Readers, rev your engines.
The chase sequence has been a staple of cinema from the days of D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. That’s because the chase is inherently cinematic. No other medium can produce it as effectively. Imagine a painting, sculpture, or song depicting a car chase; it’s difficult. Prose fares better but still can’t compete. Movies, with their ability to flash a rapid succession of multiple viewpoints, to crosscut between pursuer and pursuee and innocent double-taking bystanders, and to convey a headlong rush of speed, are the ideal medium. Nowadays, when a movie flags or gets boring, the director adds a car chase. Moviemaking and the automotive industry grew up together. I think most directors harbor a secret desire to make a chase sequence. Even Robert Altman filmed a car chase in Brewster McCloud, and not a bad one either. The Bond films excelled at chases of all kinds.
My five is heavy on car chases, but anything on wheels may qualify, as long as someone is being chased or doing the chasing. The variety of wacky vehicles chasing W.C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break qualifies for inclusion, as does Steve McQueen’s attempted motorcycle getaway in The Great Escape. But competitive sequences in films like Grand Prix and Ben-Hur don’t qualify, because there’s no clear-cut pursuer and quarry. If any questions arise, I will wave a checkered flag and adjudicate.
1. The French Connection. Ever since Bullitt inaugurated the modern era of the dramatic car chase in 1968, filmmakers have scrambled to top it. The heyday of these efforts was the 1970’s. Death Proof’s recent liturgical recitation of Two Lane Blacktop, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and Vanishing Point named but a few titles; many more could be added. Greatest of all is 1971’s The French Connection. This chase still sets the bar for all others. Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle chases an assassin who gets away on an elevated train in Brooklyn. Flashing his badge, Popeye commandeers a brown Pontiac Le Mans from its owner. It’s the first scene I can think of showing what would later become an epidemic in filmdom: carjacking by cop. Doyle speeds off, and after that it is train vs. Pontiac, traffic vs. Pontiac, anything-that-gets-in-its-way vs. Pontiac, lady and a baby carriage vs. Pontiac. This chase doesn’t exhilarate, it grates under your skin. Theodore Soderberg and Christopher Newman’s sound design is a nerve jangling cacophony of blaring horns, squealing tires, and rattling train wheels. Through it all is Gene Hackman’s silent but vigorous cursing. It comes through loud and clear from behind the windshield even though we can’t hear it. Jerry Greenberg’s Oscar winning editing cuts between two levels of action: Hackman hell bent on street level, and the hijacked train and hostage situation on the level above. These two set pieces hurtle along relentlessly, their vectors verging ominously, until they reach a smashing climax. It’s simply great. And the denouement is so classic they made a poster out of it. Director William Friedkin almost never lived this chase down. He tried to follow it up in To Live and Die in L.A. and Jade. Producer Philip D’Antoni tried to repeat the success in The Seven-Ups with another great chase that features Bill Hickman, the same driver who did most of the stunt work in Bullitt.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a direct descendant of Buster Keaton’s The General. You take a vehicle, a locomotive in Keaton’s case, a truck in Raiders’, and then you exploit said vehicle every which way you can. In Raiders, you can almost hear Spielberg and Company ask the question “What can we do with a German truck?” Well, let me count the ways, for their answers are ingenious, and like some tribe of Plains Indians, they leave nothing to waste. First of all, the truck is transporting the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant. Guarding the precious cargo in back are seven Nazi soldiers. A Gestapo car precedes the truck, and a German version jeep with mounted machine gun follows close behind. A motorcycle with sidecar brings up the rear. Indiana Jones gives chase on an Arabian horse. John Williams’ brilliant music gallops heroically for a moment, and then proceeds to mirror perfectly all the action that comes next. Indy rides alongside the truck, takes out the rider and driver, and gains control behind the wheel. The Gestapo car tries to stop him. The jeep opens fire. The motorcycle and sidecar provide comedy relief. What can you do with a truck? Well, you can use it to run the jeep off an impossibly precarious cliff. You can have the Nazis get out and crawl around the sides and over the top. You can shoot Indy, punch him around, and hurl him through the windshield to be trapped straddling the speeding front tire. In a stunt that is a direct descendant of Yakima Canutt’s great work in Stagecoach, you can have Indy escape certain death by pulling himself underneath the truck, then hook his whip into the truck’s undercarriage, drag behind it and climb back aboard.
For the record, that’s the front, back, sides, top, and bottom of the truck. Michael Kahn’s editing weaves all this action together seamlessly. Spielberg repeated this “exploit the vehicle” formula successfully in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom “What can we do with a mine car?” and unsuccessfully in Indiana Jones and the last Crusade “What can we do with a tank?” ...Well, you can hold a guy’s head next to its treads, you can climb all over it, you can have Sallah deliver the awful line “He’s inside the belly of that steel beast.” Geez, the Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark would know what a fucking tank was.
3. What’s Up, Doc? It is said that all true comedies end in marriage. They also like to end with chases. Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? is a fine example. A delightfully madcap ode to the screwball comedies of yesteryear, What’s Up, Doc? hits all the requisite notes and then some. Nerdy Howard Bannister and zany catalyst Judy Maxwell begin things when they stash four plaid-clad cases of mixed-up MacGuffins into a grocery delivery trike. Then they pedal their escape through the streets of San Francisco, chased by an assortment of oddball characters in a taxi, an old Cadillac and a new Cadillac. San Francisco, with its steep hills and picturesque trolley cars, has always been a favorite location for car chases, and Bogdanovich makes full use of it. Our pair race down dangerous hills and try to pedal uphill only to speed back down in reverse. They zoom between the A-frame of a ladder and narrowly miss crossing trolley cars, leaving various car crashes in their wake. They avoid two men carrying a large pane of glass. They coast through a parade in Chinatown, zipping through and tearing away a Chinese dragon while the band behind plays “La Cucharacha” Chinese style. They crash through a costume shop and come out wearing costumes. They steal a Volkswagen Beetle decorated for some newlyweds and continue on with the tin cans dragging behind them. They knock over trash cans and ruin the work of a laborer smoothing a patch of cement. They get chased down Lombard Street. They make a wrong turn and bounce down the steps of Alta Plaza Park, the 3 cars chasing them doing some permanent damage that can still be seen to this day. The only thing missing is a fruit cart. The end of the line has the blue Beetle jumping off the end of a pier and three pursuing cars splashing down. Luckily for Howard and Judy, Beetles float.
What’s up, Doc? manages to stand on equal footing with the films it emulates. It was the first film to list stuntmen in the credits, and the first that made the city of San Francisco require advance permits for any future car chases. And last but not least, it’s the only movie where I find Ryan O’Neal appealing and Barbra Streisand sexy.
4. Short Time. Here’s one you may have forgotten. The car chase in Short Time (1990) asks the crucial question “How much abuse can a car take?” The answer is quite a bit. The great Dabney Coleman plays Burt Simpson, a Seattle cop who’s two weeks away from retirement. He takes every precaution when he leaves the station house. After he is misdiagnosed with a rare blood disorder, he thinks he has only a few days to live. If he dies in the line of duty, his family will collect $320,000 in insurance. He spends the rest of the movie not giving a flip about self-preservation. When Burt tears off after the bad guys, the ensuing chase becomes a perfect balance of excitement and humor. “This is for you, Dougie. You’re going to college little guy” he says as he guns the engine and weaves in and out of the dozen or so police cars to lead the pack in hot pursuit. When the baddies open fire with an automatic weapon, he shoots them back “the finger” with both hands. He rolls his car down an embankment, realizes that he’s still alive, and then throws off his seatbelt in frustration. He grows more disgusted with every near miss; dodging death again and again. The bad guys are dismayed at his tenacity: “What is he trying to do, kill himself?!?” The two cars stick to each other like superglue as they plow through the tropes and conceits you’ve seen in a million chase scenes. How much abuse can a car take? Short Time answers that question. By the end of the chase, Burt’s car has practically disintegrated—and that’s before one hell of a final collision.
5. The Blues Brothers. Elwood: “It’s got a cop motor, a 440 cubic inch plant, it’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?”
Jake: “Fix the cigarette lighter.”
The Bluesmobile, a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan, is indeed a piece of work. It has properties that are almost magical. And it should: it’s on a mission from God.
Elwood: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”
Jake: “Hit it.”
And so begins one of the greatest car chases in all of cinema. The Blues Brothers is car chase as hilarious overkill. Jake and Elwood have everyone chasing them. That means 300 plus state troopers (a world record, more than The Sugarland Express) S.W.A.T. teams, the National Guard, a contingent of Illinois Nazis “I hate Illinois Nazis” and a country music RV. The only thing not chasing them is a kitchen sink. Director John Landis begins the pace almost casually, at dawn. We witness cop cars running off the freeway and crashing like lemmings in pyramid-high pile ups, while a bluesy bass riff plays lazily on the soundtrack. The tempo picks up as Jake and Elwood enter the city. The patrol cars keep piling up, yet no one gets hurt. A red Pinto full of Nazis led by Henry Gibson goes off a bridge to nowhere and then falls for what seems like miles, its impact creating a car-swallowing hole in the middle of the street. Elwood steps on the gas just in time to jump over it. Finally, the Bluesmobile guns through the streets of Chicago at 120 m.p.h., racing towards Daley Center. When Jake and Elwood get out, the car completely falls apart, as if God himself was holding it together. It’s a fitting end to a comic chase of staggering proportions.
House contributor Wagstaff also writes for Liverputty and Edward Copeland on Film.