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Monday, July 6, 2009

Burning Rubber and Swapping Paint (originally published 6/03)

Despite their name, movies don’t actually move. They are, in fact, nothing more than a succession of still pictures. Even so, the illusion of motion they create is so compelling that we call them motion pictures in spite of the fact that we know better.

Because motion is the single most salient aspect of movies, stories that involve lots of movement have an inherent cinematic advantage over more sedentary subject matter. This accounts, in part, for the popularity of films like the recently released “2 Fast 2 Furious,” which relies heavily on variations on the tried and true action movie gimmick of the high speed car chase. If you’ve seen this high octane thriller and found that it didn’t entirely fulfill your motion quotient, you might want to seek out these films featuring famous car chases.

“Thunder Road” (1958). Robert Mitchum stars as a Tennessee moonshine runner whose fast driving skills keep him just barely one step ahead of the federal revenue agents. This was something of a pet project for Mitchum, who produced and co-scripted in addition to playing the lead.

“Bullitt” (1968). Steve McQueen stars as a San Francisco detective assigned to see that a targeted witness lives to testify. When he detects the bad guys tailing his car, he whips around and starts following them. This leads to a high speed game of cat and mouse. As the two cars leap and lurch over the extremely hilly streets of San Francisco, you may find your heart leaping and lurching into your throat. This was the car chase scene that set the benchmark for all those that followed. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer, which includes a few clips from the famous chase scene.

“Vanishing Point” (1971). Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a professional driver who has contracted to deliver a car from Denver to San Francisco. On a whim, he makes a bet that he can make the trip in 15 hours. As he burns up the road, popping pep pills and breaking laws, he encounters increasing resistance from law enforcement types who take a dim view of his driving methods. Meanwhile, police radio chatter about Kowalski is monitored by a blind disk jockey called “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little), who uses his radio show to cheer Kowalski on. Ultimately, this is a rather bleak, road-to-nowhere existentialist film. Still, it’s a rare treat for car chase fans, since almost the whole movie is one long chase scene.

“The French Connection” (1971). Director William Friedkin’s career was made by this gritty tale of New York narcotics cops tracking down a French drug kingpin. Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as his partner, Buddy Russo, aren’t your basic by-the-book cops, but they seem to get results. The legendary chase scene involves Doyle pursuing a man who has just taken a shot at him. When the bad guy takes an elevated transit train, Doyle’s only hope of catching him is to get to the next station first. He commandeers a car and races flat-out under the elevated tracks. It’s a real white-knuckle ride, with Friedkin throwing one obstacle after another in Doyle’s path.

“The Seven Ups” (1973). Philip D’Antoni, who produced “The French Connection,” directed this one. It’s a kind of semi-reprise of the earlier film, retaining Roy Scheider and the car chases but without devoting a lot of time to plot and characterization. Others might feel cheated, but the car chase purists will love it.

“The Driver” (1978). Writer/director Walter Hill’s dark drama pits Ryan O’Neal as a getaway driver against Bruce Dern as the cop who is obsessed with nailing him. The film begins and ends with spectacular chase sequences, one in which O’Neal’s character is the pursued and one in which he is the pursuer.

“Live and Let Die” (1973). I can’t resist mentioning the chase from this first film with Roger Moore as James Bond. It isn’t strictly a car chase because most of the chasing is done in speedboats, but it is a very funny parody of movie chase conventions. Most of the humor comes from focusing on the havoc inflicted on bystanders, from a pool party to a wedding party.

There are some other great movie car chases available on video that I’d love to tell you about but, frankly, the shock absorbers on my DVD player are shot from all this tearing around. Until I can get the suspension overhauled, I’d better stick to more tranquil categories.

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