Sunday, May 08, 2011

Car chases and the ‘70s: What's your favorite?

(Starsky and Hutch's Gran Torino)
I’ve invoked the 1970s from time to time, usually in snide remarks about the decade’s crappy haircuts. But Saturday’s post and the discussion that follows (it’s still going on; weigh in!) remind me that the era was a high point for chase scenes, too.

One reader posted a clip of a car chase from Le Casse (1971) that included oil slicks, Greek dancers, applauding spectators, and Fiats and Opels shooting down staircases. It was well-crafted, it was a lot more exciting than the computer-generated stuff we get today, and it reminded me of the car chases of my youth. And that got me thinking that if the 1970s were not the high-water mark of car chases, they probably did mark car chases' leap into both the mainstream (The Streets of San Francisco) and the artistic zeitgeist (in the form of J.G. Ballard's Crash).

(Coincidentally, an excerpt from Duane Swierczynski’s forthcoming novel Fun and Games also recaptured some of that 1970s car-chase excitement. And that raises the question of which crime writer's name you'd least like to be asked to spell: Swierczynski’s or Didier Daeninckx's?)

So, a few questions: 
  • What are your favorite scenes involving cars driving fast or dangerously? Movie scenes are welcome, but I'll be especially curious to see if you come up with scenes from books.
  • When did cars first become places of danger and excitement in  fiction and in movies? (Here's a favorite example: Raymond Chandler's 1935 story "Nevada Gas.")
  • Why did car chases go mainstream in the 1970s?
  • What's the attraction of car chases?
  • Are all the good ones in American and French movies?
***
Here's another post I made about a movie with a car chase in it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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57 Comments:

Blogger Kieran Shea said...

The Seven Ups. Can't say much more.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't say it, show it!

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kieran, my only quibble with the car chase in Bullitt was with the bad guys' calm and lack of reaction. The Seven-Ups chase went a bit too far the other way: too many grimacing close-ups and wide-eyed reaction shots from both cars and even from the streets. That's jarring to the continuity.

Interesting, since the same producer was behind both movies, which must make him one of the influential figures in the history of car chases.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Not sure if you've seen this.

Some annoying English lady races The General Lee against Starsky's Gran Torino.

I think she doesn't realise that as a moonshine runner the General Lee would have heavily modified.

Greatest car and motorcycle chases? - I think Steve McQueen has those covered.

Greatest train chase?

no contest

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Although I'm a fan of the 70's crime film, and tv series, I'm not such a huge fan of the car chase per se: "seen one, seen them all!"

I seem to recall 'Starsky and Hutch', which I didn't especially care for, specialised in car chases.
There's also a nifty little cult film called 'Vanishing Point', which I first saw in the (old and shabby) New Sandford cinema in Ranelagh, back in the day, although that might be more classed a (marathon) car drive movie, rather than chase.
Then there's the far superior 'Two Lane Blacktop', starring The Great Warren Oates and a couple of mumbling rock stars.

I suppose 'Bullitt' wrote the book for car chases, 'per se, but for tighly edited, excitingly photographed road chase movies, I much prefer the original 'Mad Max' movie

May 09, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I think Mr. Majestyk is one of the few 70's chases with a woman driver (at least for part of the chase) and one of the first pick-up truck chases.

Was Vanishing Point the first entire car chase movie?

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

John, I don't know the answer to your question but it may well have pre-dated 'American Graffiti' as the first movie which featured a radio dj as some kind of all-seeing, all-knowing, interested spectator.

What I most remember about 'Mr Majestyk' is Charles Bronson's character's mantra to anybody within earshot that he just wanted to get his melons in, while he was taking time-out to 'out-deathwish' his legendary 'Death Wish' character

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

My favorite car chase of all: The ONLY car chase which didn't bore me or annoy me in ANY way, was the chase in the first Bourne film. The whole idea of a beat up mini-Cooper out maneuvering the French cops is hilarious. I never get tired of watching these scenes.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

The film FRENCH CONNECTION lead to the increase in car chases in the 70s.

The chase, by foot or horse or vehicle, has been a staple in fiction. The thrill, the risk, the speed all appeal to the young adventurer in all of us. We want to experience the thrill of Bond in his Austin Martin in GOLDFINGER.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Then there's this scene, one of many such from the greatest chase movie ever.

And you're right. That English lady is annoying.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, you may notice from a comment above that the Seven=Ups chase made me appreciate what I'd previously regarded as a a weakness in Bullitt's: its lack of reaction shots.

Car chases do indeed have a certain sameness, which is why it might be fun to watch European ones, just to see different cars bouncing over the hills (some of those 1970s American car designs were almost as bad as the era's haircuts and clothes). And then there are the comic touches in the Le Casse/The Burglars chase. The Greek dancers and the spectators make it not just a fince chase scene, but a fine comic scene.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I don't know if "Vanishing Point" was the first all-car-chase movie, but Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances" is almost entirely a big chase: on foot, car, tram, and, I think, bicycle.

The car-chase parts surely gave later movie makers some ideas.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, speaking of reaction shots, and I don't know is it available on YouTube, but there's a wonderful 'eyeball popping' shot in the opening scene of 'Mad Max' just at the point the criminal is about to crash.

I haven't checked it in a while now, but I'd swear his eyes popped out of his head, a split second prior to impact

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, the remake of "The Italian Job" gives prominent roles to several of the new Minis, part of that car's resurgence as a style item. I think the gang chose Minis for practical reasons: They're small.

Some of the driving is a bit too choreographed -- the cars making pretty formations, and all.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I have not seen "The French Connection," believe it or not.

If it indeed was responsible for popularizing car chases in the 1970s, then I was right when I commented above that the producer of "Bullitt" and "The Seven-Ups" was a seminal figure in car-chase history. He produced "The French Connection" as well.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, but that's different. Everyone in "Mad Max" is supposed to look weird. And it's noteworthy that the eyes pop just before impace -- at a climactic moment, as opposed to hitting the viewer over the head throughout the scene.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZ_39lxlDAg&feature=related

One of my favourites, from one of my favourite 70's crime movies, albeit one released in 1985

don't have the HTML code for copying url

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here's the coding for posting a link. Just substitute > and < for ) and (

(a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZ_39lxlDAg&feature=related")To Live and Die in L.A.(/a)

This movie came up a few times when I searched for car chases. I never liked its title; it always seemed too self-conscious.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I wouldn't be put off by the title, Peter; I much prefer it to any of the French Connection movies, or 'Bullitt': some great character actors in it, and I even got to love Wang Chung's music after watching it.

Its also one of the few crime movies which I thought better than its source novel

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who wrote the novel?

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Gerald Petievich, a retired Secret Service agent, according to IMDb
(so he would know some of the operational detail).
From memory I think he perhaps had too much ethnic family background detail for Pankow's character, who he made the hero of his novel.

The film is relatively long, at 116 minutes, but I thought it sufficiently well-paced that you wouldn't notice it.

John Turturro, Dean Stockwell and Willem Dafoe all have strong supporting roles.
CSI's William Petersen is a weak lead, as is his sidekick, Pankow, but the supporting actors more than compensate
(Dafoe's scumbag sidekick, who almost steals the film, is played by a former instructor at LAPD!)

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, that looks like a strong supporting cast, all right.

I see that "To Live and Die in L.A." was the novel's title, too. It sounds like a title Hollywood jazzed up for the movie version.

May 09, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Completely off topic and pardon for the intrusion, but...

A friend of mine is taking a 2-week trip to N England in early July and asked me to ask DBB'ers if they could suggest good books, esp. crime fiction, "with settings in northern England-Cumbria, Yorkshire, & Northumbria?"

And... "Also, are there any good mystery bookstores in London or York, that I shouldn't miss?"

I'll tell her to check in to this day's post for any responses.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you folks might have.

Back to the topic at hand... My favorite car chase in crime fiction? Possibly the Continental Op's mad dash after "The Girl with the Silver Eyes," 1924.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think that was my first Hammett short, Elizabeth: that was quite a vivid chase which still lingers in the mind
Who do you think could play the girl?
Ann Savage, perhaps?

Can't help with your questions, I'm afraid

May 09, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best and most elaborate descriptions of car chases I've come across are in the Quiller books from the late 60s/early 70s by Adam Hall, also known as Elleston Trevor and the possessor of enough pseudonyms to fill a fair-sized graveyard.

Good and all as the chases are, I'd rather see them than read about them.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Crazy Mary Dirty Larry (1974)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToKx8KUUF5E

Race With The Devil (1975)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxGfMvxXXjc

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: I shall also try to come up with some answers. I may also have some questions for your friend, since it transpires I might be in the north of England later this year.

I don't know of any specialty crime-fiction stores in London since Maxim Jakubowski sold Murder One, which has since become a mail-order operation. Foyle's on Charing Cross Road had a fine crime selection when I was last there.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Also, the only Northumbrian crime writer I can think of off hand is Sheila Quigley. I haven't read her books, but I've heard her speak at conferences, and I'd pay money to hear that Geordie accent.

Elsewhere in the north, there are Ted Lewis' tough crime novels set around Newcastle. (He wrote Jack's Return Home, which was made into the movie GetCarter.)

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, I just ate, so I won't watch that car chase now. But I will watch it later tonight. Thanks.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, a car scene on the page, written well, may be an even more impressive achievement than an exciting car chase on film, I think.

May 09, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

Bullit and Vanashing Point are the ones everybody remembers, but my two favorite, tho' only one from the 70's are Gone in 60 Seconds (the original) and the Drag Race/Chicken scene in Rebel Without a Cause, where James Dean and the other guy drag race at a cliff and the other driver doesn't bail out (leather coat gets hung up on the door lever). In print, I remember a couple of scenes in Chandlers books, but which ones I couldn't tell you. I think cars and car chases are just in the blood of the American male. In the 60's and early 70's when I was 'coming of age' getting your first car was almost more important than gettinng your first....well, yu get the idea....

May 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robert, I saw the chase scene from "Gone in 60 Seconds" in the course of reading for this post.

It was interesting to watch "Seven Chances" again and see Buster Keaton hanging off the back of a moving car right after I'd seen Jean-Paul Belmondo hanging off the side of a bus. I was watching the same scene shot twice, fifty years apart.

Yeah, the car chase must spring from some nexus of sex, adventure, technology, and money.

May 10, 2011  
Blogger Robert Carraher said...

I'll have to check out 'Seven Chances'I don't know I have seen it, but that is cool, repeating the scene 50 years later. I grew up in Southern Calif., same town the Winter National Drag Races are held, and every kid I knew wanted to drive fast cars, and every other kids dad actually did. My first car was a 58 Ford Hardtop Convertible I bought for $75.00, about two months paper route money. Once I got it running I drove it up to Grifith Park, where the scene in Rebel Without a Cause was shot. At least back then, in the 60's and 70's, I think the car represented freedom, mobility, especially in the midwest and on the west coast where public transport wasn't an option, and of course you couldn't get a date without one.

May 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think, though I'm not sure, that "Seven Chances" may have been shot in or around Los Angeles, which would give a nice glimpse of the developing city.

Makes sense that a car would equal freedom in a world without public transportation. We East Coasters did our youthful dreaming on buses and subways.

May 10, 2011  
Blogger wstroby said...

There's a pretty good one through Paris in the Jean-Paul Belmondo film LE PROFESSIONNEL. It's based on an obscure '70s novel titled DEATH OF A THIN-SKINNED ANIMAL, which Stephen Hunter admits he plundered for his own DEAD ZERO.

May 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Belmondo joins Philip D'Antoni in the car-chase hall of fame, I'd say. He seems to have specialized in the high-speed U-turn.

May 10, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I loathe car chases and, having just spent several days in Venice, I'm convinced that a city without cars is a dream.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Perhaps fans of the genre enjoy the speedboat chase in

"Moonraker".

I find it quite daft...

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I once saw a movie clip of a boat chase through the canals of Venice. Still, you're safe on its aquatic streets, as long as you don't dink the water.

May 13, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Is it possible that you are thinking of "Bangkok Dangerous" a grisly film set in the Tropics?

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It could be, I suppose. I watched a scene or two on television with the sound off in a bar, so it would be no shock if I miss some details.

You seem well acquainted with chases, at leas ton the water.

May 14, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

I found the film with Nicholas Cage by gooling, throwing in the word "speedboat". It was filmed during a political coup and the experience was very frightening for all concerned, it seems.

This surprises me as anybody who can produce such violent work must be quite tough. I had to turn the Youtube piece off.

The best film chase I know the the little mobilette charging through the Metro in "Diva".

For a book, I had to go back to
Georgette Heyer.

Regency carriages probably don't count...

May 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who says Regency carriage chases don't count?

May 16, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Since we're doing pre-20th Century car chases, there's the chariot race/chase in 'Ben Hur'!

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A race rather than a chase, but still an much-loved and often-imitated and parodied scene. Thanks for the nomination.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

race?
chase?
There's a class of horse race called a steeplechase!

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've always wondered about the origin of the "steeple" part of that sport's name.

May 16, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Well, I suppose if a cow can jump over the moon, a horse should be able to jump over a (church) steeple!

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The race apparently "derives its name from early races in which orientation of the course was by reference to a church steeple."

May 16, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Always knew it wasn't referring to the height of the fences! :)

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose the steeple-orientation explanation is plausible. I'd need to do a bit more research before being convinced, though.

May 16, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The steeplechase "...derives its name from early races in which orientation of the course was by reference to a church steeple...I'd need to do a bit more research before being convinced, though."

May I take a shot at trying to convince you? Yes, these races (they tended to be longish; back when men were men and Thoroughbreds were Thoroughbreds) began before any "proper" race courses were laid out in England. And the agreed-upon 'chase was from church steeple to church steeple. The finish of the 'chase at steeple #2 was visible from the start at from steeple #1 (or wherever the 'chase began).

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That may have been back in the day when men were men, and boxing was bare-knuckled and lasted fifty rounds.

In fact, having stood in European valleys and enjoyed the heady panorama of villages laid out before my eyes, I can accept the explanation. (On one trip in particular, to Dambach-la-Ville in Alsace, I got off the train having no idea where to find the wine. I oriented myself by -- you guessed it -- the village church steeple.)

May 16, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I think that was one of the purposes of a steeple. Not just as a place to hang a bell but as a visible landmark which even strangers, like yourself, could use to orient themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. And, of course, for parishioners to have a place to head to on Sunday morning. No excuses for being late cuz you couldn't find the church!

I can't think about this subject without seeing Charles Johnson Payne's ("Snaffles") print, "The Finest View in Europe," in my mind. A copy of it hangs across from the sofa in the living room. Just look for it on the WWW; the links are mostly to "buy it" sites and dull the image. (That's why I don't include a link.)

v-word = cocosi
"Yes, I want chocolate!" ?

May 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember from another trip how vivid an impression Chartres Cathedral made as my train approached. I felt a bit like a pilgrim of the middle ages.

May 16, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I remember from another trip how vivid an impression Chartres Cathedral made as my train approached. I felt a bit like a pilgrim of the middle ages."

We had exactly the same sensation in our approach by car! In fact, we parked the car at some distance and walked in on foot to enhance that Medieval pilgrim mood. Of course it helps that the cathedral lies on a flat plane, huh?

Same thing with the approach to the reconstructed Medieval city of Carcassonne.

May 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I felt like an efficient pilgrim, able to experience the same awe as my medieval predecessors had but at much greater speed. Convenient!

May 17, 2011  

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