Looting, pilfering, plundering, robbing, and generally having the time of their lives.
A magnum farce.
Released in New York in June of 1974, Jack Starrett's madcap caper film The Gravy Train received a fairly even mix of good and bad reviews. The film must not have done very good business because when it re-emerged in Los Angeles in November of that year, it was as The Dion Brothers. Since its original release, the film, under either title, has been quite elusive. It had a primetime network airing in 1978 and was a late night television staple for the next decade or so. In the late 90s it received a boost from Quentin Tarantino who included it in his one of his "neglected 70s" film festivals and, more recently, David Gordon Green cited it as a major influence on his Pineapple Express and featured it in a film series that he curated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Co-written by Terrence Malick (under the pseudonym David Whitney), the film is something of a mess structurally, but it contains a raucous energy and a genuinely zany, and deceptively simplistic, sense of humor. Small town West Virginia brothers Calvin (Stacy Keach) and Rut Dion (Frederic Forrest) quit their factory jobs, which they despise, to make their fortunes as armed robbers in Washington D.C. The more worldly Calvin leaves first and hooks up with a gang led by the twitchy Tony (Barry Primus). Tony plans to rip off an armored truck and enlists the help of Calvin, Carlos (Richard Romanus), Rex (Denny Miller), and Rut. Tony double-crosses Rex and the Dion brothers, but fails to finish off Calvin and Rut, who spend the rest of the film hunting for Tony and their cut of the heist. Along the way, the brothers convince Tony's girlfriend, Margie (Margot Kidder, post-Sisters and looking quite lovely), to help them track him down.
Note the last minute nature of the film's re-titling.
Director Starrett is very adept at filming the action sequences as he had cut his teeth on motorcycle epics such as The Losers and Blaxploitation hits Slaughter and Cleopatra Jones. The pleasant surprises are the absurd touches-- the film opens with a shirtless Calvin quitting his job at a canning factory and maniacally screaming, "Look at me! I got the makings of a Kirk-fucking-Douglas!!" Where most movie crooks seek sex, or drugs, or their own criminal empire, all Calvin wants is to open a fancy seafood restaurant that serves things like escargot. At one point, the brothers impersonates cops, steal a squad car, and find "one of them funny cigarettes" in the glove compartment. Calvin tells his brother, "Light that sucker up and let's take a cosmic ride." Keach and Forrest are a winning team and their engaging performances take the characters beyond standard Southern caricatures.
I've read that Malick was removed from the film as director (explaining his pseudonymous credit) here, but cannot locate any further documentation to elaborate on or corroborate it. The famously elusive and reclusive Malick is no help in the matter, and it's unclear how much of the film, and which parts, should be attributed to Malick, co-screenwriter Bill Kerby, or Starrett. Whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations, Keach, who remains criminally underrated in film circles, was said to be so happy about his performance and the film, that he wrote executive producer Roger Gimbel to tell him he thought it was his best screen work up until that time. This is saying something when one considers the powerhouse performance Keach gave in John Huston's late career classic Fat City.
The new campaign's artwork emphasizes the brotherly bond and lets the critical raves speak to the film's comedic side.
For all the film's laughs and hijinks, however, a sense of sadness pervades the film, especially with concern to the fate of the brothers, because it is clear from the start that they are in way over their heads. Fittingly, as the films winds to a close, Starrett plays to his strengths, emphasizing action, while downplaying the humor and ending on a sober note. This all-over-the-map approach, from social critique to comedy to action to drama surely drives many critics and viewers nuts, and numerous films that attempt it fail in one aspect or another, but The Gravy Train/The Dion Brothers is able to navigate those waters and succeeds in spite of its limited budget and general messiness. It is easy to see where the film has influenced the likes of Tarantino who repeatedly pays loving homage to Gravy Train and its ilk, albeit with more money and in a slicker form. However, with hindsight, Gravy Train's lack of spit and polish, an aspect which is rarely, if ever, imitated by the younger generation, is a significant part of the film's overall appeal.
My DVD of the film, which comes from an Encore Action airing, is noticeably without any type of studio logo. The film was originally distributed by Columbia Pictures, however, it was independently produced by Jonathan Taplin, who'd previously served as tour manager for Bob Dylan and the Band and produced Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, and was financed by Tomorrow Entertainment, a subsidiary of General Electric. An April 1974 article in the Los Angeles Times identifies The Gravy Train as the first in a ten-picture deal between Tomorrow Entertainment and Columbia. I'm not certain this deal was ever completed. Regardless, the film's somewhat convoluted production and ownership history, might explain its complete absence from any legitimate home video format. Hopefully, whatever legal ends need to be cleared up, will be, sometime soon. If the film is ever to be released to home video, the only remaining question will be which title to release it under--The Gravy Train or The Dion Brothers?
Here's the pre-credit "Kirk Douglas" sequence. "Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy.":