Larry (Peter Fonda) should have said goodbye. This morning he rushed out of the motel room he had spent the night with Mary (Susan George) in and jumped into the car of his best friend Deke (Adam Roarke), whereupon they both drove off to set about the task in hand. That being a supermarket robbery, which they orchestrated by taking the wife (Lynn Borden) of the manager (Roddy McDowall, uncredited) and holding her hostage until her husband handed over the cash, collected by the laidback Larry. However, on emerging into the street he finds someone in the getaway car: it's Mary, and she isn't going to get lost no matter how much Larry tries to persuade her...
Ah, the seventies car movie. There's a certain je ne sais quoi about them, isn't there? You could watch a serious one, like Vanishing Point or Two Lane Blacktop, or you could go for a light-hearted one, like The Gumball Rally or Smokey and the Bandit. This is one of the more serious ones, as although there may have been comedic elements it wasn't particularly funny and more of a drama as it played out - a drama with frequent action sequences thanks to director John Hough's implementation of an expert stunt team which saw plenty of excellent car chases as Larry takes the wheel and tries to elude the cops, whose own patrol vehicles are no match for the power of what these three have for an engine.
So what if the "naturalistic" dialogue sounds pretty phoney now? Judging by the script, the film didn't care one jot if you liked the central trio whatsoever as not one of the actors made any moves to be at all sympathetic: Fonda is arrogant, George is irritating and Roarke is cold. Except that wasn't quite true, as for all their hard to ignore faults the viewer may have found themselves oddly warming to them, purely thanks to the cops, as was typical in these efforts hailing from this era, being even less likeable. They were led by Vic Morrow, who in a spot of uneasy foreshadowing for how he would end his life spends most of the movie, too much in fact, as a passenger in a helicopter, even winding up dangerously buzzing the criminals.
But it was those chases which contained all the right elements: flash manoeuvres, loud engines, lots of dust, property being destroyed and police cars frequently run off the road, all set in those huge wide open spaces between the lives of others, where you can live as you pleased albeit with the threat of The Man hanging over you and to be negotiated with should you take that theme of freedom too far. Larry treats fleeing from the law as a race, and the taciturn Deke is there for the equivalent of pit stops when his partner in crime grows overly reckless. By turning this into a game of sorts, a sport if you will, Larry lifts the burden of his lawbreaking and encourages us in the audience to regard this similarly, as something exhilarating with the wind in your face and the chance you could be sent flying off the track at any second only rendering it more vital.
Yet there was a price to pay, and that was summed up in one of the most memorable endings in all of seventies car chase cinema. On second viewing you're anticipating it all the way through and it colours your perception of the characters' lives, something in the first watch you were expecting to be more carefree, even blithely immoral for all its championing of the outlaw glamour they inhabit. That revisit reveals more than you might have expected; listen for the lack of incidental music, not one note is played other than the occasional song we hear over the radio, which could be ominous when an exciting tune might have enhanced the edgier aspects, but without it reveals an almost eerie, watchful quality as if we are biding our time waiting for some denouement or other. For all four of the main players, this was one of their defining cult movies, and as a late night television staple it has been drawing viewers in for decades; you might not like them here exactly, although George and Roarke share a tender scene late on, but they are compelling, as is the film.