The cinematic car chase has become a whipping boy for all that is mindless and vapid in movies today. It’s a damn shame, because while a rudimentary car chase is like eating an empty calorie meal at McDonald’s, a great car chase can contain some of the finest examples of pure cinema.
Let’s start with the undisputed champs.
The 1970s were the golden age of the car chase. These were sequences with real cars, real drivers in dangerous situations on real city streets. Nowadays car chases may be significantly more elaborate, but you rarely see a chase that doesn’t use CGI cars, embellished explosions, cars on wires or gimbels or other Hollywood special effects that do keep stunt drivers safer, but take a bit of the rubber-on-the-road realism out of the car chases.
Bullit (1968) is usually the car chase all others are compared to and it did truly usher in the era of the modern car chase. Until this point, car chases had been utilitarian, more often than not shot on a stage with rear-screen projection to simulate the chase action. That technique always looked terrible and felt detached.
And let’s face it, watching Steve McQueen’s Mustang fastback burn rubber is more exciting than watching a ’47 Packard sedan squeal tires at thirty miles an hour. With faster cars, we got faster chases.
Bullit introduced us to the now-iconic hilly San Francisco streets as the ultimate car chase destination, and the use of no music, only the throaty roar of revving engines as the ultimate car chase soundtrack.
Bullit producer Phil D’Antoni also produced The French Connection (1971) three years later. By then, the chase in Bullit was already legendary and D’Antoni wanted to have another sequence to rival it. Director William Friedkin ended up getting what is really a superior sequence and one of the most dangerous ever committed to film.
If you’ll allow me to drop a little film school knowledge on you—a large part of what works in The French Connection chase is the location. Really, it is a car-chases-train sequence and the setting under the El train gives so many foreground elements to shoot through that it speeds everything up significantly. When that much stuff is whizzing by the lens, things seem faster than they are. Even the front shot of Gene Hackman has reflections of the train platform overhead streaking across the glass.
And legend has it stunt driver Bill Hickman (also the driver for Bullit) really did drive 90 mph for twenty-seven blocks through real, unsuspecting traffic to get the master shots of this chase. Director Friedkin got in the back seat and shot the footage himself, lest any of the cameramen with wives and children were injured.
One of the most effective tools of this sequence is the front-mounted point of view camera that catches all of the near misses up close. Seen in 1971 this scene was a revelation, and it still is.
Soon, a glut of car chase scenes and entire car chase movies flooded movie screens.
1973’s The Seven-Ups has a great chase in it. Steve McQueen’s cool in Bullit was quickly replaced by Gene Hackman’s frantic fear from The French Connection and Roy Scheider in The Seven-Ups tries to one-up Hackman. This scene is epic, clocking in at ten minutes. Oh, and who do we find in the director chair? Phil D’Antoni, taking his own turn at a car chase for the ages. Darned if he doesn’t pull it off too. It would be the only film D’Antoni ever directed.
The next year brought us Gone In Sixty Seconds (1974) which is a step down in quality filmmaking, but embraces the car chase as the main focus of the plot, a device used again and again in Roger Corman junk like Eat My Dust (1976) and Grand Theft Auto (pretty much just excuses to wreck a bunch of cars) and other dreck like Speedtrap (1977) and Double Nickels (1977).
(Double Nickels does have the distinction of having one of the strangest chases ever. In a Ford Pinto no less, a guy tries escaping the cops by driving down a series of stairs in a weird slow motion chase even he can’t explain to his buddy once he gets to the bottom of the hill.)
The chases in Gone are kinetic and exciting, geography be damned. Seriously, you never know where anyone is in these chases. They’re on a street, then suddenly in a tunnel. One car is in front then another. But it’s all in the interest of keeping it exciting, and if that means running your ’73 Mustang over a sofa in the street, then so be it.
Of course there are many fans of the multiple Mini Cooper madness in The Italian Job (1969). I don’t want to rain on anybody’s car chase, but this doesn’t qualify as a classic. It’s seminal, sure, for the length, scale, and importance to the plot, but scene is really more of a getaway than a chase. It’s all low-speed and seems more interested in seeing how many unlikely places they can squeeze a Mini than in any tire squealing action. I expect your hate mail.
One more oddball in the bunch is from The Dead Pool (1988), in which Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry is chased through the familiar streets of San Francisco by a tiny remote controlled car. It’s a truly bizarre chase just for the vehicles involved. Other than that, it’s not half bad.
And now a few of the underrated.
Perhaps because it’s sandwiched in the middle of a comedy, the car mayhem in The Blues Brothers (1980) never gets the credit it deserves. Being a comedy, director John Landis goes so completely over the top and smashes more cars (mostly cop cars) than had ever been smashed before. But it’s a pretty darn effective chase with or without the silliness.
Speaking of comedy chases, Short Time (1990) has a damn good one you should check out.
And in the running for best car chase ever is one you may never have heard of. A little known Italian production called The Master Touch (1972), starring Kirk Douglas, features one of the most unpredictable, wildest, most chaotic car chases ever.
Of course, this being an Italian production (although shot in Germany) the scene starts with a fist fight, where else but in a wine shop. Then we move outside where we have real cars on a real street driving at real speeds, but one of the most impressive things is that the budget of this film looks to hover around $1.95 and for them to pull off some of the stunt work is amazing. What Hollywood film would have the gumption to attempt to flip a car off a semi truck and have it land upside-down on the roof of a speeding car?
Oh, the movie as a whole is no good, but the chase is something to behold.
The Europeans had their share of decent car chases, as much as we think of the chase as something uniquely American in its cheesiness. Look at The Burglars (1971) in which French new wave superstar Jean Paul Belmondo takes to the twisty French streets for an epic battle.
The chase gets points off for insert shots of Belmondo against rear screen projection intercut with the stunt driving action, but they abandon that pretty early on and let the stunt drivers have it out. They also throw in some sly humor with an interrupted funeral procession and a stadium full of people who abandon their dance recital to cheer the carnage on the streets. And these guys do some serious damage. Those little European cars are built tough.
Also from the classic era are chases of note in The Driver (1978), but then you’d hope a film called The Driver would have a good chase or two.
Also the John Wayne movie McQ (1974) has an interesting chase on the beach which is the first time an air cannon was ever used to flip a car, a move that became all too commonplace.
And how about the car vs. helicopter chase in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)?
The chase is about the only worthwhile thing in that movie, but if you want to see stunt pilots and drivers pushing it to the limits, check that out. It’ll never happen again. It’s too easy to add a helicopter in after the fact with computers.
No, the classic chase is a bygone era.
Then there is the strange case of the whole movie car chase.
Several films from this period can’t be singled out for a particular chase because the entire film is based around a series of chases. Smokey and the Bandit (1977) is a good example. How do you pick just one?
And what about Duel? Death Race 2000? And the film that rivals Bullit in its influence, Vanishing Point (1971)?
For my money Vanishing Point doesn’t have any great chase moments. There is no single stunt or crash that elevates that film above the others. But if you want nonstop breakneck driving from top to bottom, you could do worse. Still, no discussion of classic car chases can be had without it.
If you choose to single out the last 25 percent of The Road Warrior (1981) as a car chase, and not a whole movie based around a chase, you’d have one of the top three for sure. This epic drive through the flatlands of the outback is a marvel of multiple story lines, great chase action, some fantastic crashes, and heartbreaking losses as everyone around Mel drops until it is just him and his truck. Any director today is wise to study this chase as exhibit A in how to do a long chase sequence.
Eventually the car chase moved in the modern age.
Now, I certainly don’t mean to imply that car chases were all better then, but I don’t get as excited with half stunt/half CGI work such as in the recent films Wanted, The Dark Knight, or the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds. Still, now and again the classic car chase comes back, and even when augmented by CGI the core of the chase is still satisfyingly old school.
Look at John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) for the thrilling turns around Paris and a very scared looking Robert DeNiro.
That’s real fear, too. They used a technique in which DeNiro was given a dummy wheel and a stunt driver was controlling the car from another seat. So the speeds, close calls and screeching tires are all real, but DeNiro is only a passenger, which is probably even more frightening than driving.
The first two Bourne movies have excellent chases. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) chase is especially exciting. It winks toward the old chases by using several tropes of the classic era including the ol’ car-down-the-stairs and the use of a Mini Cooper.
One oddball of a chase is in the Christopher McQuarrie directed, The Way Of The Gun (2000). It is a kind of low-speed stop and start chase that turns chase conventions on its head. Worth a look.
Another comedy chase that doesn’t get its due is the opening chase in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) with Eddie Murphy clinging to the back of an open semi truck as it speeds through Detroit.
William Friedkin tried to outdo himself from his French Connection days when he made To Live and Die In L.A. (1985). The wrong-way-down-the-freeway chase (also featuring the second most popular chase locale—the L.A. river) became an instant classic, though it doesn’t ultimately beat The French Connection.
Drive (2011) doesn’t feature nearly as much driving as you’d think, but what’s there is remarkably assured and exciting as hell. More real cars doing real car things instead of the over-the-top theatrics car chases have morphed into lately.
Car chases will endure. They will get crazier as more CGI additives can be thrown in. Sometimes it works, sometimes the tricks make the chases cartoonish. But Americans love our car chases and filmmakers will always strive to take on the big boys of the golden age.
What are your favorites?
Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood, as well as co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, The Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices and more. His newest novel, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me is available now. For more info visit ericbeetner.blogspot.com.
Read all posts by Eric Beetner for Criminal Element.