Eurobeat puns aside, one of my greatest passions in life are cars. Particularly classics, and especially in their natural environment of the 20th century. They’ve proven an immense inspiration in a great deal of the work I do, including the Mad Max-like automobile worship in my sci-fi pet project 365 Infantry, and a slew of screenplays and story ideas. In particular, my first feature-length, Gunning, which centered on a fictional racing scene, based in the San Fernando Valley of the 60s through to the 80s. The unique nostalgia cocktail of that particular script was hard to come by, as there wasn’t really a movie quite like the one I sought to make.
And then came two little films across my desk.
One was a drama set around the exact same time, in nearly the exact same place, as the action of my story. The other was a biopic not two years later that addressed some of the characterization of it. And both managed to leave an impression in different ways.
Atop the marquee this week it’s 1981’s King of the Mountain, and 1983’s Heart Like a Wheel.
King of the Mountain (1981)
Based on the 1978 New West magazine article “Thunder Road” about the real street racers of Mulholland Drive, King of the Mountain tells the tale of Steve. By day a Porsche mechanic, and by night, the ruler of the winding roads overlooking the San Fernando Valley in his souped-to-the-nines Porsche 356. The thrill slowly slips away from Steve as two of his friends in the scene start pursuing other ventures, with he himself gets involved in their latest project; breaking into the music business with a young singer. The friends want the business, and Steve wants the singer.
In the final theatrical outing of Noel Nosseck, before resigning himself to a prolific career in television, the director manages to do what his lackluster 1979 bowling drama Dreamer failed to, and that’s set up some truly engaging character dynamics. On top of Hamlin’s Steve falling for the delightful Tina (played by Deborah Van Valkenburgh), he also deals with growing tensions between himself and a former “King” and coworker Cal, played by a classically deranged Dennis Hopper. The racer suffered an accident on the Mountain that resulted in the end of his reign and drove him to the brink of insanity. In the thralls of his alcoholism and his personal lows at the time, Hopper still managed to knockout a kinetic and entertaining turn that bounces off of the younger Hamlin and the unflappable Dan Haggerty’s “Rick” to great effect.
It’s a downtempo kind of drama that, while short on the races, still clocks in at a clean 90 minutes, and boasts a solid cast, the big winners being Hamlin, Hopper, and the surprise appearance of Seymour Cassel as a sleazy record producer. It’s a very cool piece of work, with great nocturnal cinematography, a slamming soundtrack, killer cars, and incredible and gripping racing sequences. All in all, a rock-solid tale of a man, his machine, the mountain they conquer, and all that happens along the way.
Heart Like a Wheel (1983)
So you’ve got me plugging away on this screenplay. I’ve been downing AIP teen flicks, making multimedia mixtapes with everything from Sid Davis automobile PSAs to some poor, unsuspecting family’s 1976 Super-8 vacation footage.
Now strip all that back: I’m writing a script about drag racing, and my lead character’s a woman. Logical conclusion: take a gander at this oft-forgotten biopic about the First Lady of Drag Racing, none other than Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney. What I got from Heart Like a Wheel is the reason why this is so oft-forgotten: blandness.
For a life as full & fascinating as Muldowney’s, one where she faced genuine opposition as a gal behind the wheel of a dragster, and the life of an upstate New Yorker finding purpose and fulfilment in racing, writers Ken Friedman & David E. Peckinpah knew just how to water it down to a TV movie sports drama with a fistful of didactic feminism. The biggest mistake it makes is in practically glossing over the racing and whipping up all sorts of cliché personal drama that’s about as fresh as a gallon of sour milk. Part of it may have been the lack of drama in the amicable post-divorce relationship between the real Shirley and Jack Muldowney (played by Leo Rossi of Halloween II fame). Part of it the circumstantial fact that it came out before her infamous 1984 crash that nearly sidelined her for life. Either way, the end result is a film that strives for something conventional in a story that really isn’t.
Screenplay aside, it’s ably directed, with The Accused and Over the Edge director Jonathan Kaplan in the chair and keeping the pace tight. It’s also acted well enough, with Bonnie Bedelia holding her own as Muldowney, Beau Bridges doing a solid job as Connie Kalitta, and Rossi doing fine work as first husband Jack. It also features a respectable music score by veteran composer Laurence Rosenthal and is handsomely shot by Hollywood legend Tak Fujimoto. But the unfettered bluntness and conventions of the script really do kneecap it. Thought not without moments of sincerity & potency, these brief glimpses can’t make up for a film structured with an almost religious adherence to sports movie clichés. If you want the real story on Muldowney, watch some interviews or dig up some vintage National Hot Rod Association drags on tape. But if you want a Sunday afternoon film to doze off to, Heart Like a Wheel gets the greenlight.
While both films seem preoccupied with enough character drama to send most of the racing to the background, it is the dynamics of said characters and the caliber of performances that manage to take King of the Mountain over the top. Dennis Hopper clearly has a bit of that blue-collar angst left in him from his nihilist classic Out of the Blue, and Hamlin ekes out a memorable turn as the latest ruler of the Mulholland Drive run, just one month before stunning the world as Perseus in the final Harryhausen triumph Clash of the Titans.
Bedelia does her best with the material, but you also get the feeling that Muldowney herself might’ve been right in wanting Academy Award-winning actress Jamie Lee Curtis to play her, which incidentally would’ve turned Heart Like a Wheel into a mini-Halloween II reunion with Leo “Budd Scarlotti” Rossi. But at the end of the day, everything truly wrong with the film is laid squarely at the screenwriters’ doorsteps, for the canned structure and melodramatizing of Muldowney’s story reduce it to little more than the kind of TV dramas King of the Mountain director Noel Nosseck would go on to make.
One thing both films get right though, are the cars. The race sequences in both pictures are expertly crafted in both filming and editing, each packing just the right punch. And considering that was part of what I was after, can’t say either disappointed on that front. At the end of the day, both serve the role of time capsule I was after. It’s the films as fully-realized dramas were where they diverged for me, and that’s the moment when King of the Mountain just cleared the finish line.