[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Gravy Train offers unlimited opportunities for self-congratulation to everyone in front of or behind the camera, and in front of the screen as well. Within that dubious category of experience it’s quite a satisfying show, as amply testified to by the raucous audience reaction during the recent Harvard Exit engagement. Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest turn in thoroughly researched performances as a pair of West Virginia rubes who reject a life of digging coal and head for the Big Town—the iconographically unbeatable Washington D.C.—to open a seafood restaurant called the Blue Grotto. How to finance it? Why, with their share of the take in a low-comedy armored-car heist—except that the slickeroo mastermind from a bigger town, New York, crosses them up and disappears with the money. The Dion brothers (Keach and Forrest) finish out the film escaping from the trap he’s set for them, running the doublecrosser to earth, and shooting it out with him in a building that’s being demolished about their ears.
There is never the least doubt that Stacy Keach and Frederic Forrest, Calvin Dion and brother Russell, are entirely different sets of guys: one a pair of hip Seventies actors, the other a couple of morons ripe for ripping off by fellow criminals and filmmakers alike. Director Jack Starrett sets the tone with his own appearance as a bearded, Stetsoned Westerner hymning the Amurkan way of skimming off the gravy on a TV show Russell watches right after the titles, and every scene thenceforward takes a meat axe of overstatement in the neck. One sees Terrence Malick’s (“David Whitney’s”) hand in the screenplay, with its implicit diagnosis of movie-itis as a prime factor in softening the Dions’ brains (Russell pegs shotgun blasts over a windowsill at the cops while screaming in best Hollywood-in-the-Forties tradition “Marine you die!!”), but Starrett can’t give this the chilling play Malick himself managed through Sissy Spacek’s True Confessions voiceover in Badlands, and Keach and Forrest aspire to nothing like Martin Sheen’s scary—and aesthetically responsible—affectlessness as the hero of that film. Aside from its vulgarity—which possesses a kind of life, after all—the movie does have moments of well-observed authenticity and surreal wit, as in a police raid scene wherein we are made to realize how little protection is afforded by the tickytacky furnishing of a D.C. apartment, or a torture session in which Russell threatens a man’s crotch with a live lobster, or an American night-vision that, for all its pretentiousness, lingers in the mind: a smoky blue-gray haze that once was a building, a demolition ball swinging through it in lazy arcs, and, in foreground, an orange-lettered traffic sign that commands no one in particular DON’T WALK.
THE GRAVY TRAIN, or The Dion Brothers
Direction: Jack Starrett. Screenplay: David Whitney (Terrence Malick) and Bill Kerby. Cinematography: Jerry Hirschfeld. Editing: John Horger. Music: Fred Karlin. Production: Jonathan T. Taplin.
The Players: Stacy Keach, Frederic Forrest, Margot Kidder, Barry Primus, Richard Romanus, Denny Miller, Clay Tanner, Robert Phillips.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard T. Jameson