Movie Review: “Deadhead Miles,” an abandoned Alan Arkin film scripted by Terrence Malick

A friend pointed me to an Internet appreciation of this “lost” 1972 Terrence Malick-scripted road comedy, a movie partially-filmed in a city where I used to live — Knoxville, Tennessee.

“Deadhead Miles” is a loosely-organized, largely-improvised long-haul trucking tale that ventures from the Tennessee/Virginia line to the desert Southwest. Oddly enough, when I was living in Knoxville, Ridley Scott came through scouting for this road picture he was about to shoot about two women on the lam in a T-bird. He ended up limiting that one to the desert Southwest and environs. Perhaps some Knoxvillian warned him about “Deadhead Miles,” which was shelved, then barely released (Drive-ins, maybe?) and lost.

As hard as it was to get any movie made in the late ’60s and early ’70s, you saw more than one version of this pseudo-existential road picture during that era, this one riffing on “Easy Rider.” “Odd” and “indulgent” misfires were everywhere as Hollywood tried to figure out the new formula for success. Robert Altman’s nearly-unwatchable “Brewster McCloud,” “C.C. & Company” and loads of B-movies came out with a “quirky” bent, the romance of the open road their only organizing principle, a “name” or two in the credits and limited audience appeal.

Sam Peckinpah’s “Convoy,” Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose” and assorted TV series and C.W. McCall’s novelty hit song “Convoy” celebrated the modern loner “cowboys” behind the wheels of tractor trailers. Steven Spielberg sent that genre up with “Duel.”

“Deadhead Miles” — that’s a trucking term for empty (no profit, lost money) trips between loads — begins with a simple but labor-intense hijacking organized by Durazno (veteran character actor Oliver Clark), a guy with some unknown beef with the trucking industry. He and his crew stage a crash, tear-gas a trucker and Cooper (Alan Arkin, beginning a long career disappearing act from his ’60s peak) is their designated driver.

The rig is repainted, re-licensed, re-labeled and run down the road so that they can sell its cargo — thousands of carburetors. That’s what ran American cars before the magic of “fuel injection,” kids. The unsellable load is bad enough. But when Cooper slyly ditches the gang (Avery Schreiber is among the character actors in it), he’s on his own.

Until, that is, he’s badgered by a couple of hitchhikers and their dog. He’ll only take one, so Paul Benedict (“The Jeffersons”) it is, his somewhat boon companion for a cross-country odyssey to New Mexico.

“It’s hard work,” the hitcher remarks, making small talk. “What you mean is that it ain’t IN-ter-estin’ work,” Cooper replies, in perhaps the only Southern drawl in Alan Arkin’s (eventual) Oscar-winning career.

Roadhouses where they run into the likes of fellow drivers like “The Duke of Interstate 40” (Hector Elizondo, a decade before “Pretty Woman”), surface roads lined with farm stands, Double Bubble Cola and Schlitz signs, a stop at a drive-in to watch “Samson & Delilah,” a bizarre brothel (a hooker tied to a wood stove, so she can’t flee), an overnight encounter with a rolling brothel (a Ford “woody” wagon with a naked “road whore” advertising her wares), they see it all.

Cooper lets “bennie take the wheel” (popping uppers to stay awake), and brags about getting out of tickets (which he never does) every time the cops pull him over.

“Ok, Buddy, you’re gonna see a man step in a bucket of s–t and come out with his SHOES shined!”

The direction, by drive-in trade mediocrity Vernon Zimmerman, is competent, but haphazard and pedestrian. If you’re looking for something resembling a Terrence Malick script here, good luck. The road and caper comedy tropes served up include double crosses, bungled efforts to unload the carburetors and an encounter with a trucking myth — a helpful repair in the middle of nowhere by a ghost (Bruce Bennett) dressed in cowboy black, driving a jet-black rig.

If Malick researched this trucking script, my guess is that it began and ended with listening to country music radio in the “Phantom 309” “Six Days on the Road” era. Dave Dudley, who sang that last classic, sings several songs on the soundtrack.

The best you can say about “Deadhead Miles” is that it’s a fascinating Alan Arkin-tries-to-improv-a-movie artifact, indulgent and screwy and not funny, not profound — with cameos by George Raft, Ida Lupino, Loretta Swit, Charles Durning and future Bond villain Richard “Jaws” Kiel dressing up the roadside tour of America before the Oil Embargo and the completion of the Interstates turned us into the highway monoculture you see today.

MPA Rating: R, nudity, sexual situations, profanity

Cast: Alan Arkin, Paul Benedict, Oliver Clark, Avery Schreiber, Hector Elizondo, Charles Durning, Loretta Swit, George Raft and Ida Lupino

Credits: Directed by Vernon Zimmerman, script by Terrence Malick. A Paramount release on Youtube.

Running time: 1:27

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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