Whether you’re self-quarantined or on mandatory lockdown, sooner or later you’ll have suffered through all eight or nine “Fast & Furious” movies (I feel your pain). You’ll have re-watched “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Rush,” “Le Mans,” “Senna,” “Grand Prix” and even “Vanishing Point” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Face it, you can rewind through the “Bullitt” chase scene (while fast-forwarding through the rest of the movie) only so many times. Or you can try “The French Connection”–Bill Hickman coordinated the chase scene for this film as well, and it’s worth watching all the way through, over and over again.
Once you get through all of that and it’s still March, why not dig deeper into the catalogue of movies that turn cars and trucks into characters? You don’t need an endless stream of car races or car chases to make for a good car enthusiast’s film. Sometimes all it takes is a well-chosen car by the director or property wrangler who is careful to choose the right model to fit its owner or driver (think 1965 Cadillac Coupe deVille in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”). My list originally began with Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World” (1991), but the best auto scene comes in the beginning, when Claire (Solveig Dommartin) rolls her GPS-equipped 1973 Rover P5B 3.5 Litre coupe, then drives on. There’s another three to five hours that follow, depending on which version you rent.
My favorite decade for Hollywood movies was one of the worst for American cars–the 1970s. In reverse chronological order, here are my 10 suggestions for what to watch as you’re stuck at home…
“The Sugarland Express”
Director: Steven Spielberg, 1974 (Cinemax Prime Video Channels)
Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) springs her husband, Slide (Michael Sacks) from prison and they kidnap their son from her parents in order to get the family back together. But things go wrong very quickly and soon the family of three have commandeered a cop car along with the cop driving it (William Atherton). This is a chase movie, across Texas, with all the excess and grandeur that was not in the made-for-TV chase movie that launched Spielberg’s career three years earlier, “Duel.”
“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”
Director: Michael Cimino, 1974 (HBO Prime Video Channels)
Cimino made this armory heist movie four years before he made his mark with “The Deer Hunter” and six years before he sunk his career with “Heaven’s Gate.” This movie stars Clint Eastwood (Thunderbolt) and Jeff Bridges (Lightfoot) as two cons on the run from the mob, who plan an audacious robbery of an armory with an escape into a drive-in movie theater. There are chases here, too, with T&L in a stolen Trans Am, a stolen ’74 Buick Riviera and an oddly hopped-up stolen ’73 Plymouth Fury. Bill Hickman’s work on “Bullitt” (1968) and “The French Connection” (1971) established this era of high-carnage car-chase movies.
“Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry”
Director: John Hough, 1974 (Amazon Prime)
Another robbery-gone-wrong movie full of redneck bubba sheriff’s deputies, destroying their early ‘70s Mopar cop cars in earnest pursuit of Larry (Peter Fonda), who with his partner Deke (Adam Rourke) rob a grocery store in order to raise money for a race team. They pick up hitchhiker Mary Coombs (Susan George) on the way and lead those deputies through the Deep South first in a ’66 Chevy Impala, then in a ’69 Dodge Charger R/T.
Director: Philip D’Antoni, 1973 (Amazon)
It surprises me how many car guys don’t know the chase scene in this movie, again coordinated by Bill Hickman, starring Roy Scheider as a detective who’s part of an elite New York City Police Department unit. The plot has something to do with a caper to kidnap mobsters for money, but as with “Bullitt,” you may want to fast-forward ahead to the chase scene, which is somewhere near the halfway point of the movie, and runs 10 minutes, 38 seconds according to YouTube. It stars Scheider in a ’73 Pontiac Ventura chasing the bad guys in a ’73 Pontiac Grandville (with Hickman on camera behind the big car’s wheel, as he was with the ’68 Dodge Charger in “Bullitt”). Pontiac reportedly was Hickman’s favorite brand, for its handling.
Director: Don Siegel, 1973 (Amazon Prime)
This is one of my all-time favorite sleepers, starring Walter Matthau as the eponymous former stunt pilot who knocks off a small-town bank in the Southwest. Varrick, his female getaway driver and his male accomplice expect a few-thousand bucks, but when they count $750,000, they realize they’ve hit a mob money laundering bank. From “Dirty Harry” director Don Siegel (who makes a cameo as a bartender in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut of the same era, “Play Misty for Me”), “Charley Varrick” is typical of the gritty nobody’s-clean crime films of the late Nixon era, and it’s bookended by the bank heist getaway chase in a stolen Lincoln Continental sedan at the beginning and redneck mob fixer Molly (Joe Don Baker) in a repossessed ’67 Imperial running down Varrick in his stunt plane in a desert junkyard at the end. That end scene’s denouement is especially satisfying.
Director: Jacques Tati, 1971 (Amazon Prime)
Tati’s alter-ego, Mon. Hulot, designs a Rube Goldberg-like recreational vehicle camper (off a Renault 4), and puts it on a truck to deliver it to Amsterdam from Paris for a motor show. To paraphrase imdb.com, comic disasters ensue, as Hulot and a public relations exec, Maria (Maria Kimberly) trail along in their own cars. Along the way, Dutch officials impound the truck, a wonderfully choreographed accident holds them up, and Tati explores the habits of motorists driving, mostly alone, in their cars. If you’re subtitle-phobic, don’t let that stop you from renting “Trafic.” Hulot’s movies have very little dialogue, and his form of physical humor, exploring modern society, is like a mix of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but with ambient sound and a goofy French elevator music soundtrack. See also two earlier, better-reviewed Mon. Hulot films, “Play Time” (1967) and “Mon Oncle” (1958).
“A New Leaf”
Director: Elaine May, 1971 (Amazon Prime)
Frankly, this movie has very little to do with cars. There are no chase scenes, and the only racing is by 0.1-percenter playboy Henry Graham (played wonderfully by Walter Matthau as pretty much the opposite character as his Charley Varrick) who pilots his red ’66 Ferrari 275 GTB through the streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side as if he was trying to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix. Graham’s accountant informs him that his prolific spending has depleted most of his funds – his Ferrari daily driver requires a very expensive weekly tune up, for example. Graham plots his way back to prosperity by marrying a rich, nebbish heiress-botanist (Henrietta Lowell, played by the director), with plans to murder her.
Director: Jean Luc-Goddard, 1960 (Amazon Prime)
Starring French cinema icon Jean-Paul Belmondo as a car thief who murders a motorcycle policeman and hooks up with an American journalism student (Jean Seberg), this movie represents the height of the French New Wave, a cinematic movement that celebrated American film noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s. That is to say, it’s not for everyone. If you appreciate avant-garde film, however, you might be amused to watch a French movie in which the car thief hikes a 1958 Oldsmobile. Be sure to avoid, as I have all these years, the 1983 “remake” starring Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky.
“Kiss Me, Deadly”
Director: Robert Aldrich, 1955 (Amazon)
Based on Mickey Spillane’s pulp fiction, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker, as the hard-boiled meathead detective) picks up a hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat in the opening scene (played by a sexy Cloris Leachman, some 18 years before she was Frau Blucher in “Young Frankenstein”) and before you know it the detective’s Jaguar XK 120 is flying off a Southern Californian cliff (if memory serves, a much cheaper sports car stood in for film of the actual impact). The bad guys, who are after a mysterious “great whatsit” (an H-bomb in a briefcase – no kidding) that turns out to be truly apocalyptic, give Hammer a new C1 Corvette as a peace offering, but it turns out to be booby-trapped. With its mid-century sports cars and set design, “Kiss Me Deadly” is brainless macho-culture film noir with style.
“If I Had a Million” (“Road Hogs” segment)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod, 1932
With six distinct segments featuring such stars as Gary Cooper, Charles Laughton and George Raft, “If I Had a Million” consists of TV-length segments made before there was TV. Even the conceit of this collection of segments has been remade over and over again, including for television; a millionaire gives away his fortune to average people at random (an especially popular theme in the midst of The Great Depression), including Rollo and Emily La Rue (W.C. Fields and Alison Skipworth). In “Road Hogs,” the La Rues drive off from a dealership in their Oldsmobile Six only to have their brand-new car destroyed by other drivers who are, well, you know.
“Road hogs,” Fields’ La Rue says. “A constant menace to society. They should be wiped out, Emily. Do you hear, wiped out!” Their million-dollar check appears in the mail a short while later, and they use the cash to buy a fleet of old jalopies they put to use for revenge. Unfortunately, IMDb lists no rental or purchase outlet for this movie, but it does appear regularly on TCM.
Hat tip to the Internet Movie Database and the Internet Movie Car Database for invaluable help in fact-checking the names of directors, actors, their roles, their cars in these movies, and W.C. Fields’ quote.