Sprawling serpentine throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, few roads have pricked imagination, imperiled temerarious racers or been cultivated of such a colorful history as that of Mulholland Drive and Highway, winding high above the picturesque San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Basin. At present, the former street is as choice (and accordingly expensive) a residential locale as any, yet both portions of this tortuous, two-lane route routinely tempt the most adventurous of competitive speed demons.
Working light as an auto technician by day, one Steve (Harry Hamlin) races only to win along anfractuous Mulholland curves in his Porsche 356 Speedster while romancing a cute, sultry MOR singer (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). His friends - a record producer (Richard Cox) and songwriter/keyboardist (Joseph Bottoms) - seek their fortunes in the music industry, but Steve's passion for racing bespeaks a dearth of purpose that only love or catastrophe can remedy.
He's no one's excuse for a great thespian, but Hamlin proves appealing as the lead brooding, sensitive alpha stud with conventional good looks and a charming screen presence that compensate for his inadequacies as a screen actor. As his musician buddies, Bottoms and Cox provide adequate comic relief without slipping into inanity, and later a credibly strained relationship that forms the incongruous dramatic backbone of the movie's narrative. Now widely recognized for his sweetly avuncular polish in Wes Anderson's pictures, Seymour Cassel here conveys slight yet convincing menace as a tough, uncompromising record executive. Expectedly bearded and immaculately permed, Dan Haggerty's gentle deportment befits the movie's sole stabilizing figure. However, the outstanding performance here is that of loud, weathered, typically manic Dennis Hopper (mired in his pre-rehabilitated Out of the Blue period), perfectly cast as a deranged, envenomed auto mechanic who moonlights as a rash speed junkie in a fleet, battered, piecemeal Corvette! As always, Hopper rants memorably, imparting his characteristic vigor to even the silliest dialogue.
Best known for his prolific televised output, director Neil Nosseck manages his cast adroitly, and this flick's thrilling racing scenes exhibit some minor stylistic flair. Although Donald Peterman's photography in a variety of notable features (When a Stranger Calls, Flashdance, Star Trek IV) is usually excellent and his nocturnal scenery here sparkles with dazzling contrast of headlights in umbratile midnight, most of the scenes shot in broad daylight are at best murky.
On its theatrical release, King of the Mountain was almost universally savaged by critics, a consensus not wholly undeserved: Hamlin's and Van Valkenburgh's romance is too briefly addressed; a significant subplot diverts screen time that ought have been devoted to more racing; the story's requisite tragedy is equally predictable and preposterous; two crucial dramatic scenes are risibly mawkish; Hopper's transformation from traumatized local nut to gear-head villain is derisory. Nonetheless, this is nearly as exciting as street racing fare comes - certainly more so than its fast, furious, fatuous contemporary successors - and as perfect a time capsule as any in preservation of L.A.'s bygone era of Members Only jackets, Sergio Valente jeans and muscle cars.
For a contemporaneous filmic account of this regional culture's equivalent teen set, Foxes (another Polygram property) is no chore to view. However, both Vanishing Point and Monte Hellman's exceptional Two-Lane Blacktop are superior automotive adventures.