There are three staple ingredients used and reused by lazy screenwriters. The first is the mobile phone. Need a plot problem solved instantaneously? Have a main character get a phone call with relevant information to move the plot forward.
The next ingredient is the shoot-out where all plot difficulties and character conflicts are solved in one go, where the villain gets his comeuppance. Shoot-outs are invariably boring. They should come at the start of a film to save us wasting two hours waiting for the inevitable. Get it over with as soon as possible. Don’t talk, shoot!
Finally, there is the car chase. Car chases and car sequences are as old as films themselves: Laurel and Hardy in their old jalopy that, circus fashion, falls apart as soon as they start the engine; a hundred one-reel Keystone Cops antics where a string of inept police officers hanging onto the car in a snake line as it takes bends too fast, those were the staple comedy fare of the time.
Serious chases took off in the Fifties confined to the last ‘reel’ of the film. Nowadays they can appear at the start, or be dropped into a story many times.
I’m reminded of this having watched a really bad British film, The Sweeney, starring Ray Winstone, a professional cockney who plays bad ass cockneys more bad ass cockney than cockneys. It contains a car chase every five minutes, or what seems like it.
It is de rigueur for drivers in celluloid chases to negotiate vehicles coming at them in all directions, and if that doesn’t happen then swing down a busy street the wrong way against oncoming traffic. You are free to dash over pavements, (sidewalks) and hit the obligatory stack of cardboard boxes, rubbish (garbage) bins, or a street seller’s stall.
Winstone’s cars negotiate miles of absolutely empty winding country lanes, and across fields at breakneck speeds with nary a car in sight. He might as well have been making a television commercial where new cars always move down empty roads, inner city streets blissfully bereft of vehicles, unless parking between two with hands-free ease to begin a bank robbery. The film is a huge disappointment, the story and plot are pants.
Cars as stars
A 1953 British production gave us Genevieve, complete with a 1904 Darracq on a London to Brighton veteran rally. It was very successful at the box office but the car never really caught the public’s imagination. What survived the film is Larry Adler’s hummable harmonica score. Cars as stars came into their own in the Sixties with Disney’s 1968 comedy Love Bug about an adorable anthropomorphic VW Beetle with a mind of its own.
About the same time television saw Simon Templar’s Volvo P1800 in The Saint series. Those dramas showed a car can hold its own when playing the buddy of the key character, and enhance his sex appeal. By the way, why did God give us eyebrows? So that Roger Moore had a career.
In time, every recurring character in a drama had to be seen in an individualistic vehicle, preferably a sporty brand, with a powerful, noisy engine, and an adoring blonde in the passenger seat.
The Saint’s producers wanted an E-Type for Roger Moore’s freelance goody two-shoes detective. Snooty Jaguar declined the invitation. Volvo answered the car with its one and only sports coupe. That elegant model, incidentally, holds the record for the greatest mileage in automotive history, without a change of engine – three million miles, and counting, a car kept in New York State.
Once producers realised a car could be the star it was a matter of who could create the wackiest vehicle that was one up on all that had gone before – the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and its flying veteran car – or the fastest car, Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang in Bullitt (1968).
Bullitt set the ball rolling
Inspector Bullitt’s chase, as far as I am concerned, up and over the vertiginous streets of San Francisco, is still the best car chase of all; all others are copies, including Gene Hackman’s chase under the overhead city railway in The French Connection (1971).
For Bullitt McQueen did not do any of the chase stunts himself. That honour belongs to stuntman Loren Janes. At one point McQueen fails to take a corner and is forced to back up. He was a good driver but not a stunt driver. And the cars involved were heavily modified. Anybody buying one of those cars today, now categorised as classic American muscle cars, is in for a disappointment and a big repair bill. The film cars had to drive faster than the stock model, and take a lot of beating and bashing. Suspensions were beefed up too. McQueen’s car and the villain’s car eventually get into a knock-for-knock shouldering as they try to push the other off the motorway, each vehicle pretty well destroyed in the process. There were three Ford Mustang fastbacks and three Dodge Chargers. It’s all trickery, folks.
The scenes were shot one street at a time over four weeks. In the end director Peter Weir had to repeat shots to get the rhythm to work, which is why the same green VW stunt driven Beetle is seen passing McQueen’s car so often on Taylor Street.
Cars didn’t become villains until Australian Peter Weir’s 1974 film, The Cars that Ate Paris. The horror genre manifested itself later in Maximum Overdrive, and as a murderous truck in Spielberg’s Duel with its malevolent gasoline tanker, followed by the Plymouth Fury in Christine, and many more hungry saloons since, all leading to the Stealth Bomber intimidation of Batman’s cars.
But all of them are out-famed by James Bond’s silver Aston Martin in Goldfinger, (1964) a touring car acting as anti-hero, whose weaponry gadgets came from the imagination of set designer Ken Adam’s frustrations trying to park in London. By the time the pouting Daniel Craig took on the role, Bond films became a product placement dream for Aston Martin, Ford, and Range Rover. They get in the way of the story’s credibility.
A bit of movie gossip: I got the opportunity to ask Sean Connery why he did not buy the Aston Martin DB5 knowing it had become world famous, it value sky rocketing. “Mah head kept hittin’ off the roof!” Connery is six feet two inches.
High profile detectives
I never understood why a clandestine spy should drive around in a flashy bright silver luxury touring car, or undercover cops Starsky and Hutch use a flamboyant bright red Ford Torino with a huge white strip along its flanks. They’re sitting ducks for motorway speed cops, or the sniper.
And on the subject of televisions detectives, I can accept Inspector Maigret will drive a Citroen Traction Avante of his day, but what do we make of Lieutenant Columbo’s beat-up Peugeot convertible? I can’t fathom why Peter Falk’s rumpled Columbo drives a clapped out old car and wears an old raincoat and soup stained ties, yet smart-ass natty Lieutenant Kojak has a sleek Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and wears high-end suits, police officers both on the same salary.
The golden age
If the silent movies saw the first golden age of cars as supporting characters and gangsters in drive by shootings, we are surely going through a second golden age for cars, or arguably a boring age of derivate plots for cars, depending on whether automobiles raise any interest for you.
It’s difficult to think of a movie set in contemporary times that doesn’t feature a car as a central character, the battered old Mini in The Bourne Identity, and every car in this century’s The Fast and Furious franchise, all out-doing the laconic star of the series the aptly named Vin Diesel, diesel the obvious fuel, but VIN less so, not just short for Vincent but also a car’s date of manufacture.
Back in the day on screen car smashes called for real cars bought for the scene. Today the same carnage is accomplished by digital magic. The cars pushed over the cliff in The Italian Job, the film really an advert for Mini cars, were real E-Type Jaguars and Ferraris, engines removed. When we see The Matrix we see a plethora of clever effects showing cars doing balletic cartwheels in the air, and ten car pile ups.
What comes first, film or toys?
The recent very funny Lego Batman movie is a blatant commercial for Lego and the Batman franchise. It’s a film best watched on television. The cinema screen ought to be for more honest material, but there is no getting away from the cleverness of the script that deconstructs the entire Batman oeuvre hocus-pocus, right down to the live actor’s artificially husky tones.
Included in the story-line is the Lego Batmobile. You can buy the Lego pieces in one pack to build that car, a long way away from the days Lego sold you a pack of Lego parts and left you to build whatever came out of your imagination. Stimulating creativity, it seems, is junked in preference to selling ready-made products at hefty mark up prices. The film won’t do any harm to Lego sales, quite the opposite, but Batman’s producers must be confident their money maker isn’t going to get hurt kicked around in this Lego roasting.
For the less intellectually demanding the unbelievably versatile vehicles in the futuristic Transformers take some beating. Those film rely on digital tricks not on stunt drivers.
Normally toys are a spin off from a popular film, but as each sequel progresses the films become marketing tools for the toys. There’s an audience for stuff that goes crash, crunch, swizzle and explodes. And if too adult to take that tripe you can always make the excuse that Pixar’s Cars is a different sort of car movie.
The anarchic have their Mad Max anthology, now reaching a stage where any sort of vehicle can be constructed out of any other sort of vehicle. Perhaps Mad Max expresses our frustration with the damage cars have done to our cities and are our revenge. Multiple deaths are part of the Mad Max story, live hard, drive hard, die easy. Cars get trashed.
A race to the death
The one film about real car races with real racing drivers was toxic in every sense. Steve McQueen – that man again – and James Garner’s passion to make a film about the Grand Prix reached fruition in 1966 directed by John Frankenheimer. It won three Academy Awards but had a production history littered with delay, disaster, and spiralling costs. There’s not much acting in it, but there is a lot of racing cars interspersed with real footage – hence the length the film took to shoot all its sequences and edit them together.
The tale of Formula One racing drivers involved real-life drivers of the day, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Juan Manuel Fangio, the great Jim Clark, and Jochen Rindt.
Gran Prix almost certainly caused the death of risk-taker McQueen, a star who demanded a car or motorbike chase in every picture. The bandana McQueen used as face protection from fire was soaked in asbestos. They didn’t know any better in those days. For once the King of Cool was too laid back for his own good. He died of cancer a few years later.
(A modified version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine.)