This month, I thought I’d change things up a bit, and instead of picking a film to review myself, I decided to go back through the numerous reader comments on my past movie columns and chose one of your recommendations. I also felt like choosing a film I had never seen before, so for this month’s iteration of Rob’s Car Movie Review, I present to you The California Kid (1974)!
The California Kid was a television movie produced by Universal Television, originally airing in the U.S. on September 25, 1974, on ABC. Written by Macon County Line screenwriter, Richard Compton, and helmed by seasoned TV director, Richard T. Heffron, the movie featured an ensemble cast, including Martin Sheen, Nick Nolte, Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas fame, and the late, great Vic Morrow.
The story begins en medias res in 1958, as two sailors on leave race along a winding mountain road near the small town of Clarksberg. They’re trying to get back to base before they are declared AWOL. They are intercepted by Sheriff Roy Childress (Morrow), who with malice, forces their car off the road, sending it plunging down a gorge, killing the sailors.
Some time later, a stranger arrives in Clarksberg, driving a flashy hot rod. He deliberately provokes Childress into giving him a speeding ticket, for which he is hauled before the judge. It is revealed that he is Michael McCord (Martin Sheen), the older brother of one of the sailors who was killed.
With the help of local waitress, Maggie (Michelle Phillips), McCord learns some details of his brother’s accident, and intimate information about the Sheriff’s life, including the fact that his wife and child died as a result of an accident caused by a speeder. Befriending the town’s auto mechanic, Buzz Stafford (Nick Nolte), McCord gains access to the impound yard, where he inspects his brother’s wrecked car. That’s when he notices that the rear bumper is dented, and realizes the marks resemble dents possibly made by the push bars similar to those on the Sheriff Childress’ car.
McCord drives to the curve on the mountain road where his brother’s car went off. He repeatedly and successfully speeds through the curve several times at high speed, proving to himself that his brother’s car should have made it through the curve safely, even if he was speeding. McCord is now sure that Childress was responsible for his sibling’s death.
Soon after, Stafford’s younger brother is forced off the road and killed by the Sheriff, prompting Stafford to seek revenge. McCord persuades Stafford to let him get revenge for both of them by duping Childress into a high-speed pursuit to the death on the very same road that the Sheriff has turned into a graveyard.
The California Kid is a small film, limited in budget and scope, such as TV movies of the era were. In spite of this, the film is exceedingly well directed and acted, with standout performances by all of the leads. The story moves along smoothly if somewhat laconically, and leads to a fitting climax at the end.
Which brings us to the cars. The automotive star of the film is McCord’s hot rod, a heavily modified and chopped 1934 Ford three-window coupe. Glorious in its black paint with iconic flames on the sides, the car dominates every scene it’s in.
Built in the early seventies by Pete Chapouris of Pete & Jake’s Hot Rod Repair, the coupe was fitted with a 302 Ford V8, an FMX transmission, and Halibrand wheels. The car was modified slightly for the film, with the addition of non-functioning side pipes, a C-channel rear bumper, and steel-wheels with stock ford hubcaps in lieu of the Halibrands.
The other automotive highlight of the film is Sheriff Childress’ awesome 1957 Plymouth Belvedere police cruiser. Ridiculously big and long, and with an ostentatious grille and huge tail fins, the Belvedere looks amazing, especially with its blue and white police paint scheme.
Other cars in the movie include a 1953 Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, a super-cool 1964 Checker Marathon (which brought me back to my childhood in New York City where I often rode in Checker cabs), and a 1951 Ford Custom.
The California Kid is a neat little gem of an automotive film, one that I am glad was brought to my attention by a loyal reader. It’s a quick watch with excellent performances and superb automotive action. For these reasons I give it seven out of ten pistons.