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Truck Turner

In Film on June 17, 2010 at 7:02 pm

“You don’t look like cops, but you smells like trouble.” – Dorinda Johnson

In 1973, Jonathan Kaplan walked into the office of Larry Gordon, the Head of Development for American International Pictures, with no idea what fate had in store for him. Fresh from his directorial successes with not one, but two Soft-core comedies for Producer Roger Corman (Night Call Nurses and The Student Teachers), and the prison riot flick The Slams for Roger’s brother Gene; Kaplan was suddenly on his way to building a successful career as a director  – and AIP wanted him to direct their next movie; Truck Turner. The film begins when Truck and his partner Jerry (played by Alan Weeks) are hired to nab resident pimp, Gator Johnson (Paul Harris) for skipping bail. After the two bounty hunters approach the man, a fight ensues and the flesh-peddler bolts. During the lengthy chase, which includes several cars and a bar fight, Gator is accidentally killed. Forced into taking over her husband’s prostitution business, Gator’s widow Dorinda (a scene stealing Nichelle Nichols) vows revenge and offers a bounty of her own to anyone who can kill the man responsible for her hubby’s demise.

With Truck Turner, Kaplan delivered one of the most outrageous blaxploitation films of the seventies; a fast paced, thrilling and gut-bustingly funny action picture with a strong heart and respect its urban audience. It’s no surprise that both black and white audiences have  slowly discovered it since its release in 1974, through home video, DVD and television. And no-doubt, the velvet smooth presence of Oscar-winning singer/musician Isaac Hayes in the leading role more-than helps. But what is surprising, is that Truck Turner was almost never a blaxploitation film at all, and that three established Hollywood tough guys were originally considered for the lead.

Jonathan Kaplan as Scotty, standing behind Paul Bartel in Joe Dante and Alan Arkush's "Hollywood Boulevard" (1976).

During the meeting with Larry Gordon (who is now better known today as Lawrence Gordon, producer of such films as Field of Dreams, Predator and Watchmen), Kaplan was told that the film was going to star either Robert Mitchum, Ernest Borgnine or Lee Marvin.  The prospect of working with any one of these legends stunned and excited the young filmmaker, but the biggest shock was yet to come. When he was asked to return for a second meeting (Kaplan still didn’t know if he was going to direct it or not), Gordon informs him that not only was he hired – but that Isaac Hayes was now the star. However, it was up to Hayes to approve of the young director. “I suddenly went from being considered a young soft-core filmmaker, to being young, talented and black”, jokes the director. “I went into this meeting thinking it was going to be either one of these three actors, to learning it was now Isaac Hayes and that I was on my way to his house to me him!”

Love Conquers All: Truck Turner (Isaac Hayes) and Annie (Annazette Chase)

“He couldn’t have been a nicer guy”, Kaplan continues during his interview for American Grindhouse. “We had a lot of the same music tastes and had similar ideas about what the film should be.” Those ideas would be about the depiction of violence in the film and most importantly the relationship between Tuner and his fresh-out-of-prison ladybird, Annie (Annezette Chase). While Truck Turner is certainly a thrill-a-minute action film,it’s the tender contrast of Hayes and Chase’s relationship that really makes it memorable. In a scene near the climax Truck, knowing there is a bounty on him and fearing for Annie’s life, stuffs her purse full of unpaid merchandise in a department store. Ensuring her safety by getting her arrested, Truck tips off the sales clerk and has Annie hauled off – having no idea of Truck’s selfless act of chivalry.

Released near the end of the blaxploitation boom, (which began respectively in 1970 with Cotton Comes To Harlem and essentially ended in 1975 with Paramount Picture’s Mandingo – one of the grandest of all misguided attempts from Hollywood attempting to cash in on the successes of exploitation filmdom) Truck Turner intentionally strays away from the  realism of Superfly or The Mack, and instead goes for broke with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. In many ways, this film predicts the comic value found in urban/ethnic stereotypes that would later find their way back into pop culture with Keenan Ivory Wayan’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988.

When looking back at all the greats (Coffy) and not-so-greats (Black Shampoo), Truck Turner truly stands out on its own during this era. This is due in large part to Hayes’ one and only starring role and Kaplan’s sensitivity as a director. The following year, Kaplan proved his chops yet again, by helming one of the greatest “hicksploitation” films, White Line Fever. Showing that he is just as capable of handling the struggles of working class truck drivers as he is with pimp chasing, gun-toting bounty hunters. Since then, Kaplan directed one the greatest teen movies of the 1980s, Over the Edge and Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance in The Accused. He continues today, working primarily in television.

And if you still need a reason to see this film, feast your eyes (and ears) on this collection of  amazing scenes featuring Nichelle Nichols’s scenery-chewing banter. According to Kaplan, most of her dialogue was ad-libbed.