By David G. Firestone
Kids who street race has been a movie trope for years now. From American Graffiti to The Fast and The Furious, there are no shortage of movies featuring street racing. But when did this tread start? Well, it’s not as straight forward as it might seem. Some movies aren’t so much about telling a story, so much as they are about teaching morals. The subject of dangerous driving has spawned a number of movies. Sometimes, these movies were shown at schools as part of a class. Other times they were theatrically released.
That brings us to this week’s movie, The Devil on Wheels. The Devil on Wheels is a safety movie disguised as a drama. Produced by Benjamin Stoloff and directed by Crane Wilbur, the movie is less than subtle about the fact that hot rods and speeding are bad. Supposedly, it’s also the first movie to show women in bikini tops, but since two piece suits are hundreds of years old, I’m taking that fact with a grain of salt. What is the movie like?
Like any other ham-fisted old moral movie, it starts with vintage ominous music. Shots of cars filmed from an overpass play under the opening credits. The movie opens with Michael and Todd working on their hot rod, and discussing various adjustments, when they are joined by Rusty and Peggy.
Mickey’s father John gets a new Ford, and is driving it home, when he witnesses a horrific car accident that kills a little girl. The father was driving fast, missed a curve, which resulted in the death of the daughter. John wants to act as a witness, but is rebuffed. John makes it home, and the entire neighborhood comes over to see the new car. The hot rodders are impressed that the speedometer goes up to 120, and John lectures them on the dangers of speeding.
John takes the family on a drive, and promptly proves himself a hypocrite, dangerously passing multiple lines of cars, until he causes a fender bender. John freaks out on the other driver, until a cop shows up, and starts writing tickets to John. The scene shifts to court, where it’s revealed that the car John hit is the town judge, who tells him that his driving habits are awful. The judge, Judge Roger Tanner, lets John off with a lecture. On the way home, John nearly gets hit by a passing car. He again proves he’s a hypocrite, by complaining. The kids know the judge’s daughter from the country club.
The scene shifts to the country club pool, where Mickey starts hitting on Sue, the judge’s daughter. Using the accident as an excuse, they start a conversation which ends with Sue telling Jeff off. Rusty and Peggy are smitten with Jeff. Eventually, Jeff and Sue go out for a date. They seem to hit it off.
John takes his wife to the train station, and goes back to his old driving habits. They discuss Mickey’s new hot rod, which is seen driving, but has some issues under the hood. Rusty and Peggy mock Mickey for his slow driving habits, and not drag racing. The teasing works, and Mickey drives to the drag race. This includes a scene where a bunch of kids discuss their cars in hilarious scripted manners.
The first race is a free for all, to check out the new drivers. It eventually attracts the attention of the police, and all involve scatter. One driver gets caught, and the group has been arrested. Judge Tanner summons the kids, and makes it clear that hot rods are banned, and that anyone who violates this ruling, will have their parents summoned to courts. John makes Mickey gives up his hot rod.
Mickey and Todd speed and drive wrecklessly to catch his mom’s train. They run a railroad crossing, and they pull in to a mortuary, to lose the cops. The scene shifts to a beach at night, here the group is hanging out. Peggy is scared that she failed her finals, Rusty is smitten with Todd. As they listen to the radio, they hear a story about a hot rod that ran into the ocean. They speculate as to who the driver is, and decide to stop in the morgue.
Since the morgue is closed, they decide to break it, through a back door. Peggy is justifiably resistant to the whole situation. As they walk through the morgue, they feel the need to ring the doorbell, before entering a door, which leads to an office. They discuss the various items in the room, before focusing on a table with a cloth. The cloth starts to move, which is actually a cat. There is an eerie noise, which turns out to be dripping water.
Mickey eventually finds his way into a room with bodies in it. After some searching, he finds a body with a toe tag, revealing that the driver was Bob Cooper, who the group knows. As this is going on, a police officer arrives, and the group scatters, leaving Rusty behind. As the group discusses what to do, the cops arrive, a chase ensues, and the end result is a fatal accident.
Rusty is trapped in the morgue, and Mickey sneaks back into his house. Jeff and Sue arrive, and John meets with the two of them. Sue and John clear the air, and it’s revealed that the two are going to get engaged. The happy moment is interrupted by a phone call, which troubles John. The three of them leave. Mickey wanders around aimlessly, until a news report reveals that Todd has died in a crash that also killed Mickey’s mother.
Sue tries to console Mickey, but Mickey is convinced that his mother is still alive. Mickey calls his uncle, hoping that his mother is still there. As he talks, it becomes clear that his mother is, in fact, dead. Mickey is devastated. Mickey insists on going to the hospital, and meets with Jeff and John. Jeff tells a distraught Mickey to “be a man” and the three of them go into a room, where it’s revealed that his mother is alive, but just barely. Mickey reveals that he was the hit and run driver, and that Todd was the driver killed in the wreck. John disowns Mickey, but Jeff comes to his defense.
Mickey is arrested, and charged with suspicion of manslaughter. Jeff accompanies Mickey to the police station. The scene shifts to the police station, where Rusty is discussing the situation with her father and the prosecutor. He claims that she encouraged the behavior, and has responsibility.
At the trial, it’s revealed that Mickey’s mother will recover. In front of the judge, John claims that he is just as responsible for what happened. He proceeds to give a long-winded and melodramatic speech about the whole series of events. Mickey pleads guilty. The judge tells him not to tell his mother about the proceedings. At the hospital, Mickey tearfully tells his mother about the accident. At the end of the movie, John and his wife go to pick up Mickey. John almost goes back to his old ways, in the passenger seat, until he hears a police siren, and he realizes the truth. The movie fades to black.
I’m going to give the movie a B-. There really isn’t that much racing to speak of, and the racing shown uses sped up footage. The movie is more about driving safely. In this respect it does get the message across. The acting is good, and the set design is decent. Some of the writing could use work, though. The only race shown has a sequence where a series of rodders discussing their cars. It’s not very well scripted, and it comes across as awkward.
My one real complaint here, is that the movie is told from the perspective of the teenagers, and as a result, the laws and cops are considered the enemy. In this sense, the movie hurts itself. Other than that, there are no real antagonists in the movie, which does hurt it a little more. It’s not a terrible movie, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
Next week, another hot rod movie, The Hot Rod Story Drag Racing.