By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist.
Operas have arias, but movies have car chases. Ahh, the car chase. These sequences have been a part of film almost from the start. Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops series frequently featured comic car chases, and they were standard elements in comedies from the silent era. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, cops chasing bad guys in gun battles were popular in crime dramas and film noirs. The car chase as a centerpiece of a film, however, didn’t really come into its own until the 1960s and ‘70s, thanks to a powderkeg combination of great American muscle cars, actors like Steve McQueen (an experienced race car driver), emerging camera technology, and a new vision for the chase as a key part of the film. Here are my five favorite car chase movies, from the ‘60s and beyond.
The car chase in this film may be the greatest ever filmed. It caused an enormous sensation when the film was released in 1968, and remains a thrilling ride to watch to this day. Steve McQueen, as San Francisco PD Detective Lt. Frank Bullitt, and his car, a 1968 390 V8 Mustang GT, roar around San Francisco, chased by hitmen in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T. These were flat out bad ass muscle cars, and represented the pinnacle of American car-making genius. The chase sequence lasts an exhausting 10:53, and was filmed on location in San Francisco under Peter Yates’s brilliant direction. The film won an Academy Award of Film Editing for Frank Keller because of his remarkable cutting of this scene.
The Italian Job (1969)
We’re talking about the original British caper film with Michael Caine, not the nifty 2003 action movie remake starring Mark Wahlberg. The 2003 film ends on another long chase sequence (10:22) with Mini Coopers buzzing around Turin, Italy. But the original is much wittier and amusing, and Michael Caine has a much lighter touch as the head of the gang of robbers. This is an amusing and sophisticated film of the caper variety, not the action variety like its remake 24 years later.
The French Connection (1971)
I like to think of director William Friedkin as the Mozart of car chases. My next two picks are directed by Friedkin, whose car chase sequences are ornate masterpieces of desperation and violence. The car chase in The French Connection is nearly 6 minutes long and roars all over Brooklyn. This movie was a huge success—it was one of the biggest grossing movies of the year and won Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (Friedkin), Best Film Editing (Gerald Greenburg), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman). Roy Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and the film also received nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing. It was the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture. Watch it again. It remains a pulse-quickening portrayal of the dirty, violent world of drug smugglers and the hardened detectives who pursue them.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
This is one of my favorite movies of all time, mainly due to William Petersen’s virtuoso performance as a vengeful Secret Service agent desperately pursuing master counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). The manic car chase sequence in this film is nearly nine minutes long and goes through the crowded warehouse/industrial district on the edge of downtown Los Angeles and into the concrete riverbed of the Los Angeles River. The film has a number of shocking plot twists, including the one that kicks off the chase sequence. Again, a real masterwork from director William Friedkin. It’s based on the screenplay he co-wrote with Gerald Petievich, the real life Secret Service agent on whom the story is partially based.
Premium Rush (2012)
Okay, two things. First, the best chase scenes in this movie are with bicycles. Second, this isn’t that good a movie. But the bicycle chase scenes are genuinely fantastic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a bicycle messenger in New York City who… uh… look, the whole plot doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But watch this for the bicycle scenes. They are gasp and “whoa”-inducing. The movie was written and directed by David Koepp, and the interesting piece of trivia on him is that he is the writer with the biggest cumulative box office gross of all time. He worked on a couple of Jurassic Park movies, some Indiana Jones movies, a Spiderman, etc. The current tally on his movies is $2.3 billion.
On a side note, back in the 1990s, a teenaged Joseph Gordon-Levitt appeared on a couple of episodes of Roseanne when I worked as a writer on that show. I mentioned this casually to my older daughters many years later when we were watching Premium Rush together. The room fell silent and my daughters glared at me. “And you never introduced us to him?!” said one of them angrily. This failure—among many others—is regularly cited as one of the flaws in my resume as a father. I’m pretty sure it’s going come up when I’m on my death bed. All the more reason for all of you to watch Premium Rush again.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.