the characters’ transparency limits an audience’s awareness of the penetration and subtlety of the system’s inherently abusive exercise of power. The trio of cartoon capitalists who oppresses Hummer threatens to become an opiate by inviting the audience to compare its own superiors to Hummer’s and find the former benign.
Hummer’s descent through three circles of an Arizona inferno forms the basic structure of WHITE LINE FEVER. “A whole lot more to this than just you and me,” Haller tells the petulant Hummer early on. But clearly Haller is part of the corruption. His office icebox is packed with Schlitz, probably raked off the top of the enormous beer shipment awaiting loading on the outside dock. Haller is an urban cowboy. His white western suit and his matching white Thunderbird, sporting a pair of longhorns on its hood, suggest how a plundering ruling class makes animals as well as people serve decadent ends. In his last hour, Haller takes a drive with Lucy (Leigh French), the woman whose hint of sexual favors has lured him to the place of his assassination. In a neat variation of the promise/frustration theme, Haller steps out into the middle of the road and is run over by Glass House gang truckers. His death shows how expendable the lower echelon are to the upper. More important, it advances Hummer’s struggle to locate and rout corruption’s source.
Buck Wessle (L. Q. Jones), manager of Red River, is Mr. Cutler’s hatchet man. Because he’s closer to the source and further from the truckers than Haller, Buck has an undisguised contempt for the drivers. Haller was a driver, along with Hummer’s father, and when he promises an old black teamster work (promise/frustration), one feels that only his superiors prevent him from honoring his commitment. But Buck is above it all, literally. When he says goodbye to Hummer, who has negotiated a haul with a rifle to the manager’s head, it is via a microphone located in his office over the dock, the camera shooting from a long angle. His detachment from and power over the men is mightily suggested by the angle and the public address system, which transmits but doesn't receive.
While the truckers and loaders sweat, Buck relaxes in his air conditioned office with its gold draperies drawn against the sun. And throughout the film he urges Cutler not to worry about a “revolution”—Cutler’s word—of “jigaboos,” “crackers,” and “white trash.”
Near the end of the film Buck kills Pops Dinwiddie. Pops’ young black friends have been hostile toward Hummer because of an alleged master-slave relationship between Hummer Sr. and Pops, but the murder heals the breach. The alliance is another of the film’s pulled punches. The blacks join Hummer to avenge Dinwiddie’s death, not to change the course of events that placed his life and their livelihood in jeopardy. In terms of a revolutionary solution to their problems, the weak motivation serves neither the blacks nor the other truckers well. Nevertheless, a ragtag bunch of blacks and whites busts up one of Buck’s office debaucheries, with Carrol Jo pursuing Buck. The chase through the warehouse is photographed through tunnels made of corridors, stacked boxes, and finally the two trucks, between which Hummer beats Buck senseless. As in the clinic waiting room scene, the photography reinforces the film’s point: Hummer is tunneling through to the heart of the corruption, the inferno’s third circle.
As his name suggests, Mr. Cutler has carved out his territory and will carve up those who threaten it. The extent of his power within the state seems limitless. Bob, a deputy sheriff, is on his payroll, the Public Prosecutor shares his steam bath and participates in his machinations, and the governor’s nephew (and by implication the governor) is a good friend. Asked by Hummer to describe the grand jury that may indict him for Haller’s murder, the attorney responds, his voice pointedly ironic,
That the jury fails to indict Hummer doesn't alleviate the audience’s feeling that the judiciary is in Cutler’s pocket. Hummer protests that “the truth” got him off, Jerri insists that it was luck, and in a blaze of contradiction the film suggests—through the Washington portrait—that it was the U.S. system.
At a private dinner in Glass House, with a black wine steward hovering nearby, Cutler lifts his glass to “money, love, and the time to enjoy it.” That the film’s premier capitalist places “money” first is unsurprising. “Love” comes in second, for—as Wessle’s and Cutler’s behavior illustrate -it is a bought commodity. Time comes cheap to Cutler, who’s rarely seen working. He’s in his steam bath plotting, his office putting, his golf course playing.
Wessle drives out to the course to report that Hummer wasn't indicted. Again the cinematography is especially instructive. The course is wide and uncluttered, Hummer’s space confined (as in the cab) or tunneled; the course is green, Huniner’s Tucson brown. In fact, Hummer’s Tucson resembles Fellini’s early, strange wastelands. Carrol Jo’s stone house is an enlarged, Americanized model of Cabiria’s, complete with a yard of discarded mechanical contrivances and loose brush. Images of aridity and infertility recur frequently in WHITE LINE FEVER (from Hummer’s haul of rotten avocados to a beating that results in Jerri’s becoming sterile). But nowhere are they conveyed with greater clarity than in the implied comparison between them and Cutler’s lush, verdant playground.
Before Glass House stands a multi-story glass monolith, “GH.” Hummer passes it once when he and a group of truckers are invited to discuss their efforts with Cutler. After Cutler privately offers to buy him off, Hummer returns to the assemblage and asks:
Again it’s a question more interesting than the unsurprising response: Cutler and the government are common tools of oppression (indeed, the latter fosters the former) attempting to strip the workers of their livelihood and their self-esteem. The corruption is pervasive, the solution within the men themselves. Hummer’s resistance in the face of physical abuse has won him the attention of his fellows. But until he crashes his rig through the glass monolith and nearly loses his life, little concerted action is taken. Then, in the film’s last scene. Hummer is wheeled out on the hospital lawn to see the hundreds of truckers who honor him silently.
Their presence is meant to suggest the workers’ victory, but it lacks impact. First, despite the inclusion of some token racism, the film shows no one being persecuted but Hummer. Haller, Wessle, and Cutler are too much the cartoon capitalists, and the workers—except Hummer—too little their victims. Even after Red River goons crack his ribs, Hummer goes back. To him money is “more important” than curing the corruption. Will it be for those who know only secondhand of physical pain, of deprivation? The oppression needs more generalization. Jerri’s scenes help but are finally far too brief.
Second, though Cutler calls Hummer “charismatic,” little in his manner or in others’ responses to Hummer suggests this quality. Five shelves of books line his bedside, but his dialogue betrays only average intelligence. The books and the Vermeer on the dining room wall are empty tokens of a naive dream to which he once subscribed. So haven't these people really come to the hospital lawn to see what the audience itself has come to see, a working class hero who has romantically routed corruption to achieve the success, rather than the frustration, that is the essence of American Promise? And because his victory is wholly personal and wrested from straw men, isn't it finally insignificant?
At film’s end the television announcer says that the truckers are not on strike for hours, wages, benefits, but for a man. The man’s bravado—from pushing a bully into manure to shimmying across the top of his speeding rig and finally crashing through “GH”—belongs to the movie cowboy, who rides the range alone. Whether those men on the hospital lawn will act is a moot question. They are passive. They lack dynamism and urgency. Jerri’s unhappy expression as she views them implies that Hummer’s job is unfinished and still unshared. Driving their rigs for Cutler has given them white line fever. They've pulled into the Hummer truck stop—for the day—for some diversion and relief, but it seems all too likely that they'll be on the road again tomorrow. Accordingly, the promise of the film is frustrated.