The Chase Is On Coast to Coast Vehicular Mayhem By Mike White. I grew up on chase movies. Convoy, Smokey & The Bandit, Cannonball RunI loved them all...
I grew up on chase movies. Convoy, Smokey & The Bandit, Cannonball RunI loved them all. More than any other decade, the 1970s were the heyday of car chase films. Highways connected the forty-eight continental United States allowing folks to tear ass from just about any place in the U.S. to any place else. It gave Americans a sense of freedom. If they didn’t like some place, they could hop in a car and move on-and often at speeds that exceeded posted limits.
In the early seventies, women were cheap and gas was cheaper. A man and his machine could meld and venture into the heart of America, blaring some bitchin’ tunes and seeing some bizarre sights. If the last few sentences had the ring of some cheesy tag lines, it’s intentional because all of that malarkey would feed the imaginations of countless filmmakers.
Certainly, Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock’s adventures along “Route 66” in the early sixties exemplified that “Wagon Train” pioneer spirit but the fine era of car chase films most likely was spurred on by Easy Rider. Yeah, Billy and Captain America rode motorcycles and weren’t on the run from anything except people hassling them, but they were free, man.
I’m not going to pass this off as any sort of definitive expose on car chase movies. I could dedicate an entire issue to that and not even come close. I just got on a kick for a while of watching some movies that all had a similar theme-guys in cars, driving fast and on the run from cops, other guys, or themselves. Also, with shit like Blues Brothers 2000 and the upcoming remake of Gone in Sixty Seconds (see below) trying to reclaim the glory days of car chases, it’s good to look back at some other failures (and a few successes) in an era of speed.
No One’s Faster Than Crazy Larry...
Except Dirty Mary!
Peter Fonda didn’t abandon his wheels after being blown away in Easy Rider. Instead, he tried his luck at souped-up cars and Winnebagos. I couldn’t stomach a second viewing of Race with the Devil in which a killer cast (Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit) in a recreational vehicle are on the run from ever-present disciples of Satan. If I’m going to see folks on the run from devil worshippers, I’ll just watch Satan’s Cheerleaders again. Instead, I went for John Hough’s screen adaptation of The Chase by Richard Unekis, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.
Early in the film I was reminded of Tim Roth’s monologue at the beginning of Pulp Fiction where he discussed a bloke who pulled off a robbery using a telephone. He just simply walked into a bank and said that there was a kid on the other end who was going to be killed by some really mean guys if the teller didn’t give him the appropriate amount of cash. This story could have very well be true but, more likely, it was an interpretation of the beginning of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in which Larry (Peter Fonda) pays a visit to grocery manager George Stanton (Roddy McDowall) while his partner, Deke (Adam Roarke), holds Stanton’s wife and kid hostage at home.
The unique robbery goes off without a hitch until Larry comes back to his getaway vehicle only to find Mary (Susan George)the twist he boffed earlier that morningwaiting for him. From that moment on Larry and Mary begin their volatile relationship, fighting like cats and dogs and constantly spouting crude and goofy dialogue at each other-lines like “I’m going to break every bone in her crotch!”; “Will you stop calling me dingleberry!?”; “How ’bout that...Supercrotch here goes to the big city and right away she gets glib.”; “Unload! Kiss off!“; and “I’m gonna braid your tits!”
Fonda plays Larry with a spacey indifference, living only for speed. While trying to be a perky screwball, George comes off as perpetually obnoxious and sports choppers so unruly that Patricia Arquette, Jane March and Ba Ba Booey would be amazed.
After picking up Deke-sullen mechanic and former alcoholic-the chase is on. Larry drives like a madman while the cops are usually three or more steps behind, despite expert direction by loose cannon Captain Franklin (Vic Morrow-who ironically spends 90% of his screentime in a helicopter), an unconventional cop who doesn’t carry a gun or badge. Franklin figures out that Larry’s on his way to the Walnut Grove, a confused maze of roads and thick tree-cover, perfect for hiding from land and air pursuit.
Tensions mount as the three outlaws hide in their “briar patch,” driving aimlessly and narrowly avoiding their pursuers. It’s usually during scenes like this that the audience is let in on the character’s real motivations, that they drop pretenses and give us their background and/or dreams. We might even get some understanding as to why this chase is so personal to Captain Franklin. Oddly, though, we never get any of this information. The characters are allowed to keep to themselves-even when Franklin and Larry make radio contact there’s little interaction and a bare minimum of psychological warfare. This, coupled with one of the best endings I’ve seen since Death Game make Dirty Mary Crazy Larry a fun, albeit quirky chase film.
His Business is Stealing Cars...
When He Goes to Work the Excitement Starts and Goes...
Written, directed, starring, and produced by H.B. Halicki, 1974’s Gone in Sixty Seconds is the story of Maindrian Pace of Chase Research, insurance agent by day, expert car thief and wearer of bad wigs by night. Okay, he wears bad wigs during the day too. In fact, Pace could easily be mistaken for one of the Beastie Boys in Spike Jonze’s “Sabotage” video (“Guest Starring Sir Stewart Wallace as Himself”). Pace and his crew are under a deadline; they’ve got fifty cars to steal within a week to make good on a contract with a South American baddie with a terrible accent.
Pace has an odd habit of referring to cars by women’s names. He steals four Hillarys, three Patricias, three Natalies, et cetera. Yet, the car that’s giving him the most trouble is Eleanor, a yellow ’73 Mustang Fastback. Pace steals several Eleanors but keeps having to replace them after various mishaps such as when he finds that one Eleanor is not insured. This is an attempt to show that Maindrian’s got a consciencehe doesn’t want the owners to have to pay to replace their stolen vehicles. (Yeah! Bilk the insurance companies for all they’ve got!) Yet, later he doesn’t seem to give a shit about any of the folks who get hurt when he’s being pursued by the police.
Everything’s going pretty good for Pace until one of his crew heists a drug-laden car that could have doubled for the ride in The French Connection. Eugene, one of his fellow car thieves gets edgy, wanting to sell the heroin in the car and become a millionaire. Pace will have none of it, however, and torches the drugs and the car. In spite, Eugene tips off the cops to Pace’s next attempted Eleanor robbery. A chase ensues, and what a chase it is! At times, it gets as dull as O.J.’s pursuit while at others it’s nearly as fun in its excess as The Blues Brothers.
Much like Peter Yates’s Bullitt, if it wasn’t for the car chase this film wouldn’t have anything going for it. Horribly acted and terribly shot, most of the dialogue is delivered as voice-over narration to save money. One scene takes place at Eugene’s wedding-an obvious opportunity for Halicki to try to turn reception footage into a feature film (perhaps with this he inspired the first half of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter).
It’s Grand Theft Entertainment!
“Why remake a classic? Is nothing sacred?” Increasingly those words are shouted by cinephiles as they shake their tiny fists at the overbearing behemoth of Hollywood commercialism, expressing their umbrage. I’ve been right there with them, yelling my head off about Kiss of Death, Psycho, Shop Around the Corner, and Planet of the Apes. But Dominic Sena’s Gone in Sixty Seconds is likely to present a problem with the idea that original films are better... in this case both films are likely to suck.
Written by Scott Rosenberg (with a rumoured polish by Jonathon Hensleigh), the new Gone in Sixty Seconds is sure to be a bloated, overindulgent, mess of a film. But that’s nothing new for a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Filled to the brim with characters as Rosenberg is wont to do (Con Air, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead), the new Gone in Sixty Seconds boasts no less than ten car thieves, a tense family situation, a love story, a wise-ass cop, and a mob boss with a penchant for carving coffins for his intended victims.
Rosenberg obviously penned this script with Nicholas Cage in mind for the lead of Randall “Memphis” Raines, a former car thief trying to do the right thing. When he gets word that his little brother, Kip (Giovanni Ribisi), has chosen the same career path and is perilously close to being fitted for a custom-made coffin, Memphis comes back to Boston to save the day. The script idles along for a while, the only excitement in the first hour being the scene of Kip screwing up his deal with mob boss, Calitri. Yet, this scene is handled as follows:
“Look, chase scenes are like love scenes, what makes one man hot leaves another cold. This ain’t shirking responsibility but the only thing duller than writing chase scenes is reading them...Suffice to say, this will be one exciting chase.”
Something tells me that the only thing duller than reading this script will be watching the final version, unless Jonathan Hensleigh gives the script a kick in the pants (my first suggestion would be to remove the four page exchange between the crew regarding television characters and the cars they drove).
As arrogant as he is, Rosenberg is smart enough to recognize the elements-few as they may be-that worked in Halicki’s original film. The trick becomes building a hundred twenty-five-page script around five minutes of material.
Does he succeed?
In Rosenberg’s script, Eleanor is referred to as Memphis’ “unicorn” whereas in Halicki’s original, Eleanor is more of Maindrian’s “white whale.” Half of the limited amount of fun in the original GISS is Mandrian’s inability to steal and hold onto an Eleanor. In the Rosenberg’s version, Memphis dreams of Eleanor but has no trouble holding onto her once he grabs one. Another item that Rosenberg introduces into his script that doesn’t go anywhere is the car stuffed with heroin. There is little freaking out over the discovery of millions of dollars worth of smack, no talk of keeping it, and no sign of what becomes of the car once the scene is over.
The Chase Thriller of the ’80s!
Eight years after Gone in Sixty Seconds, H.B. Halicki made a quasi-sequel/follow-up, The Junkman, which he directed, wrote, etc. Halicki stars as Harlan Hollis, a junkyard owner turned blockbuster movie director. Of course, it was Gone in Sixty Seconds that earned him his fame (according to the faux “Hollywood Reporter” headlines at the beginning of the film).
Little does Hollis know that he’s got a squad of unintentionally goofy terrorists after him, determined to not let Hollis’ big wrap party for his new “exciting” movie go off without a hitch. As he makes his way to the James Dean Festival (huh?), he suddenly finds himself being pursued by terrorists on the road and in the air! Thus begins the first car chase of The Junkman.
This time around the budget’s bigger, Halicki doesn’t wear a wig, and the police dispatchers are bodacious babes. Otherwise, the acting is still sub-par, the characters are still goofy, and Halicki still drives with four spare pairs of sunglasses on his dashboard.
After a long damn time, Hollis manages to escape his pursuers and realizes that someone within his organization wants him dead. Yeah, no shit. For a while the story follows the standard trajectory of a television detective show. Hollis pretends that he’s dead and snoops around while a reporter and her two gay cameramen interview all of the suspects including the mysterious Richard (Richard L. Muse), the over-emotional Arthur (Lang Jeffries) and the overly-sincere Michael (hammy soap actor Christopher Stone).
Now it becomes a choice between the lesser of two evils. Which do you want more-the boring detective stuff or another interminable car chase? Regardless of the answer, when one of the terrorists becomes a loose end that needs to be eliminated, Hollis comes to talk to him minutes after the dude’s been shot. When Hollis is seen leaving the scene of the crime, yet another chase ensues. He manages to escape yet again and travels via blimp to the Cinerama Dome where he defeats the bad guy and prevents a bomb from killing his daughter and non-evil friends.
The late Hoyt Axton appears in a small role as himself. He and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon provide the film’s soundtrack, doing a markedly improved job over Gone in Sixty Seconds’s composer Philip Kachaturian. However, I don’t think that “Lookout, Junkman” gets a lot of requests at an Axton show.
After The Junkman, Halicki did one more chase film, Deadline Auto Theft and, according to www.halicki.com, he was said to be working on a sequel to GISS when he died in an auto accident.
It’s All Just for the Glory and a Gumball Machine
The apparent blueprint for the coast-to-coast race movies, Charles Bail’s The Gumball Rally has all the ingredients for a successful road rally flick, but ultimately fails miserably.
Starring Michael Sarrazin as Michael Bannon (looking like a poor man’s Peter Fonda), a bored businessman with a need for speed, The Gumball Rally has the typical corps of goofy (often stereotypical) characters from the southern-fried bozos (one of which being Gary Busey) to the proper English gents. However, Bail has no idea how to handle so many characters and most are left stalled on the sidelines. The result is that the majority of the film is a two-way race between Bannon and his rival Smitty (Tim McIntire) with the hard-nosed Detective Roscoe (Norman Burton) trying to but the kibosh on their speedy shenanigans. It all gets very old very quickly.
Put Your Brain in Neutral
Unfortunately, Paul Bartel’s Cannonball replicates much of The Gumball Rally from the simplistic characters to the unbearable dullness.
Our hero, David Carradine, stars as Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, an ex-con entered in the greatest underground sporting events in the countrythe Trans-American Grand Prix. Running from Santa Monica Pier to Manhattan’s Lower East Side (just about the opposite of The Gumball Rally), the hundred thousand dollar purse attracts an eclectic crowd including a cast of New World Pictures acting and directing talent (Mary Woronov, Richard Carradine, Archie Hahn, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Sylvester Stallone, Martin Scorcese, Dick Miller, and even the head honcho himself, Roger Corman).
The film’s combination of deflated humor and gut-wrenching melodrama mix as well as water and gasoline, leading me to believe that in order to be successful cross-country race films should gravitate toward either outrageous comedy like the Cannonball Run series or introspective art films like Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (see CdC #4 & #7). Notable most for its incredible cast and for being produced by the Shaw Brothers (who would later produce the Cannonball Run movies), the film is far more subdued than Bartel’s previous racing film, the spectacular Death Race 2000.
In the Year 2000 Hit and Run Driving Is No Longer a Crime....
It’s the National Sport!
Starring David Carradine as Frankenstein and Sylvester Stallone as Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, much of the cast of 1975’s Death Race 2000 went on to star in Cannonball. However, Death Race 2000 is wonderfully dark, violent, and absurdeverything that Cannonball would lack.
In Death Race 2000, a diverse group has entered the Trans-Continental Road Race. Like the Hanna-Barbera “Wacky Races” cartoon, each of the initial five drivers burning their way from New York to New Los Angeles has a theme. In addition to Frankenstein and Machine Gun Joe, there’s Mary Woronov as Calamity Jane, Roberta Collins as Matilda the Hun, and Martin Cove as Nero the Hero.
Set in the violent future, the race has become the new nation’s favorite pastime. Supported by the despotic government, this year’s race is being protested by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin) and her band of freedom fighters. They feel that the race is simply a political diversion and a barbaric practice, especially since drivers get points added to their overall score when they kill pedestrians (meaning that a driver could win if they reached the finish line second as long as they had more points).
Unlike Machine Gun Joe, who continually froths at the mouth, Frankenstein plays it cool, even when he discovers that his navigator, Annie (Simone Griffith), is Thomasina’s granddaughter and has been plotting against him from the outset of the race. Yet, as the film progresses, they come to realize that their ambitions aren’t so dissimilar.
Written by two of the best New World writers, Robert Thom (Crazy Mama, Bloody Mama) and Charles Griffith (Not of This Earth, Bucket of Blood, Little Shop of Horrors) the core of Death Race 2000 came from a story by Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet, Robinson Crusoe on Mars). Writer Charles Griffith is said to have directed the racing scenes while Paul Bartel handled the more acting-intensive areas.
A Futuristic Game of Life and Death!
When talking about futuristic chase films of the 1970s, no conversation is complete without a mention of The Last Chase.
Set in a future that looks a lot like the late seventies, Franklyn Hart (Lee Majors) is one of the survivors of a plague that claimed most of the world’s population as its victims. After twenty years, insanity has befallen most of those left; they use public transportation, bicycles, and evenoh, the humanity!walk to where they need to go! It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!
Obviously written during the energy crisis when people put “When Leaving The Room, Turn Lights Off!” stickers over their light switches, writer/director Martyn Burke must have been offended by acts of environmental-consciousness; feeling that the next step was the plundering of all of our civil liberties. Sure, first buses and then communism!
Forced to speak to classes about the advances made in public transportation, former race car driver Hart is torn up inside when he spreads such untruths, warping young, fragile minds. A man-a real man, a race car driving man who felt the wind in his hair and shards of glass in his gut-can only take so much. Hart snaps and begins telling the truth-that cars are a symbol of individual freedom, he’s suspended from his lectern by the Big Brotherly government agents who’ve been keeping their eye on this loose cannon.
During an outburst in his lecture, his message of individuality reached a young rebel with fanciful dreams of cartography and electronics, Ring (the ever-effeminate Chris Makepeace). On the run from the police after hacking into the government’s computer-controlled television system (it looks as high tech as an Intellevision console), Ring takes refuge with Hart. Soon the two are on the run to California in Hart’s flimsy-looking Formula One racecar, hoping to find The Resistance.
The government calls upon the talents of crusty former flying ace Captain J. G. Williams (Burgess Meredith) to track down Hart and eliminate the threat inherent in his mobility. Piloting the world’s slowest jet, Williams’ pursuit isn’t speeded along by his frequent kite-flying breaks. Apparently, this is to give us insight into his free-spirited personality.
Oh, when will this terrible suspense be over? Don’t tease me Martyn Burke! I want Williams to find Hart and for the two of them to team up and show the public transportation the liberation of burning through thousands of gallons of gasoline! I want Burgess Meredith to put down the booze and take on a mentorship role like Rocky or Clash of the Titans! Enough with the Native American reservation, square dancing, and cactus-killing laser beams!
Yet, Burke avoids the inevitable team-up and, instead, opts to have Williams sacrifice himself so that Hart and Ring may go on in their quest and be welcomed into California with open arms, much to the impotent chagrin of the government agents who have watched Hart’s journey all the while on their amazing system of closed circuit television monitors.
On the other end of the spectrum from the outrageous, madcap ultraviolence of Death Race 2000 (which would later be the inspiration for George Miller’s MAD MAX films) and the crummy sci-fi ruminations of The Last Chase is Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point.
Tighten Your Seat Belt!
You’ve Never Had a Trip like This Before!
We join this movie already in progress...
It’s a small, sleepy town: the kind of place where violence loves to visit in a Sam Peckinpah world. But in director Richard C. Sarafian’s, it’s a town in the middle of nowhere, about to see the only excitement it’ll have in years. Two bulldozers rumble lazily down the main drag. This is a town falling somewhere between Point A and Point B, noteworthy for nothing; not even the Green Frog bar where they make fresh pork rinds on Thursdays.
Kowalski (Barry Newmanlooking like a cross between Eric Bogosian and Tom Jones) is about to try to pass through here and the local police are determined to stop him. With an impolite clang, the bulldozers lower their broad hydraulic blades to the pavement, creating a formidable barrier. Even in this podunk burg, folks come out to see what happens when an unstoppable object encounters an immovable object. They know him because in the two days since he left Denver, Kowalski has become something of a folk hero thanks to disk jockey Super Soul (Cleavon Little) singing the mysterious and dogged driver’s praises on the air.
Running his white 1970 Dodge Challenger like a mad dog, Kowalski is no “Golden Driver of the Old West” as Super Soul has made him out to be, inflating him to mythical proportions-or is he? Ironically, though blind, Super Soul acts as Kowalski’s eyes, beaming information off the police wire straight to him like a person-to-person call. “The blind leading the blind.”
A former motocrosser, racecar driver, and policeman, Kowalski is currently a car delivery driver taking the Challenger from Denver to San Francisco where it’s due on Monday. But, wait, it’s Sunday now (the subtitle told us so)...what’s the big rush? What has motivated him to drive so fast that he’s caught the attention and heat of every cop in Denver, Nevada, and California? Is it a thirst to fulfill some lost nuance of the American Dream? Or, could it simply be that he bet a drug dealer in Denver the price of a handful of bennies that he could be to San Fran by 3 P.M. on Saturday?
Along the road, Kowalski encounters a collection of people on the edge of America: an old snake charmer, some hippie freaks, gay banditos, etc. Kowalski is unaware that he has been there with them, skating along the edge and nearly falling off. But, now he’s driving straight toward the middleinto the limelight. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself. It’s not the chase that concerns us, though it holds our interest, but the moments in between and the circus that forms around this man, the images projected onto his white car and lumpy face.
Vanishing Point is lovingly filmed, skillfully edited and wonderfully crafted. Written by Guillermo Cain and based on a story by Malcolm Hart, the narrative moves fluidly through time, carefully revealing Kowalski’s past while steadily proceeding in his present after returning from his future.
Look for John Amos in a small role as Super Soul’s sound man as well as Robert Donner as one of Kowalski’s pursuers-he later went on to play Exidor in “Mork & Mindy”. Vanishing Point was remade in 1997 as a wretched TV movie directed by Charles Robert Carner (the man who penned Gymkata) wherein Jimmy Kowalski (Viggo Mortenson) is stricken with a bad case of radar love and races to get home to his pregnant wife while facing off against Steve Railsback and Keith David.
According to an interview of Barry Newman in Musclecar Review Magazine, the original cut of Vanishing Point ran eight minutes longer than what was finally released to theaters (and subsequently on home video). Among the missing material is a scene of Kowalski picking up a hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) who carries a warning for him not to go to San Francisco before disappearing. Newman thinks the reason for the cut came from the studio second-guessing the audience; feeling that the general public wouldn’t be able to grasp such an existentialist moment.
A Subgenre Stalling Out?
Chase movies proliferated well into the ’80s, (though nothing seems capable of topping the absolute excess of The Blues Brothers, especially the dim-witted sequel).
While most of the aforementioned films were made on a low budget, the idea of an obligatory chase scene has remained a staple for Hollywood action filmswitness Michael Bay’s The Rock or John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.
Personally, I think there should be a return to the wacky chase films of old. I think that a lot of films with ensembe casts could benefit from having the characters pitted against each other in a coast-to-coast contest. For example, look at films such as Short Cuts, Boogie Nights, or MAGNOLIAtry to tell me that sticking those characters into some prime automobiles and turning them loose on the highways of America wouldn’t make for better entertainment.
Ironically, as I was putting the finishing touches on this article I was made aware of a new book about “road movies” by Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson, Lost Highways (ISBN 1-871592-68-2) from Creation Books (www.creationbooks.com). Sporting a still from Vanishing Point on the cover, it looks like this one will be quite a definitive guide to this under-appreciated genre.
Back to Issue 11