Cars and car chases have long been part of major thrills in cinema, from early silents to Warner Bros.’ iconic gangster films to current films which idolize the automobile for its representations of red-blooded masculinity. Hollywood doesn’t necessarily have a monopoly on them: the Aussies do car chases like no other (see Dan’s last pick this week for evidence), and the Brits and Japanese are no slouches either. But cars are such an intimate part of American identity that Clint Eastwood was able to wring an entire thesis out of it with his meditation on the subject, Gran Torino, which features a car that is rarely even driven due to the reverence its owner has for it. The sheer number of films which prominently feature car chases is unknowable. Big budget films and independents alike rely on the thrills of a chase for much of their action, from this year’s Sundance selection Bellflower to the chase in To Live and Die in L.A., William Friedkin’s unsung classic that also features the first time a truck was jackknifed for a chase sequence in a movie to the energetic and masterful showdowns in automobiles created by John Frankenheimer in Ronin.
This week Fast Five – which, as its title rather subtly implies, is the fifth film in the enormously (and bewilderingly) successful The Fast and the Furious franchise – opens nationwide and car culture gets another sugary sweet adrenaline rush. We here at The Fourth Wall are celebrating car movies and car chases this week to give you, our faithful readers, worthy alternatives in a Vin Diesel world.
The Getaway (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
Director Sam Peckinpah, the American filmmaking equivalent of a barroom brawl and a swift kick in the testicles, had quite a controversial career exploring the nooks and crannies of American mythology, masculinity and featuring brutal violence in most of his films. Whether exploring the death of the West in The Wild Bunch or the limits of a man’s tolerance in Straw Dogs, Peckinpah was, along with his predecessor of pulp Samuel Fuller, the agent provocateur of late-Sixties and Seventies American cinema, with blazing portraits of men and the women who were second to them in importance. His films are fast, hard and terse, like Hemingway, minus the romanticism.
Perhaps fittingly, the film was adapted by Walter Hill (himself an action legend) from a Jim Thompson novel. Thompson, a pulp crime author in the 50s and 60s, is most helpfully described as a nihilist, with his most powerful novel, The Killer Inside Me (also recently adapted into a film starring Casey Affleck), telling the story of a cold-blooded killer. Like Thompson’s writing, Peckinpah’s filmmaking was psychological in many ways, forcing the audience to identify with the dreams and aspirations of his protagonists and understand the motivations for what they do. Indeed, one of the more powerful scenes in The Getaway comes early on when Doc McCoy (perennial tough-guy Steve McQueen) is granted parole and visits a riverfront where children are playing and jumping off of rope swings. He imagines himself jumping in with his wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) and swimming around. When they get home, they undress from their soaking clothes and, in the first intimate moment since his incarceration, he tells her, “It does something to you.” Prison has taken its toll on McCoy, and his life is different. Peckinpah has given us a glimpse into the reasoning behind the actions which will be undertaken later in the film.
The plot heats up when McCoy plans a bank robbery at the behest of Jack Benyon, the ringleader of a criminal enterprise who was responsible for McCoy’s parole on the condition the bank job would get pulled off. When the job goes bad, with one of Benyon’s men killing a bank guard, the McCoys begin their getaway, though admittedly there aren’t what we think of today as “chases” in the movie, just a lot of cars and a lot of driving (with some pretty good stunt work as well), as they evade the police and Benyon’s man, Rudy, all the way to El Paso on their way to Mexico. When his cover is blown and an alert is sent out, the real chase begins with Peckinpah’s trademark slow motion violence, though this scene depicts a shotgun blast taking apart a police car in the middle of town before the McCoys speed off in their Mercury Monterey (the fourth car they’ve used by this point, by the way, if you needed to be reminded of the importance of cars to this film). The end of the film sees them buying a beaten up tow truck from its owner, along with his silence, for $30,000 and driving off into Mexico.
McQueen was a major star associated with chase pictures like Bullitt and The Great Escape. The Getaway is one of his best, even though there’s not a true car chase in the whole thing. Still, it’s hard to argue with the movie’s car-centric design and its reflections on America’s car crazy culture as reason enough for its inclusion on any list of cinema’s great car movies. I also want to point out that the 1994 remake, directed by heist / chase flick veteran Roger Donaldson (The Bank Job, Smash Palace) and starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, is also pretty good, though embellishments of slow motion and freeze frame, Peckinpah favorites, are non-existent. This is one to see, folks.
Death Proof (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Okay, so let’s really get things going with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, an homage to the drive-in car chase flicks of his youth that originally formed half of the Grindhouse double bill with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. The film follows Stuntman Mike, a serial killer whose reinforced car is his weapon of choice, played with gusto and wit by Kurt Russell, as he pursues two sets of women first on the highways and backroads of Texas and then a year later in Tennessee. We also get to know these two sets of women fairly extensively, in long stretches of the film where the two groups talk about everything from men to cars and everything in between, something that earned the film much of its criticism and disdain. But in my opinion, it more than makes up for it by being so – well, enjoyable. By the time the engines rev up and the thrills start, I’m wholeheartedly invested in these character and their fates.
The first group of girls, featuring the daughters of a couple of screen legends (Sydney Poitier and Jordan Ladd), meets Mike at a bar in Austin while on a stop during a long planned trip of bar hopping and partying. After leaving the bar, Mike catches up to them in his car, which is a “death proof” stunt car with reinforcements that are necessary for all the crashes and rolls in movie work. They meet their fates in one of the most grisly crash scenes ever shot, explicitly depicting each girl’s death as Mike’s car crashes into them over and over again in flashbacks to the exact second before the wreck.
Death Proof is a film that is about as car-centric as they come. The latter half of the film features more talk about movie cars and stunt work as any movie I can remember. Kowalski’s 1970 Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point is also fetishized heavily by the second group of girls, all of whom are on a break from filming a movie, and featuring real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself. This car is the holy grail of car movie cars, and is featured in the acknowledged classic of the genre. After tracking down a Challenger for sale in Tennessee, the group takes the car on a test drive during which they play “ship’s mast,” which involves one of them (Bell) being strapped on the hood of a car by only two belts tied around the doors of the car, and then the real hot-blooded, fuel-injected fun begins.
The final high speed chase sequence is some of the most riveting twenty minutes of stunt driving ever filmed, overseen and in many cases enacted by veteran stunt man and driver Buddy Joe Hooker, and featuring speeds upwards of 80 mph while Mike rams repeatedly into the Challenge while Zoe is clinging for life on the hood. Then the tables are turned and the girls pursue Mike to exact their revenge. The driving is real, the speed is real, and the actress in peril being a stunt person herself is really on the hood and it adds tension to the sequence knowing that nothing here is faked. They really don’t do things like this anymore. As much as the critics may complain that it takes a long time to finally get there, these final minutes of the film are more than worth the wait, and it never fails to be entertaining. I’m a big fan of Death Proof’s slower moments, probably more so than anyone else I know, but this finale never fails to get my blood pumping and wishing I had a classic muscle car to go out and be reckless in.
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (dir. John Hough, 1974)
I first saw Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry after reading a piece by critic Kim Morgan entitled “Car Power” on her terrific blog, Sunset Gun. She describes the film as “lots of messy fun,” and that’s exactly what it is. Made during the golden age of the American car chase movie, the film stars Peter Fonda and Susan George as a pair of misfits who are trying to make a fast getaway after robbing a grocery store. They’re accompanied by their mechanic Deke (Adam Roarke) to help keep the cars running. Filled to the brim with cars, speed, sex and thrills, this was meant to be seen at a drive-in as the bottom half of a double feature.
There’s a long list of cars featured in the film, though the one Larry and Mary are in the most is an iconic Dodge Charger with a racing stripe (surely the best choice for a getaway car). They’re doggedly pursued by Everett Franklin, a sherriff’s deputy played by the late-great Vic Morrow, throughout the entire film, featuring what is one of the longest high-speed car chases in any movie ever (it’s well over half the film’s length). Eventually Everett catches up to and chases them down in a helicopter, but is unable to stop them despite his best efforts. In the end, he attempts merely to force Larry to outdrive himself, broadcasting false locations to nonexistent police units after Larry escapes into the narrow rows and empty roads of an orchard.
This is typical of many of Fonda’s films from the 70s, and is a perfect pairing with the occult chase thriller Race With The Devil, which would come out the year following Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Despite himself, he became a major star, though he kept making oddball low-budget genre fare throughout most of his career, which I think speaks volumes about the popularity of car movies at the time when he started acting in a lot of projects. Susan George never quite broke through to the mainstream, though she did get close with the Sam Peckinpah flick Straw Dogs. Here she’s alternately sexy and innocent, portrayed as aloof and sort of ditzy, but also fairly well accustomed to making her own way in the world. I find her performance lovingly odd-ball, and it’s one of the more endearing parts of a film that without her would come off as too serious, too violent and not have too much else going on.
Spoiler Alert: Here, as in Easy Rider and any number of other movies in this genre, the hero dies in a fiery crash. What makes this especially shocking, however, is that they get away and are immediately killed. I don’t know what that means, honestly, but it’s the one thing I think about any time this film comes to mind. This film sticks with me even though it’s problematic, and its mostly due to its ballsy, iconic imagery of car, driver, and road, and the performances of the two main stars.
Two-Lane Blacktop (dir. Monte Hellman, 1971)
The first sounds you hear in Two-Lane Blacktop are of roaring engines, and the opening sequence is an illegal drag race between the protagonist and another car that’s broken up by a cop. Throughout the film are countless shots of the engine and an open hood. There’s a set of racing tires in the car for changing out when they’re ready to race. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a movie that’s more downright gear-headed than this.
Starring James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in their only (and very cool, slick, laid-back) acting roles as The Driver and The Mechanic, and accompanied by The Girl, a very young Laurie Bird, who would commit suicide after acting in only three pictures, they go from West to East, taking individual races along the way before meeting G.T.O., played by that wonderful manly-man of 70s cinema, Warren Oates. They race each other across country for pink slips and pride, the boys in their souped-up 55 Chevy and Oates in his namesake. Along the way, the road and the race become a metaphor for the obstacles of life and the ways in which the modern world seems to be racing toward its final destination with little care for what may be there at the end of it all.
Everything about this film is stripped down to the bare bones, from plotting to names of characters and everything in between. The dialogue gets to the point, but doesn’t begin to hint at its implications. Despite the appearance of being lean and mean and tough, Two-Lane Blacktop is a sucker-punch of a flick, with an ending as fitting to the genre and to film itself as any I can think of. G.T.O. takes The Girl, and true to form, in his final scene, G.T.O. appropriates the story of the 55 Chevy as his own story of winning his car. “There’s nothing like building up an automobile outta scratch and wipin’ out one a these Detroit machines. …Those satisfactions are permanent,” he tells a soldier he’s picked up before driving off into the horizon. The boys go back to street racing, and in the film’s final moments, the drone of the engine, which has been our constant companion throughout, drops out and we are left with only the image, which burns up before our eyes in its own little existential moment that mirrors what usually happens to the cars at the end of these racing flicks. Even tactile things dissolve and corrode and go up in flames.
Two-Lane Blacktop is probably Monte Hellman’s most respected and well-known film, though he has plenty of other work worth tracking down, including the Oates-starring Cockfighter and the Jack Nicholson flick The Shooter. He is very much a director interested in the mythic implications of and images of American identity, centering each picture around something that is distinctly of its time and place: the cowboy, the automobile, etc. With Two-Lane Blacktop he gets at the heart of us through the car, a force that no American living in between major cities can do without. The car has made our country distinct and drives our economy to this very day in profound and complex ways.
“Supernatural” (2005-present, created by Eric Kripke)
“Supernatural” is well into its sixth season, and just got picked up for a seventh. This is not because the series is good anymore, but because the CW (formerly the WB) has a bad habit of renewing its shows long past their expiration dates. “Supernatural” should’ve ended with the season 5 finale.
I’ll defend the first two or three seasons of the CW show vehemently. There aren’t many TV shows that feature a) ghosts, demons, monsters, other paranormal phenomena, b) a hot car, and c) sexy, goofy, complex men. “Supernatural” has these things – its pretty-boy main characters (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki) market it toward the CW’s target audience, teenage girls. But affinity for the Winchester boys’ ridiculously sexy 1967 Chevy Impala keeps the dudes enthralled too.
In more than 125 episodes, we’ve watched Sam and Dean Winchester end up in hell, defeat baddies, witness their father’s death, make friends with angels, get laid, save lives, drink demon blood, confront Death and the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, examine God(s), and get all meta on us. Although father figure Bobby (Jim Beaver) and stoic angel Castiel (Misha Collins) are the series’ current secondary players, the brothers’ black 1967 Chevy is a constant.
The Chevy is the third main character – it transports the Winchesters from place to place, it provides them with a home they never really had, and it takes on a talismanic importance to Dean. With good reason! The deep rumble of its engine bookends most episodes; they’ve almost died in it; it keeps coming back from apparent ruin. In a recent episode where Sam and Dean were transported into real life, where they played Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, there were six replicas of the car on the studio lot. For faithful viewers that scene is totally jarring even though we as the audience know they mustuse multiple cars in varying states of repair to do the trick shots.
The following clip contains no real spoilers. But it is where the series should have ended: in a short minute, it binds our three main characters together indelibly, explaining their history in a quick, jolting sequence that makes it clear the car’s a part of the family.
Grease (1978, dir. Randal Kleiser)
Grease is one of those movies everyone has seen. When it re-released in the late-90s, my friends and I flocked to the theater to enjoy it on the big screen. It’s one of the most gleeful and entertaining musicals in recent history as long as you can handle the double-whammy of the flamboyant ’70s throwing back to the reserved ’50s. (See also: John Waters’s irreverent and wonderful 1990 flick Cry-Baby.)
Danny Zuko (John Travolta) is a, well, greaser with an image to uphold. After he spends a summer romancing demure Australian Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John), she transfers into his school. She expects him to be the same creature he was at the beach – sweet, romantic, softspoken. No such luck – Danny and the T-Birds are the school’s bad boys, opposite Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and her Pink Ladies. Danny can’t change his image without losing his reputation, so Sandy does (this is problematic but that’s for later).
This all happens over the course of a dozen musical numbers that are, with the exception of a few, obnoxiously catchy and lovable. The musical’s title is a double-entendre of sorts – grease on the hands of the auto shop boys, grease in the hair of the JDs. Who doesn’t love “Greased Lightning,” the number that imagines an old clunker as the next shiny, rumbling beauty on the racetrack? But my favorite scene is near the end, a race through cement drainage ditches that determines who’s the most badass of them all.
Cars were so pretty in the ’50s. Capri pants, big hair, halter tops, chicken (the game, not the food)! Grease is about all this and more. Greased Lightning wins the race, of course, and looks good doing it.
Duel (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1971)
Duel is one of those near-perfect movies, so taut and simple that it makes directing a film look easy. From the pen of master suspense and horror writer Richard Matheson, and the keen eye of a fresh young Steven Spielberg, comes a film that never… ever… stops.
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a harried businessman in a little red Plymouth, making his way down the winding canyon roads of California. A chance encounter with a battered old fuel truck lands him right in the middle of a deadly game. The mysterious truck driver, never seen clearly despite Weaver’s attempts to identify and confront him, maintains a relentless pursuit of the Plymouth, alternately sabotaging David’s attempts to escape and actively trying to run him off the road. It seems that lonely truckers invent some mighty strange amusements for themselves.
Of course, this old truck does not look like one which has been in active duty for many a long year. Spielberg’s choice of an ominously rusted and sinister looking Peterbilt adds to the mystery of just who this road predator can be. How long has he been doing unsuspecting motorists to death in this way? Did he choose David at random, or are there greater reasons for this duel? Is there any way to stop it before one of them ends up dead?
Ultimately questions of identity take a backseat to the immediate matter of survival. As we know David’s predicament, while those he meets along the way think he’s paranoid and crazy, the suspense is riveting throughout. At every turn, the truck is there, like a quiet shambling monster with surprising bursts of diesel powered temper.
Investing a vehicle with the cold menace of its driver, without giving that driver a separate personality, makes the inhumanity of this game all the more chilling. John Carpenter’s Christine treads similar ground, but is a plain old supernatural horror story. The weird ambiguity of Duel, rooted as it is in a pretty real world, will forever have a unique place of its own in movie history.
It is kind of shocking that nobody has yet inflicted a remake of Duel on the wider world. The film is of the proper vintage for some enterprising hoodlum of the ultraviolent, flashback-laden school of movie rehashing to snap it right up. It is only a matter of time.
Smokey And The Bandit (dir. Hal Needham, 1977)
Roll over, Dukes Of Hazzard. This here is the granddaddy of all car-jumping, law-chasing, beer-swilling road movies. Hal Needham’s Smokey And The Bandit is one of those films you can find more or less always on some late-night channel, and it’s chicken-fried fun all the way through. Burt Reynolds stars as the Bandit, the best damn truck driver of them all, who takes a bet from some unscrupulous Southern businessmen that he can transport a load of Coors Beer from Texarkana to Georgia (not a street legal proposition in them days) without getting arrested.
For money and adventure, Bandit’s the man. It looks like a pretty easy deal for such a veteran of the highway, but there are certain elements of the local law who think otherwise. Bandit procures a sweet black Trans Am, intending to distract the “smokeys” (highway patrol) from Snowman and the truck full of beer headed east as fast as they can go.
In case anyone did not know, this is the movie for which Jerry Reed wrote the song “Eastbound and Down.” The gruff, freewheeling songwriter also co-starred as Bandit’s best pal and partner in crime “Snowman.” Armed with all the tricks two truckers could ever know, and a full command of CB radio slang, east they go. Trouble is, they soon pick up a passenger in the form of Carrie (Sally Field), a cute little runaway bride who happens to have run away from the sheriff’s dimwitted son. Enter the godfather of slapstick lawmen, Buford T. Justice, played by master comedian Jackie Gleason. Justice and Justice Junior head up the chase after Bandit and Snowman, whom they take for ordinary scofflaws and still intend to run down at all costs.
Bandit, however, knows full well that he stands to get busted for a whole lot more than speeding and bride-stealin’, though his interest in the young lady does indeed blossom in the meantime. He and the sheriff proceed to pave a path of destruction all the way to Georgia, as neither intends to say die. Gleason’s antics and huffing profanity are as entertaining as the outrageous chase sequences. It’s lots of good fun for all.
For the record, my own favorite Burt Reynolds/Hal Needham project is their film Hooper, released a year later. This movie is very similar to the original Bandit, but chiefly concerns the misadventures of an aging stuntman who’s got to come back for one last rocket-car stunt. If you like one, you’re going to like the other.
The Road Warrior a.k.a. Mad Max 2 (dir. George Miller, 1981)
Fast forward to the future, in which the whole Earth looks rather like the Australian Outback. George Miller’s Mad Max films stand tall among the many iconic visions of post-apocalyptic dystopia. This movie smoothes out some of the rough edges of the original Mad Max, and imagines a rather similar (yet more dire) scenario to Smokey And The Bandit.
Simply replace beer with gasoline (preciously rare in a time and place where one’s vehicle is an extension and expression of oneself), fast-talking Burt Reynolds with revenge-hardened Mel Gibson, and the highway patrol with bands of mohawked savages intent on murdering and stealing up everything that remains of the world. If this sounds familiar, recall Kevin Costner’s celebrated flop Waterworld, which attempted to recapture this basic idea in a massively expensive and boneheaded way.
You may recognize your favorite Ford cars and trucks in this film, but only under heavy modification. As I said, these people invest a great of themselves into their vehicles, and have adapted them far beyond their normal capacity to survive desert conditions, heavy assault, and invasion by marauding land pirates. In addition to some wildly souped-up Ford Falcons and F-100s, there are gyro copters and motorbikes aplenty, with some high-speed and extremely violent chase scenes for each and every one.
Mad Max Rockatansky, a former highway patrolman who spent the last film avenging the murder of his loved ones, is now a drifter caught between the warring tribes who inhabit these parts. He makes the “good guys” an offer to help them transport their remaining fuel out of the wasteland, past the “bad guys” led by a ruthless masked raider named The Humungus. All he has to do is find and retrieve an armored Mack truck, bring it back, load it up, and escape with it – all without losing the trust of his allies or falling prey to his savage enemies. Simple, right?
No, but fun. As you can imagine, there is more than enough chasing, killing, twisting and turning to keep you on the edge of your seat. Max, you see, is not only one hell of a driver but also a seriously tricky character who does not take survival for granted.