Road Racers (1959)

Road Racers (1959, USA)

This 1959 racing movie wins whatever the award is for the weirdest theme song ever. “Lead Foot” is a beat/ urban legend cautionary tune about alcohol and speeding, alternately growled and barked out, not only over the credits but over a skull negative superimposed over stills of the race car driver’s face. And that’s before doing a ghostly echoing fade as the story starts. What a way to start a movie! Already I can’t wait to see who lead foot is and what fate befell him.  Suitably, the initial exchanges between the characters are just pure lead footed exposition, so on the nose, as the characters dish out great big obvious ladles of backstory about father issues, the deadly accident that led to exile in Europe, dear mother, whom I know has such hopes for me, and so on. I mean in no time flat they tell you everything short of the results of their last medicals. But at least you have no trouble figuring out who’s who, and here they are.

Joel Lawrence and his hotheaded, lead footed bullying driving killed someone, so he spends some time racing on the European circuit, and makes his comeback in the States. After a long-dreaded yet anticipated reunion with his race-obsessed and hard to please father, Lawrence announces to Dad that he hates racing, always has, and wants to quit. His father takes this as a personal affront, which in turn so offends Lawrence’s yearning to express himself that he vows to race one more time if only to destroy his father’s achievement, a souped up car, and his new protégé, in his most beloved setting, the Grand Prix. The rest of the movie is devoted to race preparation, nightlife, shoegazing and practice runs that all involve conflict ranging from seething anger to outright meltdowns. Until the last big race which involves a switcheroo by the dad and one more big wreck.

Google Road Racers and you’re more likely to find the 1994 Robert Rodriguez TV project, as well as a totally different actor by the name of Joel Lawrence (consider yourself forewarned on that one). Lawrence, now there was a handsome guy, why have I never heard of him before? Imagine a Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, chiseled, tortured pretty boy hybrid, and you’ve got the idea. According to IMDB Road Racers may have been his biggest role, except for appearing in the TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. He made the rounds on all the popular TV series, usually playing generic and nameless roles like “manager,” “newscaster,” “doctor,” and so forth, which is kind of surprising considering he really had an appealing look. Same goes for Marian Collier, who in Road Racers is a pretty close Angie Dickinson lookalike. Racers was her first big movie and she too appeared in lots of minor roles in film and TV. Director Arthur Swerdloff only made this one feature.

Road Racers is of the sort of poor quality that’s inoffensive and tolerable and in a way enjoyable, lacking not so much in good intentions but a whole lot in execution, like a slow TV episode with feature quality race scenes. Handy that there is so much angst and conflict off the track, because it “drives” the characters to storm off in cars, assault each other with cars, work out their anger during the races, and punch each other so they sprawl on the hood of their cars. The acting is so uniformly, consistently silly that you suspect the actors conspired to purposely coordinate their acting to reach the same cheesy level.

The race scenes though (mostly stock footage) are really great; engines roaring, cool cars, great shots and vantage points, those are all well done and enough to redeem all the other flaws of the movie. Correction: the car scenes are the movie’s very reason for being; it’s most accurately described as a carsploitation film with some human activity shoehorned in to connect the high octane scenes, and the car scenes are spaced to keep you awake much like the Law and Order “chung chung!s” did. For all the great race sound effects and realism you can thank sound editor Josef Von Stroheim (son of Erich) who went on to do a number of films including Three Days of the Condor. One of the real drivers is Jerry Unser of the famous racing family.

The plot and character development are just secondary, and so desperately trendy for 1959. Therefore you get artily, jarringly edited scenes (could have been my jumpy print though) beat-style dialogue, and lines like “that’s quite a hunk of salami!” delivered with the utmost gravity. Mostly you get the overpowering (and eye roll inducing) vibe of the edgy youth of that era, self-aware and tortured like no one before them ever had growing pains or family conflict, youth defined by the intensity of their rebellion, exalting the concept of self-expression above all, who seem only able to communicate through angsty exchanges. It’s like taking that James Dean “you’re tearing me apart!!” moment from Rebel Without a Cause and spinning a whole movie off it, complete with the cold, misunderstanding father and the mother who tries to be sympathetic but just doesn’t get it, man.

All of which makes it fun to watch. You can’t take seriously something this overacted and unambitious and a product of what they thought the kids would dig. You can imagine this playing at the local drive-in, at huge proportions; it would be thrilling in parts and the quality of the acting not only wouldn’t matter but would provide eye candy and some laughs and needed breaks from the deafening engine roars and tire screeches. Not that bad, as bad movies go, entertaining and recommended for the cult appeal, and definitely for race movie nuts. I mean, look at this ad and don’t lie, you would totally stay for Road Racers, wouldn’t you?

(source for poster  /  source for ad)