It Came From the Basement: Thumb Tripping
By John Seal
June 23, 2005
Thumb Tripping (1972 USA)
The story: Gary is a quiet young student in search of himself. He can’t figure things out at college, so he takes a semester off and embarks on the Great American Road Trip, where he encounters an assortment of characters who challenge both his perceptions of the counter-culture and his faith in humanity.
The film: It’s 1972, and the watch words around America are acid, amnesty, and abortion. Kids across the nation have already turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, leaving the country with a surfeit of stoned street musicians. They’re still trying to find the meaning of life and their place in the universe, however - and that’s what this peripatetic road movie is all about.
Enter Gary (Michael Burns), a winsome, rather innocent middle-class lad slumming it on the highways and by-ways of the good ol’ U. S. of A. He’s determined to take life by the short hairs and face every challenge squarely - and there are challenges aplenty for him (albeit mostly formulaic ones) in the 90 plus minutes of Thumb Tripping.
The film commences on a fog-bound central California beach near Big Sur as the local fuzz round up the latest batch of hippies for deportation to more accommodating climes. Amongst the tribe is sleepy-eyed Shay (Meg Foster), the prototypical hippie chick with a serious case of wanderlust, and the aforementioned Gary, a Connecticut refugee whose clean-shaven face belies his curiosity and his questioning personality. The two don’t know each other, but after casting knowing looks at each other in the back of the Black Maria, bingo - they’re travelling partners and erstwhile lovers. An idyllic five finger lunch in the sleepy seaside resort of Carmel (where Clint Eastwood would one day become mayor) finds love blooming and beachside soup boiling over as the twosome share a sparse meal of bread and broth with two fellow travelers biking their way up the coast.
Morning comes, however, and brings with it the first fly in the ointment for our protagonists. As they trudge north along the highway, destination anywhere, a speeding car nearly runs them over, and Gary loudly lambastes the driver with some choice language. That’s a big mistake, as the man behind the wheel is a complete loony named, appropriately, Simp (Larry Hankin). Even worse, knife-wielding hippie-hater Smitty, played to full tilt perfection by cinematic wild man Bruce Dern, is riding shotgun. Incredibly, the four make a tenuous peace and Smitty and Simp offer a ride as recompense for their hazardous driving - but some rides are more expensive than others, even when there’s no money exchanged, and Gary and Shay soon regret accepting their hospitality. After a scary admonishment from Smitty, accompanied by some threatening gestures from his trusty blade, our clueless couple are once again looking for new transport.
They find it in the form of a woman (Joyce Van Patten) whose bitter curiosity about the hippie lifestyle stems from the loss of a runaway daughter. Matters aren’t helped by the additional presence in the car of the woman’s two incredibly bratty children, and after enduring a few maternal lectures there’s a mutual parting of the ways at the foot of a cliff. Luckily for Shay and Gary, however, friendly truck driver Diesel (Mike Conrad) takes a bathroom break above them, and after peeing all over them kindly offers them a warm and dry place in the cab of his big rig. Alas, Gary’s faith in mankind is tested once again when Shay and Diesel engage in a little consensual hanky panky at the next truck stop. Turns out free love is for HIPPIES, not bald working class guys, and jealous Gary breaks up the party and almost breaks up with Shay. But the two have one more brief fling in store before the final fadeout, and after reconciling they meet Jack and Lynn, a grumpy married couple from Santa Rosa with a penchant for open liquor containers in their classic Chevy convertible. After a beer-drenched skinny dipping and necking party and a drunken sojourn in a local bar, Gary has had enough and leaves Shay somewhere near the Russian River. He’s no closer to the meaning of life than when the film started, and he probably has a nasty set of blisters to boot.
The cast and crew: Stoic Michael Burns (Gary) got his acting start as an adolescent on television. He appeared in everything from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Love American Style and Wagon Train before retiring from screens large and small in favor of an academic career. Thumb Tripping provided co-star Meg Foster (Shay) with her first big role, and she went on to a long and moderately successful stage and screen career. Her credits include the notorious cannibalism drama, Welcome to Arrow Beach, the excellent Gary Busey feature Carny, the equally fine TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, and, erm, Masters of the Universe. Buxom Marianna Hill (Lynn) also bounced between TV and the movies, including a pair of Elvis features, Medium Cool, and The Last Porno Flick, which wasn’t. Mike Conrad (Diesel) had an eclectic career with appearances in the bizarre war fable Castle Keep, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic, and a three year stint on Hill Street Blues. The still busy Larry Hankin (Simp) got his start with comedy troupes Second City and The Committee, Bruce Dern (Smitty) remains one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, and Joyce Van Patten (Mom) remains the sister of unctuous and ubiquitous TV actor Dick.
After this feature Aussie director Quentin Masters relocated to the UK, where he helmed the Joan Collins softcore epic The Stud. Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler worked together on over two dozen films, including big ticket items such as the Rocky series, Raging Bull, and The Right Stuff. Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. displayed competence with the camera, proving especially adept with landscapes and verite-style footage on the road and in San Francisco’s North Beach, and went on to lens big budget productions such as The Way We Were (1973) and Midway (1976).
Nostalgia value: If you ever thumbed your way across the good ol’ U.S. of A. back in the heady days of the hippy era, you’ll love this film’s blend of clueless characters, gauzy cinematography, mellow pop-rock, and crazy outfits.
The print: Pretty good for an old out of print videotape. The colors remain reasonably bright and the transfer is sharp and crisp.
DVD prognosis: If whomever has the rights to this picture did a cheap and easy digital transfer, they could probably shift a few thousand copies on the strength of Dern and Foster’s presence alone. Distributor Avco Embassy long ago went under, and it’s unclear to me who currently owns the picture. The film’s extensive songtrack and related music clearance issues could be contributing to its absence on disc.
Film: B. It’s unobjectionable, but not particularly insightful. Dern’s brief appearance gives the film a fillip of exploitation credibility and Conrad is excellent, but by and large this is a very average drama. Some of the music is pretty good.
DVD worthiness: C+. No reason it shouldn’t eventually resurface at some point during the 21st century.