In Motion Classic: 1965 Ford Mustang Notchback – The Opposite of Misery

1965 Ford Mustang notchback hardtop. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Monday, August 1, 2022.

(Foreword: this essay contains just a few spoilers of a movie that was originally released over three decades ago.  Adjust your expectations accordingly.)

In the fall of 1990, I went with two friends to the local outpost of Showcase Cinemas just outside of Flint city limits to watch in first run the film adaptation of the Stephen King book Misery.  I can’t remember exactly how Fred, Raymond and I had decided on Misery of all the choices at the cineplex, but I do remember that the TV commercials for it seemed to emphasize a lot of action taking place.  I wasn’t particularly a Stephen King fan at that point, but I wasn’t not a fan, either.  To me, this was just a night out at the local cinema with some buds, one of whom had a car.

The former area Showcase Cinema.  Built 1980; Demolished 2016.  (Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan.  Thursday, August 18, 2011.

The former Showcase Cinemas.  Built 1980, closed 2007, and demolished 2016.
(Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan.  Thursday, August 18, 2011.

Going to the movies in Flint was, and still is, a different kind of experience than for probably most of middle America.  I say this with love and not at all with the intent of reinforcing any negative stereotypes.  I’m stating this with the no-nonsense directness typical of someone born and raised in Flint.  Anyone expecting to go to this type of action or suspense film in a library-quiet setting, with other audience members sitting silently, still, and upright with their arms politely folded and legs neatly stretched in front of them would be in for surprises.  Depending on the type of film, location of the cinema, and time of the showing, a movie-watching experience in Flint would involve much more audience participation than in, say, more affluent suburbs or other parts of the United States that don’t have this kind of urban, working class flavor.

1965 Ford Mustang notchback hardtop. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Monday, August 1, 2022.

To be clear, there was no hooting or hollering when my family of origin went for viewing of serious films like Chariots Of Fire or Glory when they first came out.  Also, as recently as three years ago, the stunningly renovated Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint was showing vintage Rankin-Bass stop-motion holiday films to the well-mannered joy and delight of a wonderful cross-section of the people of Flint.  With a film like Misery, though, which advertised a certain amount of blood, gore, and mind-trickery, it was inevitably going to attract a certain kind of audience.  Thirty-two years ago, my two friends and I were a part of that audience.  It was also on that night that I first experienced the wonders that are Sour Patch Kids, which remain a favorite movie candy to this day.

Misery DVD.

(Here come the spoilers I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.)  Toward the very beginning of the movie, we’re treated to a scene where author Paul Sheldon, played brilliantly by the late, wonderful James Caan, has just put the finishing touches on his most recent book while working in a cabin at a remote lodge in the woods.  Feeling accomplished and satisfied with his work, and following a couple of his usual post-completion rituals, Sheldon then gets into and fires up his ’66 Mustang hardtop to head back to civilization.  He turns on the radio, and viewers are treated to the throngs of “Shotgun” by Junior Walker & The All Stars as Sheldon pilots his Mustang through twisty, snowy mountain roads.  Even now, every time I hear that great Motown classic, it’s inextricably tied in my mind to an early Mustang hardtop, in the best way.

When I had sat down to first-draft this essay in late December, the Chicagoland area and many parts of the Midwest were under a winter storm advisory.  The snow had been steadily falling for about four hours by the time I had finished typing, and the temperature outside had dropped about fifteen degrees while I wrote before settling to negative degrees Fahrenheit that night.  Sheldon loses control of his Mustang in similarly inclement weather, and ends up careening off the road in spectacular fashion.  The car tumbles several times before landing on its roof, after which it slides further down the mountain while being further blanketed by copious amounts of snow.

1965 Ford Mustang notchback hardtop. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Monday, August 1, 2022.

Without giving away too much more of the plot for those who are still interested in watching for the first time, suffice it to say that Sheldon is “rescued” by nurse Annie Wilkes, who then proceeds to do so many bad things to him.  (Kathy Bates won the Best Actress Academy Award for this performance in 1991.)  In my teenage brain at the time, precious few of those horrors competed with what appeared to be the destruction of that ’66 Mustang hardtop.  Granted, it hadn’t exactly smashed into anything harder than a few snowbanks, and there was no ensuing fire, or anything that would have decisively finished this Ford.

One of these Mustangs was one of my dream cars, though, and I spent what I estimate to be at least thirty to forty-five minutes past that point in the movie wondering if the car had been totaled, or if it was fixable, or if they had swapped in a “bad” one for the crash scene, or…  I honestly can’t pinpoint specifically what it is about the destruction of a desirable car that just messes with me so badly, and yet I have repeatedly subjected myself to such torture with repeated viewings of such movies as the original Gone In Sixty Seconds and Bullitt, as well as television programs like CHiPs, that involve the complete annihilation of some really desirable automotive machinery.

The former area Showcase Cinema.  Built 1980; Demolished 2016.  (Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan.  Thursday, August 18, 2011.

A large part of Misery, which in my opinion is ostensibly more of a suspense film than anything else, was the sense of claustrophobia brought about by the narrow confines of the space in which the bulk of the scenes took place.  The driver of our featured ’65 Mustang hardtop seemed free, liberated, and happy on the Monday in early August of last year when I had come across this sighting in my neighborhood.  I love it when occupants of my vehicular subjects wave, give a thumbs-up, or otherwise seem to appreciate my enthusiasm for their vehicles.  The driver of this Mustang was one such gentleman.

There are a few contrasts to be pointed out between this black Mustang and Paul Sheldon’s similarly dark-colored pony: that of the seasonal settings in which they were seen (summer vs. winter), ’65 vs. similar ’66, freedom and confinement, and a few other things.  Still, and as with the Junior Walker musical gem linked above, a dark-colored Mustang notchback from the first two model years of production will probably always remind me of Misery, regardless of the setting or minor differences in the details.

1965 Ford Mustang notchback hardtop. Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois. Monday, August 1, 2022.

In retrospect, I’m sure part of the reason for this association is that going out on weekends with friends with cars was such a new and exciting thing for me at that time, and memories of all the fun times I had as a teenager – whether being a passenger while Fred did donuts in the snow in his ’76 Nova, aimlessly walking the aisles of Meijer with Jen, or going to the mall with Olivia – were some of the happiest times of my life up to that point.  That’s why many experiences from those high school years from just over thirty years ago left such a mark on me, and why many lasting mental and emotional links were formed.

Getting back to the movie, this particular Flint audience was just not having any of it.  Fred and I have discussed this many times in the intervening years.  He still maintains that the movie was a huge disappointment and that the commercials for it misled people into thinking it was some kind of action movie with much more blood and guts than it actually featured.  (Fred’s actual words: “It sucked.”)  Ray actually wanted us to get our money back at the front of the theater.  Being a fan of this movie’s element of suspense and its slowly unfurling plot, I absolutely loved it, and still do.  I was taken aback, even after a sustained period of loud booing and catcalls from the audience, when people started leaving the theater maybe fifteen minutes before its grand finale.

The former area Showcase Cinema.  Built 1980; Demolished 2016.  (Flint suburb) Burton, Michigan.  Thursday, August 18, 2011.

It was only at the very end, when everything came to a head, that the kinds of things that many in the audience might have been expecting started happening, and in full force.  Fred and I could probably waste even more time arguing about this movie’s merits or lack thereof, but most of the time, anyway, it’s usually for comic effect.  (It is on my end, anyway.)  Sadly, Ray is no longer with us, having departed at far too young an age.  The sight of one of these early Mustang hardtops in a dark color, or hearing the sounds of Junior Walker’s soulful saxophone in that signature Motown smash, will send me right back to a night at the movies some thirty-plus years ago when I had spent more time agonizing about the fate of the car than that of its protagonist driver.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Monday, August 1, 2022.