EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play continues with Part 2 of its video essay series On The Go, detailing the history of the car chase from 1971-1984. In the text portion of this post Press Play publisher Matt Zoller Seitz leads a discussion with On The Go series creators Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz as they talk about the car chase boom of the 1970s and early 80s. You can watch On The Go, Part 1: Bullitt, The French Connection and The Seven-Ups here. Warning: this video contains spoilers galore. Watch at your own risk.
By Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz
Part 1 of Aaron Aradillas and Richard Seitz’s On the Go focused on three great setpieces from the Golden Age of the Car Chase, 1968-1985: Bullitt, The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.. Part 2 is is a straight-up montage with no narration.
The selection of clips is not meant to be comprehensive; there were hundreds of chases during this period, and trying to account for them all would have been a fool’s errand. This is more of a sampler, one that’s meant to give a sense the different flavors of car chase that appeared on screens in the immediate post-French Connection era, roughly 1971-1984. There are examples of the comic chase, the epic chase, the counterculture outlaw chase, the retro-serial chase, and a couple of clips that represent sci-fi and horror. Most of the chases involve one or more cars, but Aaron and Rich selected a couple of representative motorcycle bits, as well as snippets from two fairly low-speed chases showcasing pedestrians trying to outrun vehicles that are stalking them like horror movie slashers.
A couple of things jumped out at me as I watched this piece. One is that the feature-length chase in Steven Spielberg’s 1971 breakthrough film Duel, which aired on ABC in 1971, foreshadowed a couple of early 80s clips that appear much later in the video essay, from Christine and The Terminator. The other thing is that if you close your eyes and listen to the sound, you can actually hear cinema becoming less mechanical and more electronic. As the 70s morph into the 80s, conventionally arranged and recorded jazz, country and orchestral tracks made with real instruments gradually give way to analog synthesizers. At the same time, the sound effects become more meticulously deployed and mixed, reflecting the shift from mono sound in the late 60s and early 70s to multi-track Dolby, all of it ultimately pointing toward the rise of digital theater sound in the 90s.
I asked Aaron and Rich to set up this middle chapter for us. The resulting chat turned into a discussion of the Golden Age of the Car Chase, parts of which are reproduced here. — Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt: Aaron, set the stage for us. What period are we dealing with here, and what are the elements that make its car chases distinctive?
Aaron: Following producer Phil D’Antoni’s “chase trilogy”, which we covered in Part 1 — Bullitt,. The French Connection and The Seven-Ups — we’re looking at a decade, 1974-1984, where car chases became the action setpiece in movies. You saw everything from existential road movies (Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop) to comic cross-country chases (Smokey and the Bandit, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry) to bigger-is-better extravaganza (The Cannonball Run, The Blues Brothers) to just plain action movies (Magnum Force, First Blood). A lot of it was exciting. Also, a lot of was tiring.
Matt: Rich, you’re a skilled driver, and I say that as somebody who’s been in the passenger seat while you were driving around the Hollywood Hills. When you look at these movies from the standpoint of a guy who loves to drive, and who just loves cars, what do you see? Are there any qualities of the cars themselves that at least partly explain why the chases feel, to use Aaron’s words, exciting and tiring?
Rich: Mostly, for me, I want to be the drivers in these cars. Having driven race cars, I know what it feels like to drive on the edge. And I like it.
Matt: A movie fan who said in my Twitter feed today that he thought the more primitive suspension in 70s cars had a lot to do with the excitement factor, because it meant there was “more careening”. Do you think there’s anything to that? And what about the power of the engines? When you look at car chases in 1940s and ’50s films, there seems to be a lot more under-cranking of the camera to make the chases look more intense. There seemed to be less of that once we got into the 60s and 70s. Was it at least partly a technology thing?
Rich: For sure, the cars from ’70s were less then ideal to drive at high speed, mostly cornering. The muscle cars had a lot of power and minimal handling. The chases from that period really are more exciting to watch because of that.
Aaron: I don’t know much about cars, but I will say that the sound of cars during a chase became more prominent during this period. I’ve mentioned to Rich on several occasions that one of my favorite chases is the cop car-motorbike chase in First Blood. The main reason is the sound of the bike’s engine. It gives the chase real tension.
Matt: Did particular stars like Steve McQueen or Burt Reynolds — guys who were strongly associated with machismo and driving — make special requests about what cars they wanted in their films, or how the cars were to be presented onscreen while they were driving them?
Aaron: I know McQueen was pretty meticulous about his cars. Reynolds struck me as someone who just liked looking good, be it in sharp clothes or in a cool car.
Rich: I think the advent of the muscle car had a lot to do with it. There weren’t a lot of really fast cars prior to that. Also, I think in the ’60s and ’70s muscle-car era, auto makers supplied the cars to filmmakers, to show off their new cars.
Matt: Yeah, that’s a good point — product placement as we now know it really got refined in the ’70s.
Do either of you guys have any theories about why there were such an incredibly large number of car chases in ’70s and early ’80s movies? That was the formative period of moviegoing for me, and for Rich, and maybe for you too, Aaron, even though you’re younger than we are. I mean, there were always chases, but the sheer incidence just spiked after Bullitt and The French Connection. I don’t think it was entirely due to producers wanting to “top” those chases, though I’m sure that was part of it.
Aaron: I think it had something to do with the culture being on the go, as it were. Everything just started to move faster. What’s faster than a car chase? The car chase just became the go-to setpiece for filmmakers. Then in the ’90s, it became the explosion. In the Aughts it was the shaky-cam fist fight.
Matt: I also wonder if, on top of the improved engines and higher speeds, you have to factor in the interstate highway system, which was just getting started in the 50s, but really started to solidify in the 60s and ’70s. With all that fresh pavement and asphalt, it seems only natural that filmmakers would want to put it to use.
Aaron: Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that and more people started to drive at the end of the 1960s. Easy Rider set the template for the American Road Picture, and from that point on, one of the defining images in American cinema was that of a car on the open highway. The next step would be the chase. Or, could it be as simple as dick thang? Most directors are male, and men have a special connection to their cars. I mean, even Michael Mann, one of the more intellectual Hollywood directors, was not above showcasing cars on Miami Vice. Maybe we should change the title of this series from On the Go to It’s a D-I-C-K Thang.
Rich: Funny, Aaron.
Matt: Yeah, I don’t think it’s an accident that some of the iconic cars of 70s and 80s chase films are slowly unveiled, starting with the headlights and grille or the wheels, and then pulling back or cutting to a wider shot. It’s the machine equivalent of starting a reveal of a gorgeous dame in a detective movie by focusing on her high heeled shoes and then slowly craning up. But in this case it’s self-reflexive: Behold, the phallus!
Rich: Although they say men compensate for their small dicks with fast cars. But that can’t be true, ’cause I like fast cars!
Aaron: Can you name a movie where it was women behind the wheel during a car chase?
Matt: Yeah — if we skip ahead to 1998.
Aaron: That’s one. It’s rare. I guess we have to wait and hope that Kathryn Bigelow does one.
Matt: I can’t think of many examples off the top of my head. Even in James Cameron’s films, which have a pretty good track record of showcasing tough women, the men, or the male cyborgs, do the driving, except for Ripley driving that all-terrain vehicle in Aliens, and I am not sure that really counts as a chase sequence.
Aaron: Yeah, and she fucks up the axle! “You’re just grinding metal!”
Matt: This three-part series deliberately excluded films made after 1985, and concentrated on English language movies. Have you thought about doing a follow up focusing on chases in films from overseas, 1980s and ’90s Hong Kong specifically? Or films from the post-CGI era?
Aaron: Hadn’t thought about it, but we can. The Hong Kong stuff is cool. I’m also a fan of Diva, a film we left out but probably should’ve thrown in.
Rich: I think we should do the follow up on this one going through the ’80s to the present day.
Aaron: Basically, the second half of the ’80s saw filmmakers trying to tweak the language of car chases. That’s when you get things like the ending of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the opening of Lethal Weapon 2.
Matt: Lethal Weapon 2 kicks off with the Looney Tunes theme by Carl Stalling, as if to acknowledge right up front that you’re about to see an R-rated cartoon. And that’s kind of what a lot of action films turned into by that point in time, the late ’80s.
Aaron: The thing that’s interesting is that the ’90s didn’t see a lot of memorable chases in Hollywood movies.Terminator 2, Die Hard with a Vengeance and Speed are the only ones that really come to mind.
Rich: Well, Ronin, a couple of Bond films…
Aaron: Ronin‘s a good one. I don’t remember much from the more recent Bond films. Casino Royale had a great foot chase, though. The car chase didn’t make its official comeback until the first Bourne film.
Matt: Okay, quiz time. Most logistically impressive chase from the Golden Age, in terms of scale or destructiveness? Go.
Rich: The Blues Brothers. Or The Road Warrior.
Aaron: Whatever problems I have with the movie, I’m gonna have to agree with Rich and say The Blues Brothers. And the two great Friedkin chases — The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A., to which we devote the entire closing chapter of this series — are close to perfect.
Matt: Most flat-out thrilling car chase? One that just wears you out?
Rich: The Seven-Ups. Then The French Connection.
Aaron: To Live and Die in L.A. always puts me through the wringer.
Rich: I do love the Live and Die chase. What ruins it for me is the music — cheesy ’80s. But I guess it was hip at the time.
Aaron: I defend Wang Chung‘s right to party!
Rich: You’re such a youngster, Aaron.
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.