Strongly influenced by Easy Rider, Deadhead Miles is a true artifact of its era. The story, if one can call it a story, concerns a trucker (Alan Arkin) who works for a shady hauling outfit. He's given a newly hijacked truck, complete with cargo but repainted and otherwise camouflaged, to drive to an unspecified destination. For no apparent reason other than sheer cussedness, he ditches his co-driver and takes off with the truck on his own. He has little or no idea about what to do with his truck or its cargo (thousands of carburetors), other than some rather vague notions concerning Mexico. He simply sets out west, and the rest of the film is his journey.
Early on, he picks up a hitchhiker, and a couple of small additional cargos. He's sometimes a little worried about the police, but usually treats them with a superior contempt which is completely unfounded. Even though he really has nowhere to go, he's in a great hurry to get there, but not so great that he won't take time out for incomprehensible side trips. Basically, Arkin drives across the western United States acting borderline crazy, and that's the film.
The plot synopsis might make it sound like I didn't like Deadhead Miles, but that's not quite true. It's just that the film is very hard to get a handle on. Perhaps its point is best expressed by an exchange between Arkin and the hitchhiker (Paul Benedict) in which Benedict suggests that he might be crazy, and Arkin counters that he's no more crazy than anyone else. Director Vernon Zimmerman and screenwriter Terrence Malick may be suggesting that everyone really is nuts. Or perhaps they are suggesting something else. Whatever, I found the movie to be fun, in a disjointed kind of way.
The major assets are Arkin and Malick's script. Arkin has never been better than this portrayal of a loony trucker without much direction. His idiotic schemes to get around obstacles are hilariously true to life, particularly because, once in a while, they work, just like in real life. Arkin is the epitome of a redneck gone slightly bananas. Benedict, a familiar character actor, makes a good foil, but his character's motivations are even more opaque than Arkin's, and he doesn't get the good lines. The rest of the cast is mostly cameos, including very brief bits from Ida Lupino and George Raft, and somewhat more substantial parts for Charles Durning, Loretta Swit, Richard Kiel, and director John Milius (back when he was just a script-writer himself).
Malick, who has gone on to direct Days of Heaven and Badlands, is responsible both for the strengths and weaknesses of Deadhead Miles. There is no direction in the script. On the other hand, there are many excellent lines and hilarious bits. My favorite line, which I would instantly incorporate into my signature if I believed in quotes in signatures, occurs when Arkin drops into a trailer park to visit his wife, only to discover that she's packed up and left, taking the trailer, without leaving any word: "Did you ever meet someone who said `We'll be wild and crazy and free', and then discover she was using the imperial we?"
Zimmerman directs very much in the spirit of the thing, with a loose hand and a willingness to take detours, even relatively unpromising ones. Either a firmer hand or a more warped mind might have been better for the film, though. Zimmerman has his moments, such as a montage in which Arkin teaches Benedict the proper way to throw bottles out of a moving truck so as to hit road signs. By and large, though, Zimmerman does not contribute an awful lot to Deadhead Miles.
Lots of people walked out of the screening of Deadhead Miles, and I can't say I blame them. Deadhead Miles is a prototypical "matter of taste". Whether or not you will enjoy it depends very much on your state of mind and your willingness to surrender yourself to a very different kind of movie. It's definitely not the film for someone who sees six movies a year. If you go to it with an open mind and won't be too upset if you don't really like it, then Deadhead Miles might be worth seeing. Of course, the hard part is finding it to see at all. Deadhead Miles certainly had one effect on me: it engendered a great desire to have the run of the Hollywood studios' films vaults for a few months, so I could get a look at what else they have socked away there.
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