Robert Mitchum (who also wrote the story and served as executive producer) stars in Thunder Road as Lucas Doolin, a Korean War veteran who returns home and promptly rejoins the family's bootlegging business. His father, Vernon (Trevor Bardette), runs the still and heads the family, while Lucas handles the driving and transporting of the moonshine (mostly to Memphis), and his younger brother, Robin (James Mitchum), takes care of the car he uses to outrun the competition and the Treasury agents; and their mother, Sarah (Frances Koon), keeps the home. Lucas is a better driver than anyone around, and he and Robin have rigged a few tricks on the car that surprise the Treasury men -- but Robin is nearly 17 and tired of just working under the hood; he wants to drive like Lucas. Lucas doesn't want his brother to become a transporter, though, preferring that the teenager stay in school and stay straight with the law. But Lucas is pretty easy to idolize, looked up to by most of their neighbors for his driving skills, among other attributes, and the object of affections of lots of women between Harlan and Memphis, most especially teenaged neighbor Rozanna Ledbetter (Sandra Knight). He appreciates her admiring and lustful gaze, though he has all the woman he can handle and wishes that she were that interested in Robin, who's her own age and just as attracted to her in his own awkward way. Lucas and his family have always been able to outrun the revenue agents, even with a new man, Troy Barrett (Gene Barry), assigned to the territory and out to get him -- they're dedicated and tough, but they're not killers. However, now they're hearing of a new threat in the guise of a Memphis-based gangster named Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon), who wants to take over the Doolins' operation and all the other moonshining activity in Harlan County. He's already offered a lot of money, but the Doolins and most of their neighbors running stills are too independent for that, and now he's sending in muscle, and that gets a young neighbor of theirs (Jerry Hardin) killed. But Lucas was pretty tough before the war, and he learned a thing or two about combat in Korea, and is not about to let either revenue agents or a bunch of strong-arm men from the city get in his way, and he has the car and the firepower to back up those sentiments.
When Kogan goes too far and kills a Treasury man, Lucas also picks up an unintended ally in agent Barrett, whose highest priority becomes indicting Kogan. The problem is that indictments and prosecutions aren't what Lucas is about -- he means to meet shot-for-shot and take more personal action, especially when his family becomes involved in Kogan's machinations. One thing he always swore to any and all within hearing range was that he'd keep Robin from becoming a transporter, and kill anyone who tried to make him one. And when Kogan manipulates a situation where Robin is lured into driving, Lucas means to make good on that vow. Director Arthur Ripley (1895-1961), a music and dance student-turned-editor-turned-gagman and short-subject specialist and academic (whose preceding feature film, 12 years earlier, had been the eerie Cornell Woolrich-based thriller The Chase), working in tandem with second unit directors James Casey and Jack Lannan and second unit photographer Karl Malkames, keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. Robert Mitchum is the center of gravity to the movie, though, which contains the quintessential Mitchum performance, the actor making his work look so easy that he could almost seem lazy if he weren't so magnetic in the role. He helped make Thunder Road into a national success, but the movie always had an extra-special resonance in the South, where it was shot and set. Thunder Road continued to generate annual five- and six-figure ticket sales from drive-ins in the border and Southern states for 25 years after its original release, a factor that caused United Artists and its successor organizations to purposefully delay its release on home video until the end of the 1980s.