20
Aug
08

The Car is the Star: History of the Car Chase

Tires squealing, producing white smoke as they tear down a concrete road. Hairpin turns and fishtailing. Breakneck speeding through oncoming traffic. The raw intensity and power of an engine as it shifts gears.

 

Ya gotta love the Car Chase Scene.

 

In this series of articles, we look back at the history of the car chase scene.

 

Part Two: The Seventies

 

It’s now the Seventies and the effect of “Bullitt” is reverberating through Hollywood. Youth culture and the anti-war movement helped to propel such films as “Easy Rider” and the Studios were looking toward muscle cars to bring the kids to the theatre.

 

The first to take the director’s chair and run with the assignment was a guy named Steven Spielberg. Taking a Richard Matheson story called, “Duel,” Spielberg created a made-for-TV movie about a traveling salesman (Dennis Weaver) who cut off the wrong trucker. The result being a “dinosaur” semi-truck constantly antagonizing Weaver on the road as he tries not to get killed driving his Plymouth Valiant. Ratings were so good the Studios released the movie in theatres.

 

Next came another great chase scene in cinema history: Gene Hackman in a hijacked car vs. an elevated subway train in 1971’s, “The French Connection.” “The French Connection” followed two cops, “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and Sonny Grosso (Roy Scheider) as they made one of the biggest drug scores in history: $25 million in smuggled heroin. As for the chase, the perp got onto the train. To stop him, Doyle hijacks a car and avoids hitting other cars, poles, a mother with a baby carriage, etc. and gets to the scene in time enough to stop the guy cold.

 

The same year a low-budget film had James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys) in their 1955 Chevy Coupe challenge a guy (Warren Oates) in a stock 1970 Pontiac GTO to a cross-country race. “Two Lane Blacktop” may have been a little “Easy Rider” in showing aimless characters going cross-country, but the film has its following.

 

 

1973 saw “The Seven-Ups.” Based on a story by Sonny Grasso pitched to Roy Scheider during the making of “The French Connection,” “The Seven-Ups” follows a unit within the New York City Police Department that, if they catch you, your sentence is seven years and up. Having the producers of “Bullitt” and “The French Connection,” the film having a car chase scene was a requirement. When the bad guys speed off in their Pontiac Grand Ville, Scheider follows them in a Pontiac Ventura Sprint Coupe. They drive on sidewalks, fishtail the cars, almost hit a group of kids in the street, and in the end Scheider almost gets beheaded by a semi-truck. Maybe not the most inspired of car chases, but one of the more intense ones.

 

Another entry into the genre is none other than “Vanishing Point.” Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a former Vietnam Vet, police officer, and race car driver who makes a bet that he can make it from Denver to San Fran in 15 hours. Spiritually connected with him is “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little) a blind radio disc jockey in a small town who is “tuned” into what and where Kowalski is going as his Dodge R/T Challenger avoids cops and a pissed-off motorist. The chase in this movie IS the movie, with the cops setting up a roadblock that Kowalski is ever speeding toward. Of note Dean Jagger of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is in this. Also, the band Audioslave’s video for their song, “Show Me How To Live” incorporated footage from the film mixed with the band driving the same car through the same locations.

 

Peter Fonda and Deke Sommers play washed-up NASCAR drivers who rob a small town grocery and along the way pick up Susan George in 1974’s “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.” Larry (Fonda) and Mary (George) are pursued in their 1969 Dodge Challenger R/T by police officer Hanks (Eugene Daniels) in a 1972 Dodge Polara and Sheriff Franklin (Vic Morrow), who tracks them from a helicopter. While Larry does exclaim, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop us!” he should have watched out for the train.

 

The same year came low-budget filmmaker H.B. ‘Toby’ Halicki. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, then you should recognize his contribution: “Gone in 60 Seconds.” With a budget of $1.1 million he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in this tale of Mandarin Chase, a fraud investigator who steals cars on the side (only ones that are insured). This movie practically shows you how to steal a car, circa 1974. When Chase completes a deal to deliver 50 cars in two days, the chase is on as him and his team secure every car but “Eleanor,” a 1973 Ford Mac 1. The cops swooping in leads to a 40-minute car chase (longest in film history). Trivia: all the cars housed in the warehouse Chase walks around in were owned by Halicki. The film was remade in 2000 with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie.

 

“Death Race 2000.” For those who didn’t catch my “Remake Radar” article, it’s the future and in the Trans Continental Road Race, you earn points for roadkill. The older, the better. David Carradine (“Kung Fu”) plays government champion Frankenstein. His rival: Joe “Machine Gun” Viturbo (Sylvester Stallone). Directed by Roger Corman, this was a satiric look at the “car is the star” Seventies film fare. Currently remade (sort of) as “Death Race” with Jason Statham, Joan Allen, and Tyrese Gibson.

 

“The Gumball Rally” solidified the nation’s fixation with driving cross-country and comedy. Driving from New York to California, the illegal race featured such actors as Raul Julia and Gary Busey in a competition for speed and a gumball machine. This film would be seen again, but as “Cannonball Run.”

 

 

 

 

“Eastbound and down, loaded-up and truckin’ / we’re gonna do what they say can’t be done…” If there was a nickel for every time in my life I heard Jerry Reed sing the theme to “Smokey and the Bandit…” Anyways, for those who have never watched it (just a disclaimer) the story goes like this: an 18-wheeler of beer has to get from Texas to Georgia. The driver: Cledus “Snowball 1” Snow (Jerry Reed). Making sure it happens is The Bandit (Burt Reynolds). When Bandit picks up a runaway bride (Sally Fields) they invoke wrath of father-in-law-to-be Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), aka “Smokey.” Fun, redneck comedy that rivaled “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters” for the box office of 1977. It also made it impossible not to spot a Trans Am in the South. Followed by two sequels. “We’re Eastbound, watchin’ Bandit run…”

 

A little late, one of the “Duel” imitators, as well as a precursor to  “Christine,” “The Car,” pops in at 1977. A possessed Lincoln Mark III takes on anyone who challenges it.

 

Stay tuned for the Eighties!

Advertisements

0 Responses to “The Car is the Star: History of the Car Chase”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: