Truck Stop Women (1974) (88 minutes)
Directed by Mark L. Lester.
aka Road Angels
Written by Paul Deason and Mark L. Lester.
Starring Claudia Jennings, Lieux Dressler and John Martino.
By the time Claudia [Jennings] appeared in Truck Stop Women, she was the undisputed “Queen of the Bs” and the Drive-In Diva. She benefits from a strong supporting cast and is able to give a more nuanced performance because of the complexity of her character.
This film was typical of the drive-in features Claudia appeared in the early 1970’s, with one notable exception. Although Truck Stop Women demonstrated what audiences would identify as the quintessential Claudia Jennings character, this was no working class, feminist hero Karen Walker from Unholy Rollers or the noble, avenging savage Desiree from Gator Bait. In this film, Claudia commits about every original sin and violates a few new ones. She could easily be considered one of the screen’s best villains- a living nightmare, having no feelings for fellow human beings, and perhaps the sexiest sociopath of all time. Claudia’s character Rose is a true sadist and a classic manipulator of Machiavellian proportions.
Despite the jovial truck-driving soundtrack, sung by Claudia’s then boyfriend Bobby Hart, the plethora of R rated nudity, and the adequate car/truck chases, the movie has a level of violence and a sense of depravity that exceeds any of Claudia’s other films. Once again, it was nice that the producers used Bobby’s music so the two could spend some time in each other’s worlds.
However, rompin’, stompin’ music can’t disguise the joy the perpetrators show while dispensing the mayhem. The first scene is a gory assassination of a mobster by a rival and his henchman, who shoot the man and his girlfriend in a tub. Their bullet riddled bodies bobbing in the bright red tide seems something out of a Mario Bava or Dario Argento film.
After the killings, the murderers, Mr. Smith, played by John Martino (the unfortunate Paulie Gatto from The Godfather “leave the gun …take the cannoli”) and his henchman, Rusty (Speed Stearns) visit their boss on the West Coast.
The scene switches to Cali, where Mr. Big (Nicky Blair), the head of the West Coast mob, is telling Mr. Smith and Rusty that he wants a woman named Anna out of the picture in order to profit from her hijacking/whoring enterprise that made New Mexico so famous. Mr. Big gives Smith his very own Truck Stop to operate out of and as a way of financing it, Smith has his permission to rip off a whole bunch of East Coast mob money headed that way. Mr. Smith assures the boss he can take care of it by saying “fuggetaboutit”. By the way, you may wish to keep track of how many times Mr. Smith utters this phrase.
All, in all, Truck Stop Women is a well-crafted gem of exploitation. The actions flows well, the holes in the plot are small and the acting far above most efforts of the same genre. The only factoid left to make it better? Former United States Senator Phil Gramm, a very conservative man from Texas, donated at least $15,000 to the film’s budget. There are stories that he understood the money was going to a different film, one much more explicit, but the film’s director Mark Lester said the other movie was of the same spirit.
The next scene cuts to the backsides of two lovely ladies, Claudia and her friend Tina (Jennifer Burton) standing by a disabled car, somewhere in Bumfudge, New Mexico. When I tell you it’s shocking that cars, trucks, RV’s and about a hundred police vehicles, lining both sides of the highway, hadn’t stopped already, I’m not kidding. Claudia’s legs look impossibly long, and her gold hot pants are set off nicely by her black go-go boots.
Along comes a well-meaning trucker, who seems nice, and probably would be again, just as soon as he gets out of the hospital. Because this is the scene, as the ill-fated Good Samaritan looks at their engine, Rose (Claudia) massages his head with mean ol’ monkey wrench, then slams the hood down on this fool, just for good measure. The look on Claudia’s face as she commits this atrocity is quite extraordinary- a combination of savagery, sexual thrills and joy. Our happy gals hop into the truck and peel down the lonesome New Mexico Interstate, inexplicably singing “Red River Valley”, while the movie’s theme song fades in and out.
The ladies spot a hitchhiker, a handsome young man, and flip a coin for him. Tina wins and as soon as our cowboy climbs in, she is dragging him to the back and starts tumblin’ his tumbleweeds but good. Then, just as quickly as he came, the cowboy is gone, getting thrown out of the truck by the girls who enjoy a good giggle.
Rose and Tina, BTW, are prostitutes as well as armed robbers, who work for Anna (Lieux Dressler) a kindly lady who runs a crappy, nasty truck stop, and cathouse. She also happens to be Rose’s mamma!!!!! It’s just a guess, but I’m thinking there’s some therapy long overdue in this family…
The set design of the Stop is excellent. Anna’s office looks like a cluttered up dump, but it does have a camera in each room, where she can spy on the courtesans and their customers. The whores are trained to coax information out of the johns , in order to provide fresh business for Anna’s hijacking side gig. The sleazy hotel rooms where the hooker ply their trade are designed so well, you can almost smell the sweat and cheap cologne. The girls also take care of the kinky sheriff to guarantee his dutiful protection of Anna’s rackets.
Rose, even though she pulled off a major score, is grumpy and rude when she returns home. The cook at the Stop’s diner serves her a plate of food and Rose takes a brief look at it, picks it up and smashes it down on the counter, screaming:
“You wouldn’t serve Jacqueline Onassis chicken fried steak would you?”
If someone had been on the ball, they would have shouted out: “Well you ain’t Jacqueline effin’ Onassis, honey!”
While everyone muses what fortunate insect crawled up Rose’s rump, we meet the rest of Anna’s crew, Winter (Len Lesser), Curly (Dennis Fimple) and Mac (Gene Drew), a collection of grease monkeys who are very loyal to Anna. You may recognize Dennis Fimple as the gentleman who played Uncle Hugo in House of a 1000 Corpses. Len Lesser, of course, played the lovable Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, in addition to his long career in feature films such as The Outlaw Josey Wales.
The lighting, and set design really work in the favor of Truck Stop Women. The garage and truck bay have a gritty realism, while every light is lurid and makes each scene appear perfect. Lester’s camera angles give the film a sleazy, hard-edged look,
While Rose is sulking, who should walk in but Mr. Smith and Rusty. When Smith’s charms don’t work on Anna, he turns to Rose. Claudia, seeing an opportunity, decides to throw her lot in with the bad guys. She quickly hops in Smith’s car takes off with the two gangsters.
The scene eventually shifts to Smith’s bed where Rose sexily tells him:
“Now I’m gonna show you the only good tricks my momma ever showed me.”
The camera follows Rose’s face down Smith’s belly, until it cuts away to show the voyeuristic Rusty watching them while eating his ever present candy bar in a particularly repulsive manner.
The segment is very effective, as it simultaneously shows Rose’s demoralization and her ability to use sex as a strategic weapon. Claudia plays the scene well, as its success depends on her ability to manipulate men, as seen earlier in the film. She is more than convincing.
Back at Anna’s, a former partner in crime and lover, Seago, shows up, to tell Anna about the money coming in from the New York mob. Then, I suppose, in order to pad the running time, we are treated to a short video mixing naked women, trucks roaring down the highway and lots of Bobby Hart’s singing. I found the little intermission jarring and disruptive, but it does raise the T&A count pass any measurable level.
Maybe I’m just too conservative, but the film was paced well, and building up solid tension, so why stop the momentum? It would be like Alfred Hitchcock inserting a laundry detergent commercial after the shower scene in Psycho.
Getting back to the movie, Anna finds out that Rose is working for Smith now, and that pisses her off to no end. She rushes over to his Truck Stop, where she finds Rose shooting pool clad only in a bikini, with some of the other hookers. When Rose won’t go peacefully, Anna promptly wallops her, throws her over shoulder and storms out.
Then we get to see a lot more T&A, but one [glimpse] belongs to Uschi Digard, a former Russ Meyer protégé and porn star, so it is more than all right.
Concurrently, we see one of Anna’s men crushed to death when an unseen villain with a strange ring drops a truck on him. Curly and Mac, after discovering the murder, find Winter hung by his own chains. Things look bad for Anna’s operation.
Rose, now sporting a shiner, has been busy too, going back over to Smith’s side. However, even she is revolted when Rusty murders a driver while hijacking his truck. Claudia is truly convincing in this scene, as its obvious senseless murder is even beyond her own warped code of ethics.
Later as Seago is massaging her shoulders we see him wearing the ring the killer had on the night Anna’s men were zotzed. Anna figures out Seago is just trying to rip her off too. The plot thickens, or perhaps, it’s just congealing.
The next day, Anna takes off to hijack the money truck with Rose, Mac and Curly in tow. They find the cattle rig with the goods in it and put fake markings on the side. They grab the money and leave the empty containers for Seago to find. The rest of the crew takes off while Anna waits for Seago’s ambush. There is a well shot truck / car chase with good stunt work and fine editing in this part of the film, as we watch Seago and a henchman in hot pursuit. Seago crawls his way into the cabin and pulls a gun on her forcing her to pull over.
Seago, his gunsel and Anna go into the cattle wagon to search for the money. Just as the minion finds the empty cash boxes, Anna distracts Seago with a kick in the nuts and grabs his gun. As she climbs out of the truck, she starts shooting to panic the bovine passengers. Here is where we see the sadism that runs in the family as Anna shows an almost orgiastic delight in killing the two men. Besides, it really is a clever and quite nasty way to finish someone off. Imagine all those sharp hooves, half-ton bodies, and hundreds of pounds of manure, surrounding, and crushing you to death. Well, Seago had it coming. He also left a present for Anna- two machine guns in his car.
It was Mac’s job to take Rose home, but she makes him stop at an incredibly authentic looking sleazy hotel, so she can take a shower. In a great scene, Mac eats a piece of KFC while Rose is trying to get him to reveal the rendezvous point where Anna will be splitting up the money. As Claudia slowly opens her towel, revealing her spectacular frame, Mac’s willpower caves in, and as she climbs on top of him, we hear him saying “Jesus, Rose”.
This sets the stage for final showdown with the hoods and Anna’s crew, full of shoot-outs, double crosses and very plausible ending.
There is a lot of poignancy in the scenes where Anna talks about Rose. At one point she’s looking at a picture of Rose as a young girl (a borrowed one of Claudia as a child) and wonders what happened. It might be a case of art imitating life, although, as far as we know, Mrs. Chesterton was at peace with her daughter’s career decision. However, one can imagine, that she must have glanced at Mimi’s childhood photos from time to time, wondering about things that might have been.
Truck Stop Women is an odd film because if it had been treated as a straight exploitation film, the movie would have been too oppressive, dingy and depressing to watch. The bloody assassination at the film’s beginning is accompanied by Bobby Hart, Danny Janssen, and Jimmie Haskell’s bouncy country swing music. Although somewhat incongruous, it lessens the horror of the scene.
The prostitutes in the movie seem to be a jolly, contented bunch, most of them horny as their clients. They don’t act degraded or exploited.
I think the movie also has a subtle racist and nativist point of view. Cleansing the influence of foreign and unwanted elements, i.e. the New York and West Coast mobs, is a priority, and as such are considered to be invaders, along with those who are their allies, as in the case of Rose. The purity of the West must be maintained, even if the defenders of that purity hijack trucks and run brothels. Of course, there are no Native Americans or any other non-Caucasians in the film, which you have to admit is mighty unusual for New Mexico…
The pervasive air of sadism, that permeates the film is quite unique for this type of drive-in fare, as well. When people are killed, the film lingers on the victim’s terror, the perpetrator’s joy or both. It doesn’t quite reach the level of Peckinpah’s blood and guts operas, or the brutal Zombie flicks of the time, but there are enough individual scenes to let the audience realize they’re not watching The Love Bug.
After the original cut, the producers asked for more nudity. Hence, the addition pictures during the “intermission” were added post-production.
I loved this movie from beginning to end. When you watch Claudia in this film, she shows no fear of anything, especially if the audience likes her on-screen behavior or not. She is playing a cruel, sociopathic bitch and pulls it off, perfectly.