Classic Film Review: Frankenheimer and Peck learn what Johnny Cash meant when he sang “I Walk the Line” (1970)

The last time I interviewed screen legend Gregory Peck, I had the temerity to ask if there were any “regrets” among his 58 on screen credits.

He didn’t hesitate. “McKenna’s Gold,” he said. Something about the unpleasant ensemble experience, the silly story, the odd action beats, riled him decades after making it. And he didn’t want to dwell on it.

So I did two tactful things, as one should when meeting a screen idol of one’s youth. I dropped it. And I didn’t contradict him. Because while the cheesy action epic “McKenna’s Gold” wasn’t anybody’s idea of an awards’ season contender, and there are some who ridiculed his Nazi turn in “The Boys from Brazil,” “I Walk the Line” might be the consensus selection “worst film” of those who followed Peck’s long and storied career.

The vague memories of my parents taking it in on TV, being Johnny Cash fans, are all that’s stuck with me about it through the decades. But being a John Frankenheimer completist, I thought I’d take another look.

It’s a 1970 film parked squarely in the highly-paid doldrums of Frankenheimer’s career, years removed from “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Train,” coming after “The Gypsy Moths” and the disastrous “The Extraordinary Seaman.” According to Peck, Frankenheimer skipped town before editing “I Walk the Line” to go make an Omar Shariff bomb titled “The Horsemen” overseas. He later made the “French Connection” sequel, the terrorism blockbuster (and bust) “Black Sunday,” and didn’t really salvage his reputation until 1998’s “Ronin,” after first reaching the very bottom, thanks to “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”

Frankenheimer had Alvin Sargent, already an acclaimed screenwriter (“The Sterile Cuckoo”) and bound for Oscar glory in the late 70s (“Julia”) and early ’80s (“Ordinary People”), the man entrusted with two Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” sequels in the 2000s.

And he had an Oscar winning star twice as old as his leading lady, a tall, thin and heroic actor hitting the end of his leading man years, wholly miscast as a “righteous” but restless rural sheriff facing an existential crisis, and temptation, in the form of a hillbilly moonshiner’s daughter stereotype played by Tuesday Weld.

It’s a Cracker Gothic Tennessee tale, similar to the grittier and even more stereotypical “Lolly-Madonna XXX” which came out a few years later, neither of them great films but the latter outing much more exciting and watchable.

Sheriff Tawes is introduced, staring mournfully out over a Jenkins Co. dam and reservoir (Gainesboro, Tenn. was the location), pondering the past and staring at the ever-narrowing confines of his future. He lives with his aged father, tween daughter and a chatty wife (Estelle Parsons) whom he barely speaks to.

And then he pulls over some joyriding rednecks, a boy recklessly at the wheel with his older sister (Weld) cackling at their hijinks. Maybe the sheriff notes what’s in the bed of that 1940s Ford pick-up. Maybe he’s distracted by the pretty 20something. But her widowed father (Ralph Meeker, in fine form) is all questions when she gets home and confesses.

“Did he TOUCH you? Did he WANNA touch you?” And most importantly, “Did he see the SUGAR?”

Alma and her kin are moonshiners. And veteran character actor Meeker lets us see the wheels spinning as he turns over in his head how he can turn that “attention” to their advantage.

An oily, lazy and officious “Federal” Internal Revenue man (Lonny Chapman) is in town, a “revenuer” looking for moonshiners. The drawling, shifty and ever-spitting deputy (Charles Durning) is eager to help. The sheriff? That just got a bit more complicated.

“People here just try to survive, that’s all. Some make a little moonshine, don’t really harm nobody.”

His lust might be getting the better of him, not that Peck was ever that good at playing lust. But something’s blinded him, because anybody watching this can see the honey trap he’s walking into and the line he hasn’t walked, not since we first met him, contemplating ways to get out of this backward hellhole.

Southern stories like this turned up in the ’60s and ’70s, often dealing with race (“In the Heat of the Night”) or some florid Tennessee Williams vision of a decayed, corrupt South where even the “local characters” could no longer fit in.

The Eastern half of Tennessee was never plantation country, so “race” in the film is limited to a single slur. Even today, Gainesboro, Tennessee is 94% white. We never see a Black face.

The accepted rural white Southern tropes of “Deliverance” are here, in montages of the old, the barely-above-the-poverty-line locals and the tumbledown houses. We never see evidence of how “without this still, we ain’t got nothing,” because even with this still, the McCain family has nothing — an abandone kid house they may rent, a derelict grist mill where they hide the still.

That lowers the stakes, which are pretty low to start with. There isn’t much to this script, based on a Madison Jones novel. Which is one reason Columbia Pictures bought the rights to a few Johnny Cash tunes to give this a timeless, tragic folk song narrative quality — the title tune, “Flesh & Blood,” etc.

Peck does what he can, and Weld, Meeker, Parsons and Durning carry more than their share of the load, seeing as how little Sheriff Tawes says and how blind he is to what’s coming.

And in the end, we’re left with the frustrating feeling that we still haven’t seen what this movie is and is about.

Blame Peck. Bame Frankenheimer, who really lost his mojo through most of the ’70s and all of the ’80s. A few good lines of dialogue don’t absolve Sargent, either.

It must have been a relief to any and all the survivors of “I Walk the Line” when “Walk the Line” came out and erased this black mark from internet searches, a “classic” that never was.

Rating: PG-13, violence, a racial slur, one sexual situation

Cast: Gregory Peck, Tuesday Weld, Estelle Parsons, Charles Durning and Ralph Meeker.

Credits: Directed by John Frankenheimer, scripted by Alvin Sargent, based on a novel by Madison Jones. A Columbia release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 1:37

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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