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Bullitt (#110 of 3)

Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

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Top 10 Greatest Car Movies
Top 10 Greatest Car Movies

Cars, it’s often been observed, offer a sort of contradiction of motion: They allow us to move around while sitting still. It only makes sense, then, that the movies have for so long been attracted to the allure of the automobile, for surely the appeal of the cinema lies in its capacity to take us from the comfort of the theater or living room to adventures around the world. The greatest car movies—movies about cars, largely set in cars, or otherwise significantly concerned with them—understand that our affection for our vehicles has as much to do with the possible freedoms they promise as the routines they let us uphold. Cars drive us to and from work every day, keeping our lives precisely ordered. But they also suggest escape: We’re always aware, faintly, that we could drive away from it all at any moment, out and off toward some new life’s horizon. Car movies remind us of the power in that possibility—of all the things that can happen when we turn the key.

Summer of ‘88: The Dead Pool—Dirty Harry Gets Taken

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Summer of ‘88: <em>The Dead Pool</em>—Dirty Harry Gets Taken
Summer of ‘88: <em>The Dead Pool</em>—Dirty Harry Gets Taken

When Gran Torino was rumored to be the sixth Dirty Harry movie, I hoped Clint Eastwood wouldn’t make Charles Bronson’s mistake. Bronson’s Paul Kersey appeared in five Death Wish movies, each more preposterous and violent than the last. The final Death Wish film, The Face of Death, gave 73-year-old Bronson a much younger girlfriend and more people to shoot. Clearly too old to be chasing anything besides young punks off his lawn, Bronson looked ridiculous. I kept waiting for him to roll into the frame on a Hoveround tricked out with flamethrowers and ballistic missiles.

Since Eastwood was 78 when Gran Torino was announced, I feared the worst. Harry Callahan would fire his famous .44 Magnum, and the kick back would cause his arm to fly off. Running up those hills in San Francisco would kill him before anybody could “make his day.” Thankfully, Eastwood played a different sort of racist with a gun in Gran Torino. So 1988’s The Dead Pool remains the last we’ll ever see of Dirty Harry, at least until Warner Bros. inevitably greenlights a reboot.

Directed by Clint’s longtime stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn, The Dead Pool is a fitting swan song for the controversial police lieutenant created by Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink. Coming 17 years and three sequels after 1971’s Dirty Harry, the film finds Eastwood and company still using the series’s tried-and-true formula: Criminals commit heinous crimes and Dirty Harry shoots them with his big-ass gun. Occasionally there’s a love interest and/or a partner to “soften” Harry’s rough edges and make him appear more human. These people are supremely unlucky and usually deceased; their demise is always foreshadowed by their pointing out that Callahan’s companionship is hazardous to their health. By film’s end, Harry has solved the crime, splattered the villains, avenged his lost lover/partner, and walked away while the camera pulls up for a final overhead shot of the carnage.

5 for the Day: Steve McQueen

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5 for the Day: Steve McQueen
5 for the Day: Steve McQueen

What I learned from Roman Polanski’s playful political thriller The Ghost Writer is that the old man can still bring it. Not Polanski, the 77-year-old director, but Eli Wallach, the 94-year-old actor, who shows up about halfway through to deliver a very brief but charming performance as a crusty, all-weather resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Stepping out from behind a dilapidated screen door, Wallach’s face is revealed to be equally worn, but there’s still a sparkle in his eyes and a distinctive zing to his voice. He’s as feisty as ever, if not quite as intimidating, and seeing him up on the big screen, in what we’ve got to assume will be his final performance, might be enough to make you think that you’re in the middle of a cinematic dream from which you don’t want to wake. And yet, for me, Wallach’s presence is bittersweet. To marvel that he’s still around—more than that: still acting—is to be confronted with memories of Wallach’s costars past who have been off the screen and off this earth for years now. Even decades.

Among them is Steve McQueen, who starred opposite Wallach to memorable effect in The Magnificent Seven, near the start of McQueen’s career, and then to less memorable results in The Hunter, in what proved to be McQueen’s final film. McQueen died a few months later from complications due to cancer, and this November we’ll have been without him for 30 years. He was only 50 when he died, and today would have been his 80th birthday—old enough that he might have long since given up acting, but young enough that perhaps he’d have had at least one cameo left in him, like Wallach in The Ghost Writer, or like Karl Malden, McQueen’s costar in The Cincinnati Kid and Nevada Smith, who at 88 contributed to one of the greatest scenes in the seven-season run of TV’s The West Wing in 2000. We’ll never know.