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Driving Force: The Golden Age of American Car Chases

  There were car chases in the movies practically from the advent of narrative cinema, but with the arrival of Bullitt and its pursuit through the streets of San Francisco such scenes became a means to an end, something to draw the punters in with the promise of speed and excitement, guided by a movie star at the wheel, and nowhere knew that appeal more than Hollywood, who would repeat the trick throughout the nineteen-seventies. So much so that any thriller worth its salt simply had to include one, and they spread to comedies as well, so that you had a decade starting with Gene Hackman racing after the train in The French Connection and continuing with Burt Reynolds, surely the most popular exponent of the sequences, coming second only to Star Wars at the box office as he fled the cops in Smokey and the Bandit, smashing up countless patrol cars in the process, and we had Steve McQueen to thank.

But certain works became cult movies purely because of their attitude to cars, and 1971's Vanishing Point was one of those. It featured then-rising star Barry Newman in what would be his defining role (unless you were a TV fan, in which case he was forever theorising lawyer Petrocelli in your hearts), playing Kowalski, the wild-eyed loner at the gates of oblivion who makes his income driving cars across the United States to deliver them to their owners, though you have to assume he did not treat the other vehicles the way he did this white 1970 Dodge Challenger or else those owners would be hopping mad. That was down to a bet he makes with a pal at the start of his journey in Denver, that he cannot drive to San Francisco in a mere fifteen hours; Kowalski believes he can, and this arbitrary gamble pushes him to the limit, all the while taking the temperature of America between the cities.

That sense of a nation coming to the end of an era was important to Vanishing Point, painting its hero as the last of his kind as The Man cracks down on any form of freedom of expression, which driving very fast is according to director Richard C. Sarafian's movie, working from a screenplay by Guillermo Cain, whose only other credit as writer had been the even more counter-cultural Wonderwall in 1968, now best known for George Harrison's soundtrack. Music was important here too, as Kowalski is advised on his trip by the blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who is on his side all the way until the authorities force his hand, but this was not a realistic movie, by choice, so they both share a kind of psychic link in that they can converse as long as the car radio is playing. As Kowalski zooms across desert highways and sometimes the actual desert itself, the police on his heels (or his wheels), he needs all the help he can get.

Which was interesting since he ostensibly represented aggressive individualism as the sixties turned to the seventies Me Decade, making this a hippy hangover movie as was the case with many of the pictures that made an appeal to the cooler end of the market: there was a heavy influence of the success of Easy Rider that had landed in 1969, especially in the way this ended (and indeed how a great many seventies movies ended). But what of the car? The Challenger was notorious for essentially containing a race car engine in a vehicle that was not perhaps designed for popping down to the shops in, so Sarafian pushed it as far as it would go in action where stunt driver Carey Loftin stood in for Newman and outwitted a host of cops and eccentrics who wish to, well, challenge him on the road. The sheer power of watching that vehicle bulleting across the highways, weaving and even leaping it path to reach its destination, was a visceral thrill that lasts to this day.

The same year Vanishing Point was released, its existential flipside emerged as well in Two-Lane Blacktop which also detailed a cross-America race, but this one was not against time, there was no clock ticking. If anything, the point was there was no point since the two cars that get into competition with one another across a few states in the South may have been ostensibly racing for pink slips of vehicle ownership, but as the action played out it became clear any attempt to place meaning on the driving was on a hiding to nothing. That was down to the driving itself being the sole purpose: there were no showstopping sequences where the cars outwitted the police, the cops here were too slow-witted to do anything useful to so much as take off after them, all that mattered were the vehicles in motion and any dialogue that did not refer to this was merely a superfluous method of breaking the silence.

Doing so with the roar of an engine was far preferable, it turned out, with one car a customised '55 Chevy which had been fitted out to win in contests, drag races mostly, and the other a fancy new yellow GTO. They represented the personalities of their occupants as far as that old adage about cars being an extension of the personality of the person at the wheel went, with rock stars James Taylor essaying the driver and Beach Boys' drummer Dennis Taylor his mechanic: every meaningful conversation they have is about the engine, or the tyres, or some other element of their vehicle, until they pick up a hitchhiker known only as the girl, played by model Laurie Taylor at the start of a very brief career before the camera. But the scene stealer was Warren Oates, the man they call GTO because his car is the sole aspect of his presence they can rely on since every word out of his mouth is a fantasy designed to make himself sound important.

Oates was the one who noticed what presumably he regarded as kindred spirits out on the roads, those highways and byways where nothing in particular is happening therefore attempting to ascribe meaning to life there is doomed to failure: keep on moving, was the tenet everyone on wheels lived by. There were possibilities for potentially useful paths to take, but at every opportunity these were eschewed to concentrate on the business of speeding across the countryside, pausing at garages and diners or to pick someone up at a push, but that was about it as far as carrying out any activity of any importance. Though not a comedy, it was weirdly funny in places, especially GTO's banter, and though not an action movie - there was no major setpiece to show off the stuntmen's skills - it said more about the relationship drivers have with their cars and the road than many that were.

What definitely was a comedy, however, was 1976's The Gumball Rally, conceived by stuntman Chuck Bail to indulge his love of driving cars very fast. Coincidentally, that same year Cannonball was made, a far more serious car racing movie with an almost identical cross-country contest premise, yet whereas that was more likely to employ a thriller tone to its string of action sequences, Gumball wanted to make you laugh, and for its fans it assuredly did that. Of course, come 1981 there was another effort that did far better than either of them, using the identical plotline only using far starrier celebrities to do the driving: that was The Cannonball Run, even more self-indulgent for its leading man Burt Reynolds and its director Hal Needham than anything Bail could concoct, and one of the biggest movies of its year to boot, not something either The Gumball Rally nor Cannonball could ever stake a claim to.

And yet, while all three pictures have their diehard followers - Burt's turn rivals his other big chase movie Smokey and the Bandit in 1977 for popularity - Bail's efforts had a warmth and sheer joie de vivre that many pretenders to its cultdom cannot hold a candle to. Of all the car chase flicks of the seventies, this was probably the most fun as candy magnate Michael Sarrazin rallies his troops to take part in a competition to see who can get from New York City to Los Angeles the fastest by road, a motley crew of character actors and would-be leading men and ladies who maybe never quite made it, but at least had the satisfaction of being assured they were simply excellent in The Gumball Rally. From Gary Busey as the world's most annoying mechanic to Tim McIntire as Sarrazin's main rival to Harvey Jason, hilarious as the insane Hungarian motorcyclist, every role was filled to perfection, and they all did their own driving too.

Even so, probably walking away with the movie was Raul Julia as the hopeless romantic (i.e. womaniser) Italian driver, generating many of the biggest laughs with his way over the top performance. This was not a driving film where the cars overwhelmed the actors, as each was keenly chosen to complement their vehicle, and every shot of the speedometers with the needle going way over a hundred miles an hour was testament to the dedication Bail and his team had for speed, not to mention the fine skills to stay on the road that folks trying this in real life just would not have. Its opening drive through empty New York streets was reminiscent of C'etait un Rendez-vous in its adrenaline-pumping simplicity, and if you loved the sound of motor engines gunning, rumbling and roaring this was the experience for you as almost every scene after the race began was soundtracked to that action-bolstering noise.

A more serious proposition, if no less deserving of its loyal cult following, arrived in 1978 when Walter Hill directed his own script of The Driver. It was influenced by those cool-headed French thrillers, all existential heroes keeping their tortured souls under wraps by carrying out criminal acts: think Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai only with Alain Delon replaced with Ryan O'Neal, here essaying the role of the best getaway driver in the business. The film opened with an elaborate car chase as the unnamed title character - nobody here had any names, they were simply known by their designation within the plot - evades a group of police cars that want to stop the men who robbed a casino. The same men the Driver has in his back seat who have hired him because he is guaranteed to get them out of a jam, but this job places him in a jam of his own when the Player (Isabelle Adjani) takes a good look at him.

This was almost absurdly pared down to the bare essentials in a thriller, with even the action largely relegated to a setpiece at the beginning and a superb chase at the climax where events came to a head and the roles were reversed as the Driver hunts down the man who has done him wrong. This was thanks to the other major player in the narrative, the Detective, played with nervy, overconfident relish by Bruce Dern in one of many parts that consolidated his position as one of the premier cult stars of the seventies. His cop talks the most in the movie, and has something practically nobody else has for the entire ninety minutes: a personality, which according to this is a sign of weakness given O'Neal and Adjani, as our leading man and leading lady, dial back any distinctive elements to their portrayal, the latter sustaining mysterious and the former testy at least, simmering with disdain at most.

We were not offered any insight into how or why these people were the way they were, not for them unnecessary subplots or backstory: the Driver and the Player were not even interested in romance. The only storyline that mattered was the Detective's attempts to catch the man he calls Cowboy, and to do so he will bend the law to breaking point by forcing a gang to set up another bank robbery and persuading the Driver to make their getaway so that the Detective will have something to pin on him and put him behind bars, the Player having refused to play ball and preferring to make her own profit by throwing in her lot with the wheelman. With a central sequence where the Driver uses an underground car park to destroy the gang's Mercedes, and those unbeatable pursuits topping and tailing what plot there was, the film's icy cool was an influence on Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive and Edgar Wright's Baby Driver to the extent they lifted it whole.

Although car chases continued to be a fixture of American thrillers for decades after, maybe the curtain came down on the greatest era with a film that technically was released in the eighties, though the greater part of the shoot occurred in the seventies. It was a curio that had trouble finding its audience back when it was initially brought out, but since went on to be a cult classic thanks to its mixture of soul music, broad comedy and car stunts: The Blues Brothers. The titular characters had been created as a skit on Saturday Night Live for comedian Dan Aykroyd to indulge his love of black music, and he and his cohort John Belushi would dress up in black suits and hats, topped off with black shades, and sing and dance to various soul hits. Somehow, from this thin premise, Aykroyd dreamt up an entire plot for Jake and Elwood to perform, and as this was the era of destruction as entertainment, the cars were factored in.

Although in an over two hour long movie it was not wall to wall vehicular pursuits, the crashy setpieces where what those audiences who did turn out to watch it were talking about, not bad when Aykroyd and Belushi were sharing the screen with some of the greatest African-American singers of their generations. No matter that Aretha Franklin showed up to belt out Think in a diner she ostensibly owned, that James Brown led a gospel choir and whipped up his congregation into a frenzy, that Ray Charles encouraged a whole neighbourhood to forget their troubles and dance in the street, which was impressive enough as it was, it was those sequences where the Blues Brothers high tailed it out of the way of the cops that embodied its irreverent spirit. Director John Landis filmed these parts with as much gusto as he did the musical numbers, as the action would suddenly spring into life after being positively restrained for the in between bits.

Deadpan was the order of the day, as the two leads barely reacted to the mayhem going on around them until somebody started singing. The plot had it that once Jake was released from prison, they decide to get their old band together (actually legendary session musicians) so they can stage a concert to raise money to keep their old orphanage, where they grew up, in business, but somehow they managed to attract chaos wherever they went. The first indication of how over the top this was prepared to become was when they are chased through a shopping mall and smash up every shop front and display they come across, though the piece de resistance was their final flight through Chicago hunted down by a multitude of cop cars, pretty much all of which were trashed as Elwood's driving skills are well-nigh supernaturally keen. The image of the speeding Bluesmobile, a Dodge sedan that used to be a patrol car itself, will be recalled as long as there are car chase fans around, and though there would be To Live and Die in L.A. and The Rock and Vin Diesel behind the wheel and any number of imitators, the time about the seventies will be the classic era of the form.
Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018