Peter Yates’ Mother Jugs & Speed
One of my favorite films from the 1970s is Peter Yates’ Mother Jugs and Speed (1976). The film follows a police officer (Harvey Keitel) who was busted for selling speed on the job (hence his moniker). After he’s let go from the force he has to find a new occupation, so he decides to do something that’s similar to police work, he applies to be an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). When he arrives at F & B EMT Service, he meets the owner Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield) and the other guys on the crew including “Mother” (Bill Cosby) the resident rebel and Murdoch (Larry Hagman) who is a loudmouth jerk everyone seems to dislike. The apple of everyone’s lustful eye at H & B is the secretary and aspiring EMT, Jennifer aka “Jugs” played by the gorgeous Raquel Welch. Jugs turns out to be a cold fish and won’t give any of the guys the time of day. When Speed first meets her she unjustly snaps at him, but soon he gets to know her and shows that hes not just trying to put the moves on her.
The great thing about the script by Tom Mankewicz is it gives the EMTs really colorful personalities. Instead of just painting these people in black and white, the minute you meet them you like them and want to see how they do their jobs. Bill Cosby’s Mother seems to love his EMT life, he flies around the city like a race car driver in his tricked out ambulance/van, eats bad food at burger joints, drinks beer on the job and loves to scare local nuns with his siren.
We learn that due to a new law, H & B is in competition with other EMT companies in the greater Los Angeles area. The law states that the first ambulance that arrives at the scene, gets to obtain the injured person, turning the EMT business into all out competition adding yet another layer of conflict and drama.
This film is unique in that it focuses on a subject that’s never really looked at in movies, the life of EMTs, (I cant think of any other movies about this topic besides Martin Scorsese’s rather sub-par Bringing Out the Dead). Still, the greatest thing for me about this film is how it moves back and forth between comedy and tragedy. You find yourself laughing at the screwball antics then suddenly being confronted with a sad or shocking moment. This occurs throughout the entire film.
The cast did a wonderful job, and its such an eclectic mix. You have Harvey Keitel (known for his gritty New York based films), Bill Cosby (the comedian) and Raquel Welch (the sex symbol). One performance that stands out for me is Larry Hagman’s portrayal of Murdoch. It’s certainly one of his best, he plays the character as such a sleazy weasel loser you almost feel bad for him.
Director Peter Yates was no newbie to fast moving cinema, he made the action-crime classic Bullitt in 1968 which featured what is now considered the best car chase ever filmed. It sure was a perfect primer for this tale about ‘pedal to the metal’ emergency medical technicians!