Young Don Johnson and Nick Nolte Find Trouble in the Deep South



The year before the negligible fluff that is Richard Compton’s Return to Macon County came out, there was the uneasy and at times disturbing Macon County Line– a humble independent movie that went on to become one of the most profitable of the 1970s.  Claiming to be based on a true story (it’s not), Macon County Line starred brothers Alan and Jesse Vint as the central young dudes who find themselves caught up in a violent mistaken identity case.  Return has young Don Johnson and Nick Nolte (looking like an upsized Richie Cunningham in this, his first film role). The movie may not be as good, but they’re far more charismatic.

The connection between Macon County Line, also directed by Richard Compton, quite likely isn’t something that executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff simply tacked onto the movie for promotional purposes, as the characters zip past a huge sign it says “leaving Macon County “, and the camera zooms in on it.  There’s no audio commentary on this Kino Lorber Blu-ray to clarify, but it appears that Compton, who also scripted Return, deliberately set out to rip himself off.

It’s 1958 in the Deep South, and Nolte and Johnson are tearing around in a bright yellow ’57 Chevy with fins so sharp they could almost cut off our memories of how good the original Macon County Line was.  To use the vintage TV spot’s verbiage, they’re “two throttle-jockeys pushing the hottest thing on rubber”. Johnson is the mechanic, and Nolte is the driver. They’re headed for California to find glory on the racing circuit. They’ve already got a few trophies, but they aim to complete the set.  The car is secretly super-charged, which results in one of them getting his butt kicked after a street race that had cash at stake.

Then they meet Junelle.  Junelle, the most engaging character in this movie (as played by Robin Mattson) is young, self-assured, and free.  She has short hair, a cute smile, a cute gun, and maybe a death wish. She’s also kind of nuts.  If Nick Nolte is dressed like James Dean (not-so-subtle-critique-chic: red jacket, white shirt, blue jeans), then she’s dressed like a girl James Dean. In any case, the token girl in this Macon County movie has a lot more to do then just ride along, get laid, and then get killed.  Yes, trouble erupts, and yes, our youthful protagonists get right on caught up in it.  But the outcome of Return is nowhere near as dire as that of its predecessor.

Despite sharing the same director, it turns out that the connection to Macon County Line is tenuous at best. Other than taking place in the 1950s, and in the same general good ‘ol place (the Louisiana/Georgia state line), this one seems to be called “Return to Macon County“ only because the characters go to Macon County, and then they go there again.  It turns out that it’s explicitly not a sequel- even though it’s clearly all to happy to trade on the name.

Considering Compton’s consistent semi-verité approach, it’s hard to fully deduce how much of Return is him deliberately breaking off from Line’s ubiquitous originator and co-star, Max Baer, Jr. (The Beverly Hillbillies).  Whereas Baer’s original is eventually so pronounced in its progressive statements on things like race and gun culture that it remains apt to this day, Return seems to be Compton saying, “This is the lighter kids & cars movie that I really wanted to make that takes place in the ‘whites only’ American south”.  

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of this movie looks exceedingly excellent. Probably more excellent that it has any right to. That is, considering its status as a 1970s American International Pictures teenage drive-in programmer.  In any case, it definitely looks far better than the Warner’s DVD of Compton’s Macon County Line, which I watched right before this one.  Not many extras on the Blu-ray aside from a few TV and radio promos that someone dug up, but the disc does have reversible artwork.  

Though AIP is not quite Hollywood, in its 1960s and ‘70s heyday, it certainly did its share of business.  Arkoff locked in on the emerging teen market long before major studios took the demographic seriously and made a name for his studio in the process.  Exploitation?  Of course.  (It’s a PG, but the film pushes the limits on that in a pre-PG-13 era).  But, it’s fair to say that in contrast to several of the other indie distributors courting the youth market, AIP was most likely to tread above the rest.  Return to Macon County is a case in point.  It’s got an inherent shamelessness about it, but once you’re beyond that line, it stands as a just-fine kids & cars caper.