When director Peter Yates passed away this past Sunday, cinephiles everywhere mourned the loss of an underrated director. Roger Ebert made note of his inspiring 1979 bike-racing drama Breaking Away, heist movie fans pointed out the farcical 1971 Robert Redford vehicle The Hot Rock, noir enthusiasts took pains to emphasize Robert Mitchum's powerful performance in 1973's grim crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and... well, it's the internet, so a lot of sci-fi buffs eulogized him for Krull. But above all else, Yates is probably most remembered for revolutionizing a pivotal aspect of the action movie at a time when Hollywood was being overtaken by new ideas. What Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) did for violence, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey did for visual effects, and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider did for counterculture, 1968's Bullitt did for the car chase.
There were fast cars in movies before Bullitt, sure--James Bond's Aston-Martin DB5 from Goldfinger didn't just sit there and look pretty, and the racing scenes in John Frankenheimer's 1966 classic Grand Prix were widely lauded for their epic cinematography--but Bullitt raised the stakes astronomically. Granted, it was filled with continuity errors (the Charger loses more hubcaps than it has wheels), and mapping by San Francisco locals proves that it's completely disconnected from any geographical reality. But the visceral, high-speed nature of Bullitt's chase was undeniably tactile at a time when pursuit scenes still used cheesy rear-projection effects. The dynamic, POV-shot-heavy sequence helped land Frank P. Keller a Best Editing Oscar, and the fact that Steve McQueen did much of his own driving behind the wheel of that Shelby Mustang fastback only added to his reputation as the era's ideal cinematic badass. The next few years saw movies that either revolved around their car chases (The Italian Job) or featured one as a memorable setpiece in the middle of a stunning drama (The French Connection), and it's likely that none of them were made without the shadow of Yates' high-speed crowning moment looming over them. Here's a few that did their best to stake their own claims.
Director Philip D'Antoni must've seen himself as a patron of Bullitt's legacy: he produced that movie, as well as The French Connection, before stepping behind the camera to take on this 1973 cop film starring a pre-Jaws Roy Scheider. And where The French Connection's indelible car-vs-subway train chase scene was pure New York in itself,The Seven-Ups pivots around a pair of dueling Pontiacs that tear through the streets of a city where nobody drives. At least, not until they hit the main thoroughfares--and then things get hectic. A couple of the now-cliche moments of mayhem show up early--Scheider plows through the requisite trash pile and fruit stand during a quick detour on the sidewalk in his police pursuit of a couple mob hoods--but there's also a few moments of genuine panic, from a side street full of jump-roping kids to a suspension-testing stretch of uptown to a slick ambush using a Greyhound bus as cover. And the chase ends in one of those rare moments where the good guy doesn't prevail--in fact, he gets shaken off the criminals' tail in one of the most abrupt and startling ways possible. Good thing he ducked.
Gone in 60 Seconds
Some five-ish years' worth of Bullitt-influenced chase scenes must have triggered a switch somewhere inside the head of a car collector named H.B. Halicki. Ninety-three wrecked cars and $150,000 later, an independently-financed car-thief-caper called Gone in 60 Seconds hit theaters, produced, directed, and stunt-driven by leading-man Halicki. He also wrote it, though the existence of an actual script may not have been entirely integral to the film--plot and acting-wise, it feels like a porn film where all the sex was replaced by car accidents. And yet the critically-panned 2000 remake couldn't improve on it with trained Hollywood actors and advanced special effects: the original 60 Seconds relied on so much dumb luck, improvisation, and seat-of-the-pants craziness that it was practically impossible to duplicate. Its marathon half-hour-plus climactic chase is astounding just for its sheer endurance and its ability to escape any of a million things that could've gone wrong. (The rest of the chase can be seen here, here and here.)
Walter Hill's resume reads like the collection of a deep-seated action movie enthusiast: screenwriter of Peckinpah's The Getaway, director of Hard Times, The Warriors, The Long Riders and 48 Hrs., and a producer for every movie in the Alien series. But Bullitt was one of his first gigs--he was an uncredited second assistant director to Yates--and 10 years later he helmed a car chase film of his own, the understated yet stylish neo-noir The Driver. Hill even wanted Steve McQueen to play the titular character, then resorted to Ryan O'Neil when McQueen expressed a disinterest in doing another car movie. No matter--O'Neal didn't have too much dialogue anyways, and his blankness (his character never even gets a name) actually helps keep this movie clicking. The climactic chase scene in this movie, however, is anything but blank--it's one of those rare car chases shot at night, tearing through the streets of Los Angeles in a consciously iconic pair of cars (a garishly-painted Trans Am versus a cherry-red Chevy C-10 pickup). The way this scene actually develops is particularly unique: instead of putting the participants through an escalating gauntlet of perilous and crowded traffic situations to weave through, The Driver's chase winnows its way from the streets of downtown L.A. into increasingly isolated stretches of its industrial corners, until the final showdown comes to a tense game of chicken with nobody else around.
To Live and Die in L.A.
It's probably against movie geek law to write a post about chase scenes and not include one involving the Los Angeles River, the location that's hosted pedal-down moments in everything from Repo Man to T2: Judgment Day to Grease. And while we've brought up The French Connection a couple times already, this mid '80s effort by director William Friedkin is considered his other car-chase classic, one that spends a bit of time plowing through that famous concrete culvert. There's a ton of tense moments here--especially the car that darts in front of the train and the insane wrong-way freeway panic that closes it out--but maybe the most interesting thing is how it goes from claustrophobic bottlenecks and near-misses (like the warehouse-district sequence with all the forklifts and semi trucks) to wide-open vistas like the river and the sprawling freeway, mirroring the panic-attack highs and lows of our fleeing protagonists.
Car chases can make for good comedy--What's Up, Doc? and The Blues Brothers being the most memorable examples--but when you find a way to make that comedy tense, hitting that sweet spot between funny and exciting can produce an even greater moment. Short Time is remembered almost entirely due to its chase scene, one that hinges on an unlikely screwball premise: Dabney Coleman plays a cop who, acting under the belief that he has a terminal illness, tries to get himself killed in the line of duty so his family can get his police pension. And with self-preservation out of the way, that gives Coleman's character an excuse to go out of his mind in pursuit of a pair of criminals, resulting in a chase (set in Seattle, but filmed in British Columbia) that keeps thwarting his attempts to recklessly off himself. This is probably the only chase scene in cinema history where one of the participants unfastens his seat belt halfway through.
It's been said that Ronin represents the end of the era that Bullitt started, and not just as one of the last feature films by the great John Frankenheimer. This movie is widely regarded as one of the last "pure" car chase films, before CGI overwhelmed everything and the idea of skillful stunt driving started to get obscured by quick-cut incoherence, shaky cam nausea, and over-the-top goofiness popularized in the Fast and the Furious and Transporter movies. Of course, it didn't hurt that Ronin had a couple of the best chase scenes of the last 15 years--this scene being the other big high-speed centerpiece of the film--but this movie's influence still trickles down to filmmakers who recognize its greatness (remember the wrong-way Paris tunnel chase in The Bourne Identity?), and every internationally flavored action film featuring power-sliding European sedans has strove to live up to it.
If you want to have a revival of old-school stunt driving based on vintage '60s and '70s chic and traditional, pre-digital filmmaking techniques--well, yeah, you get Quentin Tarantino. Lost in the post-Grindhouse grousing over Death Proof's talkiness and "lost reel" gimmickry is that Tarantino, up to that point best-known for shooting dialogue scenes and action sequences set in relatively static locations, took to directing and shooting high-speed car chases like a master. By setting it in the structure of a slasher film-turned-revenge movie, Tarantino let the premise of Death Proof speak for itself and was subsequently free to focus on the finer points--how cameras can move around a couple objects in constant forward motion, the different ways the lines of a car's body can break up the visual planes of the screen, the visual draw of a wheel when it's buckling under braking or suspension. And in letting the Dodge-vs-Dodge duel spill out from an isolated country back road to a present-day highway filled with SUVs and econoboxes, it's like the original spirit of Bullitt and its heirs are rudely interrupting the daily commute of modern cinema.
For more fine moments in automotive cinema, be sure to catch the Trylon Microcinema's series "Color Me Gone: the Racing Picture," featuring such films as Fast Company, Vanishing Point, and Grand Prix though January 30.