The A-List Major Studio Car-Racing Check List:
- Red Line 7000 with James Caan
- Grand Prix with James Garner
- Winning with Paul Newman
- Le Mans with Steve McQueen
- The Last American Hero with Jeff Bridges (reviewed this week)
- Cannonball with David Carradine
Who is missing from this list: Robert Blake. And, for additional credibility: he brought along pro-drivers Bobbie and Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, and Cale Yarbourgh. Way to go MGM Studios! Ticket sold! Uh-oh. The producer wants his name removed?
The man behind the lens is TV director Leonard J. Horn: name a ’60s or ’70s TV series and chances are Horn directed at least one episode. And outside of a couple of TV Movies (1970’s Lost Flight with Lloyd Bridges is the one I remember), this was Horn’s lone theatrical film — that was regulated to the drive-in circuit. Screenwriter Eugene Price also primarily worked in television, but occasionally ventured into theatricals (I remember him for the 1975 TV “disaster movie” Smash-Up on Interstate 5). The producer behind this — his first foray into film — was Bruce Geller, who you remember as the creator behind Mission: Impossible. In the TV movie realm, he gave us the 1978 “when animals attack” classic, The Savage Bees.
Unlike the biographical The Last American Hero starring Jeff Bridges, this race epic is a faux-epic: a celluloid fugazi, so much so that Geller and MGM butt heads to the point Geller wanted his name removed, which was refused.
Blake is Corky Curtiss, a Texas race-car mechanic and sometimes dirt track racer (how Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder got started) from a small Texas town who shares his dreams with Billy (Christopher Connelly of Atlantis Interceptors) of getting out of the grease pits and into the cockpit of Patrick O’Neal’s (Silent Night, Bloody Night) race team.
Oh, and Corky’s a skosh of a sociopath with a soupçon of a drinking and gambling problem. To win: he runs his competitors off the track. When he wins: he drinks and pisses away the winnings on the green felt, much to the chagrin of his wife (a miscast Shakespearean-proper Charlotte Rampling of Zardoz goin’ “suthern”) and two kids. Corky eventually makes it to the bigs in Atlanta, but his self-destructive ways finally catch up to him.
If you thought Blake’s anti-hero in the biking epic Elektra Glide in Blue was dark, well, Kolwaski from Vanishing Point and “Driver” and “Mechanic” from Two Lane Blacktop have nothing on Corky: this is one of the darkest race flicks, no, the darkest, race flicks we’ve reviewed across our two “Fast & Furious” tribute weeks. Regardless of Geller’s displeasure with the finished product, which MGM wrestled from him, and the fact that it bombed during its brief run, Blake is excellent — as is the rest of the cast — throughout. And a plus: in addition to the NASCAR stars in the film, the cars, including Blake’s Plymouth Barracuda SXB Formula S Fastback, were built by George Barris Customs, the shop behind many of the iconic cars in ’60s and ’70s TV and film.
Corky is truly forgotten and lost — as it never made it to UHF-TV syndication or pay-cable replays or VHS. Luckily, I watched it twice in the late ’70s as part of a drive-in double feature. DVDs were once available via the Warners Video Archives in the online marketplace — if you search for them. If there’s ever a film that needs to be made available as a VOD, it’s this entry in the Robert Blake cannons.