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Yore Movie Swells: Frédéric, Feb.19 and 21 A-1 Race-Chases in Film

25 Sep

Not many movie scenes can glue you to your seat like the riveting race-chase. A staple since the Keystone Cops (1912) were on the case, road-rage is the usual format but planes, trains, boats, chariots, horse-buggies (Friendly Persuasion 1956), even foot pursuit can fuel the fleet.

Automobiles to me are kinda’ like classical music, I don’t know the details but I know what I like. So on that note (♫), here then are listed the 21 best race-chase scenes in yore movie history (< 2000), the Antonio Vivaldis, Claude Debusseys, Felix Mendelssohns, Erik Saties, Frédéric Chopins, the Beethoven and Bachs of cinematic speed. Va-room!

Bullitt (Directed by Peter Yates 1968): Think you need city hustle & bustle to sauté a sense for cinematic speed (Frankenheimer (NYC), D‘Antoni (NYC), Friedkin (CHI), Hickman (LA))? Think harder. McQueen (1930-80) was born in Beech Grove, IN and grew family farm in Slater, MO. Rated by some as moviedom’s best race-chase, it’s hard to dispute. The story can confuse but the R/C, including its build-up (seat-belts, mirrors), bad guy shots (Bill Hickman (The Seven-Ups, Patton & TFC) at the wheel, Paul Genge shot-gun), cool cars (Mustang GT (SM & B.Ekins) / Dodge Charger (BH)), film (W.Fraker (Le Mans)), frame (F.Keller), sound and music-lite (L.Schifrin), all make it a work of art that even a car novice and gun-control advocate can appreciate.

am-grafitti-32-ford-5-windw-coupe-wc-sicnag-2-5m-2012American Graffiti (George Lucas 1973): This most famous of movie drag-races pits “John Milner (Paul Le Mat)” vs. “Bob ‘Nobody’ Falfa (Harrison Ford)” to close out a perfect movie packed with stars, songs & style (“Rome wudn‘t burnt in a day (Bo Hopkins)”). Lucas never made a better film, and made a pretty penny, too ($777,000 > $140M Box (Wikipedia)!).

Ronin (John Frankenheimer 1998): Having cut his racing teeth 30 years prior on Grand Prix and then FC2, it’s no wonder John’s behind what is arguably the most breathless car chase scene in all of film history. Any wonder a woman (Natascha McElhone (“Deirdre!”)) with an enchanting “Irish lilt” is at the wheel of the lead car (+ Rob De Niro (CIA “Sam”) & Jean Reno) in this action-thriller? Nope.

The French Connection (William Friedkin 1971): Another top contender for that #1 spot in race-chase, it may be the best known, not just on the near misses (eek!), but the closure (satisfaction) it affords viewers. Gene Hackman (Jim ’Popeye’ Doyle) and Frenchman Marcel Bozzuffi (“Pierre”) are the principals, making use of a myriad of means in car, subway and finally on foot.

French Connection II (Frankenheimer 1975): In Marseilles with no driver’s license, passed-off policeman-on-probation “Popeye Doyle” foots it in movie’s finale to apprehend his nemesis, heroine wholesaler “Charnier (Fern Rey).” My personal favorite, after the horse flick (See; Below). Feel the wheeze, then the breeze. Does he get his man? It’s why shooting-range time can pay off.

ben-hur-1959-mgm-chariots-873kBen-Hur (William Wyler 1959): Other versions exist (1907, 1925 & 2016) but nothing to match, let alone surpass the pageantry & thrill of a chariot race between Charlton Heston and Steve Boyd, nor its gripping aftermath when ground-round “Messala,” with one foot in the grave, gut-punches his former-friend-turned-foe in dying declaration: “It goes on, it goes on, Judah, the race.” Don’t we know it.

The Seven-Ups (Philip D’Antoni 1973): If Frankenheimer is Emperor (b.NYC 2.19.30 (d.‘02)) of movie metro car chase, Phil’s gotta’ be its Big Apple (b.NYC 2.19.29), directing or producing three of the best R/C scenes in the genre (See: Bullitt (P) & TFC (P)). Something about coming into the world via New York on February 19th that calibrates the DNA? In the 7-Ups it’s Roy Scheider’s turn behind the wheel with resident bad-asses in Bill Hickman (See Also: Bullitt & Patton) and Dick Lynch in his sights, for awhile, anyway. Head down! Ouch!

Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer 1966): Too much grease-opera (prurience) for this fan but the track scenes in cinematography (Lionel Lindon & Saul Bass), sound (Frank Milton) and actors-actually-driving are superbly done and now even more appreciated. In reflection on TCM, John was amazed at the audacity and courage of the actors, and permissibility of the makers. Different days.

Le Mans (Lee Katzin 1971): Unlike Grand Prix, here the female allies are truly in-waiting, not surprising given nearness of death’s door, and attractions between the opposite sexes compliments, rather than competes with the task at hand, racing. It’s a Steve McQueen flick, i.e., focus. This one also gets an edge on script (SP: Alan Trustman & Harry Kleiner) but like its predecessor in GP the driving scenes (cinematography: William Fraker) are a testament to the racing gestalt. Rivalry between the circuit stars in “Delaney (SM)” and “Stahler (Siegfried Rauch)” is credible and pleasing in its respect (closing gestures). ”

captainscourageous-mgm-wc-1937-1-9mCaptains Courageous (Victor Fleming 1937): After testy tadpole Freddie Bartholomew is rescued, read the riot act and finally earns his keep, by the patient, sage & lyrical guidance of his Portuguese charge “Manual (Spencer Tracy),” the fishing vessel “We’re Here” races to be first in port. You’ll feel the sea-mist, the danger, then the heartache and finally begin to understand.

On the Beach (Stanley Kramer 1959): Powerful subject matter (nuclear aftermath) parlays pointed passion as a fleeting tonic, it is OTB where Hall-of-Fame hoofer Fred Astaire takes to race-car and drives for victory through a minefield of mangled wrecks in the truest if most dangerous spirit of sport. Fred’s grittiest role.

Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney 1964): Stars Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret and Cesare Danova. The music and melodrama give way to one of the most frightening and furious road races on film. Yeah, an Elvis flick. Go figure. Just hope the real drivers came out okay (gulp). Holy Hound Dog!

The Fast and the Furious (John Ireland & Ed Sampson 1955): A kidnapping was never so kooky. Criminality, romance and racing all in the same vehicle. But Dorothy Malone revs with radiance, even under stress, the cars are classic cool and the pros behind the wheels, including John, all take their curves like an ace.

The Bank Dick (Edward Cline 1940): Unlike the shortened pursuits in Bonnie and Clyde (‘67) (“I‘m not driving into Oklahoma!”), in TBD the California cops stay on the hunt when bank guard “Egbert Sousé (W.C. Fields)” gets heisted along with the loot, calmly currying laughs n’ gasps that you’d come to expect.

nationalvelvet-mgm-jan-1945-nborm-745kNational Velvet (Clarence Brown 1944): This spirited tale of the Grand National doesn’t have cool cachet of a Bullitt, nor will it have you clutching the couch as would Ronin. What this “bit of a girl” Elizabeth Taylor and her saucy steed “The Pie (“marauding pirate (R.Owen)”)” will do for a viewer, if they’ve a heart bigger than an acorn, is to give reason to laugh, to cry, to cheer and then give thanks that they were lucky enough to take in the show. Hands down the most inspirational race in movie history. The rest of the flick is a bit of alright, too. Ms. Taylor’s best.

Mad Max (George Miller 1979): The only good flick in the series, Mel Gibson, with help from an inventive mechanic (Dave Cameron), runs the “Night-Rider (Vince Gil), his leggy lady (Lulu Pinkus) and the “Toe-cutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne)” into.. how do I put it without giving it away (?), into a different dimension. Glad they all missed the creeping kid crossing the road (Matt Constantine). Phew!

The Terminator (James Cameron 1984): The concept was fairly unique, “Sarah (Linda Hamilton)” and her time-travel bodyguard “Kyle (Mike Biehn)” must out-race their steel n’ circuit pursuer (T-800 cyborg robot (Arnold Schwarzenegger)) intent on their demise but which cannot be stopped, not by conventional means. The bookend chase scenes are gripping with music – sound scores (Brad Fiedel) that raise and then retain the tension.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron 1991): “Sarah” now has family (Ed Furlong) (Guess who‘s Daddy?), two feisty robots on her tail who this time have savoir faire, one defensive (Arnold), the other destructive yet advanced (“T-1000 (Rob Patrick)”), able to replicate (“liquid metal”). Tanker spill late, freezing the bad-bot temporarily is F/X gold, but the Mall exit chase putting a tractor in LA’s aqueduct in early computer-enhancement struck the perfect balance no longer sought in today’s digitalized deluge of dull.

sullivans-1941-wc-109kSullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges 1941): Early in his journey of enlightenment, movie-maker “John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea)” hitches a harrowing ride with a young lad (Payne B. Johnson?) in his custom-made jalopy through haystack and assortments, pursued by a bumpy busload of entourage that includes William Demarest, Margaret Hayes and another Chicagoan, Charles R. Moore in an unforgettable kitchen catastrophe. ‘Safety first’ was never so missed but you’ve gotta’ admire the kid’s pluck.

To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin 1985): It’s not just New Yorkers with keen sense of cinema speed, the City of Big Shoulders produces its share, too. Bill may’ve topped his TFC chase with this West Coast hair-raiser, starring fellow Chicagoan in William Petersen who takes a wheel. Box office boom ($6M / $17), ‘To Live’ rarely gets aired but you‘ll never forget the California cruise.

F/X (Robert Mandel 1986): Hi-jinx is a common commuter on the car chase caravan and F/X, though not without poignancy (“Ellen (D.Venora)”), does its part to keep the line running. Creative minds Bryon Brown & Martha Gehman lead police pursuer and PVC sufferer Joe Grifasi on the heart-stopping hunt. Money-chase and a Swiss bank bonanza make this a top treasure film too with a nice tune in close to top it off (“Illusion (Imagination)”).

Steven Keys
Photo credits: Ben-Hur poster, MGM, R.Brown, wc.cca, 1959; American-Grafitti Ford 5W Coupe, wc, Sicnag, 2012; Ben-Hur chariots, MGM, wc, 1959; Captains-Courageous poster, wc, MGM, 1937; National-Velvet, wc, MGM, 1945, NBoRM; Sullivans-Travels, wc, 1941;
Posted: 9.24.16 @ 11:02pm, edit 9.26 @ 5:06pm EST; Copyright © 2016

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