The subtitle of Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz’s series “On the Go” says it all: “The Golden Age of the Car Chase, 1968-1985.” Films that played in American theaters and on TV during those years were likely to contain at least one car chase. Some pictures from this period were built around a series of car chases. A few were essentially feature-length chases in which most of the action and dialogue took place while the characters were zipping down city streets or interstate highways.
The chase has always been with us, of course; it’s as old as movies, and chases have hardly become scarce today. But there was something overwhelming about chases during what Aaron and Rich call the Golden Age. The combination of more sophisticated filmmaking technology, innovative camerawork and editing, bigger and louder cars and (by the mid-’70s) drastically escalating budgets meant that the chases were more viscerally effective than any before or since. I think the absence of digital effects — which started to appear in the late 1980s, and were used to wreak virtual destruction, add nonexistent pedestrians to crosswalks, and even digitally move vehicles closer together — might explain why these post-Bullitt chases, even the lighthearted ones, feel so intense, even oppressive. On some level, moviegoers knew that the overwhelming vehicular mayhem projected on big screens in the analog era was real — that those were flesh-and-blood drivers risking actual death and inflicting actual property damage, and that certain effects could not be cheated.
By the late ’70s and early ’80s — which showcased the “Smokey and the Bandit” films and “The Blues Brothers,” which between them wrecked hundreds of cars — some critics saw the willful extravagance of chase films as evidence that both directors and audiences were morally and intellectually bankrupt, and that Western cinema had lost whatever shreds of perspective and taste it once had. Box-office receipts eclipsed such objections, though — and in hindsight these movies have a childlike innocence, or maybe an adolescent naivete. This was an era that produced a hit show called “C.H.I.Ps”, large portions of which consisted of endless scenes of the heroes, a couple of swingin’ single highway patrolmen, riding motorcycles around Southern California’s then-pristine interstates, grinning at sexy babes from behind their mirrored sunglasses. Despite the gas crisis of the early ’70s, most people weren’t losing sleep over oil scarcity, climate change, or minimizing the size of their global footprints. They didn’t want to save the planet; they wanted to hop in a Highland Green 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback like Steve McQueen in Bullitt and go tear-assing around San Francisco.
That’s where this Press Play series opens — with McQueen in Bullitt (1968), the film that kicked off the car chase era. As Aaron points out in his script, this film’s big chase feels tonally disconnected from the rest of the movie, a hardboiled crime thriller with a whiff of existential malaise; but it was the hell-on-wheels setpiece that made the film a hit and inspired countless attempts to best it. Director Peter Yates and his key stunt drivers, Carey Loftin, Bud Elkins and Bill Hickman, make hash of both San Francisco geography and auto mechanics; by some counts, Frank Bullitt’s car loses five wheel covers during the sequence, and the chasing cars pass the same green Volkswagen Beetle over and over. But it was exhilarating, and when people left the film, it was all they could talk about. The movie’s producer, Phll D’Antoni, looked at the box office take, rightly credited it to the brilliant chase, and told William Friedkin, the director of his next major action picture, 1971’s The French Connection, that he expected him to top it.
And he did. A particular line from Aaron’s script jumps out at me: “…a car chase that was indicative of the sense of lawlessness running rampant in big-city America.” That’s what raised the French Connection chase beyond Bullitt, and that set the stage for subsequent 70s and 80s chases; in contrast to the Bullitt chase, with its hilly, wide and curiously depopulated San Francisco streets, Friedkin’s car-vs.-elevated train sequence was the densest, wildest, most intensely urban car chase yet filmed. It’s agonizingly claustrophobic, with cars and people constantly getting in the way of mad dog cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman, playing a character based on real life New York police detective Eddie Egan). The whole film is set in a paranoid, savage early ’70s Manhattan that’s like a film noir city with all the poetry boiled out of it; it’s a place devoid of love or even decency, a hellhole in which laws are merely suggestions. Every scene seems perched on the edge of chaos. The chase pushes it over the brink. It’s crazy.
It seems no surprise that when D’Antoni stepped into the director’s chair for the first time, it was in service of what Aaron calls “a kind of spiritual sequel to The French Connection“: The Seven-Ups (1973), starring Roy Scheider as Buddy Manucci, a character loosely based on Popeye’s Connection partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. (Both characters were based on Sonny Grosso, a technical adviser on Connection and the real life partner of Eddie Egan.) The peak of D’Antoni’s film — and the only part that really stuck with audiences — was the car chase, a setpiece that’s so transparently trying to top the French Connection chase that it can’t help but pale in comparison. It’s still pretty astounding, though — loud, fast and brutal, and infused with that distinctly ’70s sense of physical and emotional decay. The Seven Ups, like The French Connection, used many of the same drivers and stuntpeople as Bullitt, including Bill Hickman, who choreographed the chase. This sequence might have been as influential in its own way as the other two, because it was so immense and impressive yet obligatory. Any subsequent film that staged a stunningly intricate chase because it thought the audience expected it should send D’Antoni royalties. — Matt Zoller Seitz
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. Video editor Richard Seitz has worked for 20 years as a sound designer, audio engineer, composer, and dialogue editor for video games, television, short films and theatrical trailers. Game titles include The Hulk 2, Battlestar Galactica, Van Helsing, The Hobbit, Predator and Diablo 2. Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play.