Bite Size: The Daredevil (1972)

On the surface, 1972’s The Daredevil fits in with the glut of high octane car chase films that were pushed out after the success of 1971’s Vanishing Point.

Paul Tunney (George Montgomery) is a hot shot former Daytona 500 winner, forced to move back to his hometown to help with the medical bills for his chronically ill younger sister. On his first race after returning home, he recklessly forces a Black driver, Ray Butler, off of the racetrack mid lap. Butler dies in the resulting crash.

Carol Butler (Gay Perkins) wants revenge on Tunney for her baby brother’s untimely death. She just happens to be the mistress of Ray Williams (Cyril Portier), a local crime lord who can help her accomplish exactly that. Spooked by the looming threat of Carol and her associates, Tunney quickly loses his touch on the track, and soon is forced to take a job as a driver for a cabal of drug smugglers.

A lot of these more action oriented drive in offerings are looking to make their protagonists (auto racers, truck drivers, bootleggers) into ruggedly individualistic cinematic replacements for the fading cowboy archetype. Despite the heavy whiff of that suggestion in the trailer and George Montgomery’s former typecasting in Hollywood westerns, The Daredevil doesn’t have much interest in making Tunney a hero. He’s not even an anti hero. In fact, the character of Paul Tunney is written to be about as much of an unlikable prick as you could possibly find.

For a hometown boy made good, no one in the film can stand Tunney, or seems remotely happy to see him. In fact, everyone seems to take as a given he likely ran Butler off the track on purpose. He was merrily cracking racist wise before the start of the doomed race, and had caused non lethal injuries to a local beat cop with a similar vehicular confrontation on the open road some 15 years prior.

Only when Carol has Tunney cornered does he begrudgingly apologize or pay any respects in regard to Ray Butler’s death. Of course, that apology only happens AFTER Carol makes her plans to make sure she gets to watch Paul die abundantly clear. Plus, the lesser Portier brother had already hit Tunney over the head and stuffed him into a coffin at the funeral home that acts as the front for his gang’s various illegal ventures. It takes ominous death threats and a decent amount of bodily harm for Tunney to even see the self preservation value of parroting the mouth sounds of basic human decency. No wonder the whole town thinks he’s a raging asshole.


One armed mechanic Huck Holman (Bill Kelly) is just about the only person who seems genuinely friendly to Paul, more likely out of respect for his driving talent than anything else. Too bad Tunney repays Huck by stealing his girl, Julie (a brief, thankless turn by Oscar winner Terry Moore). Once Tunney’s successfully bedded the woman, he spends the rest of the film being a finely curated fuckboy with a tendency toward making her cry.

While chock full of the stock car, stock footage explosions and speeded up chases one would expect from a regional low budget production of this ilk, The Daredevil marks itself as a slightly interesting curiosity as it moves into its third act. The movie gradually begins tiptoeing into a tonally discordant grab bag that relies more on horror and exploitation leaning elements than any of the tropes of its high horsepower brethren.

The funeral home front is both lit and played for a sort of carnival dark ride spookiness, even though the only really terrifying thing that happens is Cyril Portier’s narcoleptic performance. Tunney is plagued by visions of Carol in all of her mourning garb and false lashes fabulousness, convinced she’s following him where ever he goes. Her dialog about watching Tunney die is constantly echoing in his ears, and ours. There’s even a late in the game burst of some brief gore effects and drug fueled dime store existentialism.

While The Daredevil is by no means a classic, and the plot’s final destination is a predictable one, there is some mild diversion to be had in the odd detours the movie takes along the route.

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