Monday 28 December 2020

Streaming on Amazon Prime - John Baxter recommends CITIZENS BAND/HANDLE WITH CARE (Jonathan Demme, USA, 1977)

Paul LeMat, Citizen's Band


       Citizens Band radio has joined the VHS cassette, 45 rpm record and six-track tape on the dusty back shelf of technological history. It flourished for about a decade from the mid-1970s. With a reach of about about two kilometres, depending on terrain, it was tqken up by truckers to exchange information on sources of cheap gas, warn of speed traps, and, in emergencies, summon help. 

       Each user needed a nickname or “handle”, the most famous being Kris Kristofferson’s “Rubber Duck” in Convoy. Peckinpah’s film, along with Smokey and the Bandit and its clones, had fun with trucker slang, but Jonathan Demme’s 1977 Citizens Band may be the only film to treat CB as more than a source of colourful jargon.

       As talk abhors a vacuum, it was inevitable that CB, making each person in effect an independent broadcaster, would attract abuse. Its wavelengths soon swarmed with political and religious demagogues, pornographers, gossips and plain old-fashioned bores. 

       After trucker “Chrome Angel” (Charles Napier) almost dies because interlopers overwhelm the local emergency channel when he is trapped under his 18-wheeler outside Union, California, public-spirited co-ordinator “Spider” (Paul Le Mat, above) sets out to close them down, only to discover, dismayingly, that those creating the religious ravings, erotic musings and political rants are his neighbours and even members of his own family. 

Candy Clark, Roberts Blossom,  Citizen's Band

       Some offenders are just pathetic. His father, former trucker “Papa Thermodyne” (Roberts Blossom), is sullen and monosyllabic until a CB greeting from some passing driver restores him, briefly, to garrulous life. Others are defiant, belligerent, even menacing. In a society where the right to free speech is interpreted in its widest and least social sense, to curtail it even for the common good invites disaster. 

       Citizens Band was produced by agent Freddie Fields, new to this end of the business, an inexperience he shared with director Demme and writer Paul Brickman.In hopes of emulating American Graffiti, Demme used Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark from that film, not to mention its rural Californian setting.

       There are echoes of his apprentice features Crazy Mama and Caged Heat, and such Roger Corman productions as Monte Hellman’s maverick Cockfighter. The breathy invitation of eroticist “Elektra” to “Undo a few buttons” recalls the slogan “Wet Dreams and Open Jeans” dreamed up by Joe Dante to publicise a Corman feature. (Startled despite himself, the Emperor of Exploitation queried “Can we say that?”).

Charles Napier, Alix Elias, Citizen's Band

       Perhaps to soften what risked becoming the blackest of comedies, Brickman fleshed out the role of “Chrome Angel” who, stranded in Union with a broken arm, is exposed as a bigamist, with a family at either end of his route. When both wives demand his undivided attention, a compromise is brokered by “Hot Coffee” (Alix Elias), the prostitute whose move to a mobile home has vastly extended her sphere of operations, giving new meaning to the road-sign “Services”.

       Brickman further complicates the story by delving into LeMat’s conflicting loyalties to the people with whom he has grown up and the strangers who need his help. Some banal confrontations with ex-girlfriend Clark and his brother (an almost unrecognisably slim Bruce McGill in his debut role) simply add to his confusion, and ours.

       Citizens Band suffered the fate of most uncategorisable oddities, satisfying neither drive-in nor art house. Renaming it Handle With Care didn’t help. Its failure contributed to Brickman’s professional decline. After the success of his Risky Business,he did little of note. “I squandered a really good career,” he said later. “What can I say? I could've done more.”A pity. This engaging little film, a legitimate original, deserves to be enjoyed, in trucker terms, “Wall to wall and tree-top tall.”

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