The Last American Hero Lamont Johnson

One of the sleepers of 1973, this small-scale, "good ol' boy" drama packs more resonance than a first glance might suggest. The subject is Junior Jackson (Jeff Bridges), who parlayed his talent running moonshine from pursuing cops into a career in stock car racing. He triumphantly rises from a backwoods nobody to a champion in record time. Jackson initially shows no interest in the sport, per se — he's mainly looking for a way to raise cash, which is in short supply while his father (Art Lund) is locked up for running the whiskey still — but he's got a gift and he's not about to let anyone take advantage of it. What could have been a cheesy Horatio Alger romp winds up with some pretty sobering things to say about the American dream. Bridges finds it hard to do anything but run the illegal liquor business to raise money; when dad backs out after his stint in jail, he's forced to work for a sleazy promoter who wants more than he deserves. Director Lamont Johnson keeps things moving without looking ridiculous, with some surprising, subtle editing effects; if he's not a director with an outsized personality he's got a genuine interest in the characters rather than just giving good picture. The cast is uniformly fine playing people instead of hayseed stereotypes and the writing is similarly unaffected. The whole film seems to have been made carefully rather than frivolously and that makes it uniquely satisfying. Maybe the film is no shattering work of art, but it's still a solid piece of filmmaking that doesn't condescend or cut corners with its story. (Fox)