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The Devil on Wheels by Producers Releasing Company Pictures

The Devil on Wheels by Producers Releasing Company Pictures
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Starring: Noreen Nash, Darryl Hickman, James Cardwell, Jan Ford
Movie review by Movie Critic Richard Parks photographic consultant: Roger Rohrdanz


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The Devil on Wheels is a 1947 black/white movie with a playing time of 67 minutes. The film was released by Producers Releasing Company Pictures and was produced by Ben Stoloff, and the assistant producer was Jerry Briskin. It was written and directed by Crane Wilbur. It stars James B. Cardwell, Noreen Nash, Darryl Hickman, Jan Ford, Damian O’Flynn, Lenita Love, William Forrest, Sue England and Robert Arthur. The background is typical Hollywood symphonic music, which is heightened for chase scenes. The movie’s plot is about a family that is torn apart by the evils of illegal hot rod street racing. The father indulges his children and although he knows the dangers, does little to prevent the horrors that will happen to his family. In fact, the father sets a poor example by driving too fast and showing little respect for those who share the road. He buys cars for his children that are fast and encourages his sons to develop their mechanical skills. The oldest son matures and goes off to the military where he becomes a fighter pilot and is the dream of all the girls back home. The younger son falls in with a group of local hot rodders who continually break the law. Their girlfriends egg them on rather than reason with them to be more responsible. Eventually they descend into a downward spiral that leads to a death on the streets and the young boy’s mother seriously hurt in the hospital. At last the youths are confronted with the results of their actions and realize the harm they have caused, which can only be eased by serving time for their crimes.

The Devil on Wheels is a very early example of illegal drag racing on the streets and the harm that it can cause. The movie was released in 1947 and the only reference to legal drag racing was a mention of “there will be legal drag racing at the dry lakes this Saturday for those whose cars have passed the safety inspections.” This would refer to El Mirage dry lake in California. The kids mention terms such as ‘hop up,’ and ‘hopping up,’ which young people used to describe how they were enhancing the performance and speeds of their cars. The father waited two years for “the car he ordered,” indicating that it was two years after the end of World War II. They used the term ‘drag races’ and gave statistics throughout the film, such as the fact that 37,000 Americans died in car accidents in 1947. We have twice the number of people and five times more automobiles today than in 1947 and the death rate today is only slightly higher than it was then. The carnage must have been terrible. Accidents that we can recover from probably meant a gruesome death back then. The film shows the absolute hatred that people felt towards young speeders in their hopped up hot rods.

The Devil on Wheels has the feel of a documentary, mixed with the 1940’s film noir tradition of Hollywood. The acting is pretty good. The plot and script are interesting and rarely stalls. The action scenes are adequate based on the low budget of the movie, but the hot rods look fast and sleek on the screen. Only Darryl Hickman had a substantial career, but the actors hold their own in the film. Hickman did a credible job but lacked the edginess of a young man in rebellion. The role was made for James Dean, but he was four years away from beginning his acting career. The movie spent too much time in court scenes and in the morgue. It would have been better to have more action with the cars and at the illegal drags, thus showing the power and influence that speed and cars hold over young people. The movie struggled a little bit when the young people were separated from their cars. Overall, this is a good movie from the 1940’s that definitely rose above its limitations. From a rating of 1 to a maximum of 8 spark plugs, I give this move a 5 1/2 spark plug rating.

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