Truck Turner (1974)
Starring Isaac Hayes, Yaphet Kotto, Alan Weeks, Annazette Chase, Nichelle Nichols, Sam Laws, Paul Harris, Dick Miller and Scatman Crothers. Directed by Jonathan Kaplan. From American-International Pictures.
Mack “Truck” Turner (Hayes) is a former football player turned “skip tracer” or bounty hunter. He and his partner, Jerry Barnes (Weeks) work for Nate Dinwiddie (Laws) chasing perpetrators who jump bail. Nate refers them to another bail bondsman, Fogarty (Miller), who is trying to locate murderous pimp, Richard Leroy “Gator” Johnson (Harris). Truck and Jerry take the job and, after a death-defying car chase, Gator eludes them and holes up at his pad. Truck and Jerry track him down and kill Gator in a gun battle.
This leaves Gator’s associate, Dorinda (Nichols), in charge of his string of prostitutes that she hopes to sell to the highest bidder. She informs Gator’s competitors that whoever eliminates Truck Turner will gain control of the girls. The only one willing to engage in the necessary violence is menacing Harvard Blue (Kotto). Trying to locate Truck, Blue puts the muscle on Nate and gets him to call Truck to come out in the open. Turner’s three sheets to the wind and asks Jerry to head to Nate’s office while he rousts himself. Nate has been pounded to a pulp and Jerry meets with severe violence when he runs into Blue and his crew. This enrages Truck Turner who all this time has had to deal with his girlfriend, Annie (Chase), who has been in and out of prison. Bent now on revenge against Blue for the damage he has done to his friends, Truck Turner is ready to throw down.
Leigh Chapman (1939-2014) was an actress who had played Napoleon Solo’s secretary on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before turning to screenwriting. Unique for a female, her specialty became action movies and she eventually wrote the pilot for Walker, Texas Ranger. American-International bought her script – written under the pseudonym Jerry Wilkes – for Truck Turner, a film written as a starring vehicle for Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum or Ernest Borgnine. But then, Isaac Hayes won an Oscar.
The man everyone called “Ike” became the third black person to win a competitive Academy Award when his “Theme from Shaft” won for Best Original Song in 1972. AIP badly wanted Isaac’s next soundtrack and so they agreed to let him take on his first starring role if he agreed to provide a score. Chapman’s original story was much altered and became a so-called “blaxploitation” movie. For a full discussion of these “urban action films” including what the term really means, see our 2-part look at these fascinating movies by clicking here.
Producer and director Jonathan Kaplan (b. 1947) was Van Heflin’s nephew through his mother, actress Frances Heflin. His father was blacklisted film composer Sol Kaplan who scored films noir including Niagara (1953) and episodes of Star Trek. After receiving tutoring from Martin Scorsese at NYU, Kaplan made the move west after Roger Corman offered him his first directing job. Later, Kaplan readily accepted the chance to work with Isaac Hayes as Kaplan had long been a fan of Memphis soul music. The two bonded on set and worked together to mold the story and the relationships in the film, making changes where they saw fit. The film shoot was a fun and collaborative affair with Kaplan helming the action but incorporating suggestions from all the actors. Kaplan was savvy enough to give his editor, Michael Kahn, who would soon become Steven Spielberg’s editor, winning Oscars for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), a free hand to make directorial choices and to allow his stunt men to be creative and add much realism to the action. I just read what I wrote about editor Kahn. Here’s another example of American-International Pictures being an incubator for a generation of celebrated film craftsmen. For more on the story of the studio’s co-founder, click here.
You don’t – or shouldn’t – need me to introduce Isaac Hayes to you, a man with few peers in the area of soul music. He got his start as a songwriter and in-house producer at Stax Records in Memphis where he and partner David Porter penned such classics as “Soul Man”, “When Something is Wrong With My Baby” and “Hold On, I’m Comin'”. Ike’s recording career began in 1968 with the jazzy, improvisational Presenting Isaac Hayes album. Then Stax fell on financial troubles and needed product quickly. Vice President Al Bell commissioned 27 new albums to be recorded by anyone on staff who was able. This necessity lead to Hot Buttered Soul, Hayes’ 1969 soul music landmark. After making history with Shaft in ’71 (an album that included “Café Regio’s”, my 14th-favourite song), Isaac released one of the greatest soul albums ever and my 4th-favourite album, Black Moses. Sadly, Isaac couldn’t maintain his momentum in music or in business but he made an indelible impression on soul music, movie music and the combination of the two. Isaac Hayes died at his home east of Memphis in 2008. He was 65.
Ike Hayes had previously appeared in Three Tough Guys earlier in ’74, a film for which he also supplied the soundtrack, but Truck Turner was his first and last starring role. I suppose you can see that acting is not Isaac’s primary skill but at the same time he acquits himself well. He does so by simply being himself and bringing his own cool charisma to the screen. The script for this film called for Truck to be a bad dude who was violent and verbally abusive to his girlfriend, Annie. AIP, in fact, wanted not only Hayes’ score but they wanted an excessive, Dirty Harry-type film. It was said, actually, that all the studio was interested in was a soundtrack LP and an explosive trailer to draw audiences in. Ike and Kaplan commiserated and the director wisely allowed Hayes to work with Annazette Chase constructing their relationship and ad-libbing much of their exchanges. Hayes is great in this film, providing exactly what is needed for the role; romance and menace.
Poor Yaphet Kotto, on the other hand, was at a bad point in his life at the time. He was going through a messy divorce and took the role of Harvard Blue in this film he thought beneath him simply because he needed the money. He was apparently a “snob” on the set but no one could deny the pedigree he brought to the project, his erudite carriage and the job he did with the role. He is good as Blue and he does lend an air of class to Truck Turner and plays the cold-blooded character well.
Yaphet was born in NYC to an American nurse and U.S. Army officer of Panamanian and West Indian descent and a father from Cameroon who was raised Jewish, as was Yaphet. Kotto also told those on the set of Truck Turner that he was a descendant of Cameroonian royalty and indeed he was. Kotto got his start on television and in small roles in films like 4 for Texas (1963) and The Thomas Crown Affair and 5 Card Stud (both 1968). In 1972, he starred in his first gritty urban drama, Across 110th Street alongside Anthony Quinn before earning his big break in the James Bond film than many include in the blaxploitation canon, Live and Let Die (1973). Kotto cemented his place in many viewers’ eyes and in the pop culture lexicon with his cool, ruthless portrayal of Mr. Big, the villain of Roger Moore’s first Bond picture. He could later be seen in the Pam Grier vehicle Friday Foster (1975) and Alien (1979). In the mid-Eighties he appeared in The Running Man and Midnight Run. He then scored a regular gig on Barry Levinson’s cop show Homicide: Life on the Street and he also was apparently one of the actors considered for the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Start Trek: The Next Generation. And get this; in 1967, Yaphet Kotto released the single “Have You Ever Seen the Blues” on Hugh Masekela’s record label, Chisa. Who knew?! Late in life Kotto found solace from the madness of fame in the remote community of Marmora, Ontario where he lived with his third wife, a Filipino. He died in 2021, aged 81, in his wife’s homeland.
Alan Weeks (1948-2015) was a minor actor who appeared in only 10 films, some of them quite notable including Shaft (1971), The French Connection (1972), Black Belt Jones (1974), Without a Trace (1983, his first since our film) and Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986). He’s well-cast here and does a good job as Truck’s partner. Also putting in a good performance is Annazette Chase as Truck’s sneak-thief girlfriend. Chase (b. 1943) was in The Mack (1973) with Richard Pryor, The Greatest (1977) in which she played Muhammad Ali’s wife opposite Ali himself and she wrapped her slight career with Pryor again in The Toy (1982) with Jackie Gleason.
Nichelle Nichols (b. 1932) is known the world over for her iconic and historically significant portrayal of Nyota Uhura, translator and communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise on Star Trek. It sounds negative to say but the role is the only notable part of Nichols’ career. She had fun, though, letting loose with her foul-mouthed, hard-as-nails portrayal of the madame Dorinda, suggesting lines and ideas for the character and generally playing it larger-than-life. Sam Laws (1924-1990) as Truck’s boss, Nate, is comical and then pitiable. He was a favourite of director Kaplan’s appearing – after playing Nate Dinwiddie here – as Pops Dinwiddie in Kaplan’s White Line Fever (1975) and as Pops Dinwitty in Kaplan’s Mr. Billion (1977). He was also in Hit Man (1972) with Bernie Casey and Walking Tall (1973).
Pasadena’s Paul Harris was a classically trained stage actor who paid the bills by appearing in the already-mentioned The Mack and Across 110th Street. He apparently had a hoot slumming as the outlandish pimp, Gator. The legendary and prolific Scatman Crothers has shown up in many notable pictures over the years. Like Yaphet Kotto, Scatman had been a recording artist, releasing singles and an album on Capitol Records. Some but not all of Scatman’s credits through the 1970’s and into the Eighties include; Lady Sings the Blues, The King of Marvin Gardens, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Black Belt Jones, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stay Hungry, The Shootist and The Shining. Poor Scatman – dig his terrible rug in our film – couldn’t remember a line to save his life. Most of his scene with Hayes was done with Crothers looking ostensibly at Truck but really just looking straight at cue cards out of view. The man born Benjamin Sherman Crothers in Terre Haute in 1910, died in Van Nuys in 1986 having amassed over 130 screen credits. It wouldn’t be AIP without Dick Miller. Miller – he wears his own fantastic coral pink jacket as bail bondsman Fogarty – was born in the Bronx on Christmas Day, 1928 and served in the US Navy before earning a PhD in psychology. He began his association with Roger Corman and American-International in 1955 with Miller’s first film, Apache Woman. Miller starred in Corman’s Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors and eventually appeared in scores of films for the studio and for other outfits; The Girls on the Beach, Ski Party, Beach Ball (all ’65), Wild Wild Winter, The Wild Angels (both ’66), The Dirty Dozen, The Trip (’67) and on and on. Maybe more B movie/drive-in flicks than any other actor, over 180 films. Miller died in Toluca Lake in 2019, aged 90.
I referred to the soundtrack for Truck Turner earlier and it is worth mentioning again. It is fantastic and bears all the earmarks of excellent soul music. I would consider it just as good or better than Isaac’s score from Shaft. The main title is as exciting as any 1970s theme and features wah-wah guitar and dramatic brass punctuations. Hayes does harken back to his award-wining song about the black private dick when he sings on the theme “There’s some dudes in a bar with busted heads and broken jaws. What hit ’em?” and the chicks reply “Truck Turner!”. The perfect soul soundtrack continues with forays into stone grooves and tender melodies with titles ranging from “Pursuit of the Pimpmobile” to “We Need Each Other Girl” to “Drinking” and “A House Full of Girls”; “I had a dream early this morning that would blow the average man’s mind. I was all alone is this house full of girls and every last one of them was mine”. No singles were released from the soundtrack and Isaac and Stax soon encountered financial difficulties and parted ways. But for over 70 minutes, the listener is treated to a wonderful time capsule and some stellar music.
Truck Turner grew on me quickly. The movie has much to offer in terms of action while at the same time it maintains a level of quality that keeps it from descending too lowly into gratuitous violence. In the early going, Hayes and Weeks present a fun camaraderie with some comedic back-and-forth that only sometimes overdoes it with the “gimme five!” sort of material. They really seem like buds. The early chase with Gator is well staged and action-packed and Nichols’ Dorinda is fun to watch as she spews expletives with southern-tinged vigour. Sam Laws as Truck’s boss provides a chuckle when he joins with Jerry to heckle Truck about his thieving girlfriend.
The film pivots ably though from comedy when the action gets heated. Things get deadly serious when Harvard Blue and his gang bring the heat on Jerry; the scene in which Truck’s partner answers the call is quite compelling. The hospital shoot out is cold-blooded. In a place dedicated to healing, Blue and his henchmen rain fire down trying to snuff out Turner. Doctors are shot, people in wheelchairs are knocked over, guys in full leg casts are bowled over and a poor little kid is used as a shield. Spoiler here but Blue’s demise is a riveting scene. Played silently, it is harrowing. Yaphet Kotto shines here with one of the better death scenes you’re likely to see. Director Kaplan utilized a technique he learned from Martin Scorsese that has the camera attached to the actor giving the viewer a front row seat as Harvard Blue staggers and the life ebbs out of him. Excellent scene. The viewer cannot relax though as Truck heads off to deal with Dorinda.
The big appeal of blaxploitation films mostly comes from the physical settings. Much like film noir benefits from practical locations in general and LA specifically, the same applies to many of these urban action films in general and Truck Turner specifically. Truck and Jerry chase Gator’s pink Lincoln through the streets of downtown but also San Pedro. You can see them speed past the old National Cold Storage facility at 210 Center Street and Gator smokes a beautiful Mustang at 612 Jackson Street.
Gator’s interesting crib is out in Silver Lake, a neighbourhood in east-central Los Angeles, and Truck throws down against The Insurance Company at a fascinating home two blocks down from the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Blvd. The home on 1235 Sierra Alta Way still stands today. Dorinda’s mansion is an empty home used as a location for many movies.
Truck’s apartment is in the Brownleigh Apartments at 626 St. Paul Avenue, Dorinda has some maintenance done at a salon on Ventura in Encino and poor Annie is a frequent guest at the Lincoln Heights Jail. Truck picks her up there twice in his convertible; neither time is she very happy with him. Truck and Annie stroll through Pershing Square. The scene features extras who aren’t; you see real citizens unaware that a film is being shot.
Truck Turner is a blaxploitation film with some class, one that is not too excessive. You actually get a quality story and presentation with some of the audacity these films are known for thrown in. You get a fun cast who know what they’re about, a canny director who pulled it all together and you get a great time cruising Los Angeles circa 1974.