To some of us, there is nothing quite like a bad-ass 1977 Pontiac Trans Am going up against a yellow Mercedes in a parking structure. Preferably with 1970s era Ryan O'Neal in the driver's seat.
Yes, the car in cinema. Assembled, sometimes, like the ultimate dream machine of perfection, uber speed and sex appeal, a lovely car can be a more aesthetically beautiful creation than ... Catherine Zeta-Jones. Ask any gear-head. Not only can they discuss the repair and restoration of the four or five cars piled in their front yard, they can also list the specs of Mad Max's Interceptor without missing a beat. And yep, not surprisingly, they'd rather watch Mad Max over Love, Actually. Hell, they'd rather watch Mad Max over The Fast and the Furious -- the re-make -- which is where this list pulls into the, uh, driveway (or out of the driveway). In the next two weeks, car freaks get not one but two auto movies: Cars (voiced by Owen Wilson and legendary car nut/bona fide race-car driver Paul Newman) and, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.
So here's my look at the 10 greatest examples of car cinema (not the greatest cars, that's another list I wrote, though these movies include all of my favorite cars), proving that autos can make not only a genre, but compelling characters as well. For these films, it's not star, but car, power.
10. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
OK, so the film itself leaves something to be desired in the deep-meaning department. And the director dips into the cheap-thrills cookie jar one too many times. But Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is lots of messy fun -- especially when involving automobiles. Peter Fonda is (crazy) Larry, a would-be NASCAR driver who, with his mechanic Deke (Adam Roarke), pulls off a heist and runs for a new country. But they also take Mary (Susan George), a nutjob wild child (who's really the "crazy" one here, anyway?), who makes the getaway a little more, well, interesting. Filled with all kinds of terrific chase sequences starring lust-worthy hotrod "characters" such as a Dodge Charger, a Chevrolet Impala and a Dodge Polara. This one's muscle-ri-fic.
9. Duel (1971)
Before he struck fear in the heart of every beach-loving, ocean-swimming New Englander, Steven Spielberg crafted one of his supreme films with "Duel," a movie that struck fear in the heart of every traveling salesman just trying to get down a California highway. Dennis Weaver is the nebbish, Joe-Blow salesman whose life becomes a vehicular nightmare when a mysterious, ominous truck will not stop following him. But why? Well, we assume the truck wants to kill him (or just completely mess with his head) in some kind of sanity test the poor schlub did not need that morning. Or maybe the truck really hates his car -- a Plymouth Valiant. Whatever the case, the deranged semi vs. Plymouth makes for a superbly tense 90-minute chase film that's a lot more disturbing and so-called "bad to the bone" than Christine.
8. Vanishing Point (1971)
Can you get from Denver to San Francisco in one night? Check out Vanishing Point, in which Barry Newman's mysterious speedster, Kowalski attempts just that. Hired to deliver the white Dodge 440 Challenger in less than 15 hours, he's in the exceptional predicament of being pursued by cops, while a blind DJ named "Super Soul" (Cleavon Little) helps him along his way. Informing the driver of his progress via radio show, Super Soul also makes Kowalski something of a folk hero ("the last American to whom speed means freedom of the soul"). Taut, enigmatic and chock full of pursuits (a memorable one involves a Jaguar), the film skids and scoots and speeds to a kind of infinity. Who really wants to get out of their car?
7. Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
You gotta love a movie in which the car is such a major character, she's given a name ("Eleanor"). You also gotta love a movie in which the writer, director and stunt driver also stars (H.B. Halicki), mostly because he's such a die-hard gear-head that he surely couldn't imagine anyone else leading the proceedings. Car thieves must steal 48 cars in a short period of time, including a 1973 Mustang Mach 1 code-named Eleanor. When Halicki (as the amusingly named Maindrian Pace) gets his hands on Eleanor, the film kicks into epic high gear, with a 40-minute chase scene that passes through five California cities and leaves nearly 100 cars totaled. The movie was re-made (badly) in 2000, proving you don't need big stars (Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie) or extra extreme effects when you already had the real deal in the first place. And Halicki was the real deal; he died in a stunt accident while making this film's sequel.
6. The Driver (1978)
Walter Hill proved that he knew his way around a car by writing the screenplay for Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway and directing the auto-centric "The Driver." An unyielding, enigmatic thriller, the film stars Ryan O'Neal, known simply as The Driver, a man constantly chased by, yep, The Detective (a fantastically creepy Bruce Dern) in a seemingly endless game of cat and mouse. The entire film involves obsessed pursuit; the viewer's point of view is often inside the car as the Driver maneuvers without any discernible emotion. O'Neal is almost literally a driving machine, as he shifts, swerves and speeds his Trans Am through parking structures, alleys and oncoming traffic. This is no giggling Smokey and the Bandit; this is Le Samourai on high octane.
5. Le Mans (1971)
Le Mans is about exactly that: the famed French auto race that runs for 24 hours. And not much else. In true car-noir fashion, it takes a good half-hour before we hear the film's protagonist utter a line of dialogue. That protagonist, Delaney, is played by Steve McQueen in a film so stripped of plot that it often feels like a documentary. We simply watch the auto race on the world's hardest endurance course as our hero goes more than 24 hours on 14.5 kilometers of cordoned country road. There's a duel between Delaney, in his Gulf Team Porsche 917, and a Ferrari 512LM that tests not only the driver's technical abilities, but also his personal will. Filled with terrific racing sequences galore and impressive wrecks, the spectacle is thrilling even if the narrative is not.
4. Bullitt (1968)
What -- you thought I'd get through this list with only one McQueen film? Not likely, especially since this film is so firmly implanted in car cinema, it's tough not to combine the car and driver as one super being. Bullitt, Peter Yates' too-cool-for-school-actioner, boasts the greatest cinematic drive through the streets of San Francisco. But there's more than that legendary pursuit. There's the car -- a sweet 1968 Mustang GT 390 (the best-looking Mustang ever) -- and the driver -- McQueen (the best-looking guy ever to drive a Mustang). McQueen, who helped re-vamp the bitchin' green Ford, is the James Dean of car culture, so indelibly linked with the lure and lore of the automobile that Owen Wilson's character in Cars is named after him: "Lightning McQueen."
3. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Many remember 1977 as the year Star Wars became a national obsession. But while some of you played with plastic light sabers and (now priceless) action figures, there were others who busted out their Dad's CB radio ("Sheriff ... do the letters F.O. mean anything to you?") and prayed he'd buy a black 1977 Pontiac Trans AM just like the one Burt Reynolds (a.k.a., The Bandit) drives in Hal Needham's classic Smokey and the Bandit. And yes, I did just say classic. A charming, laughing Reynolds teams with trucker pal Jerry Reed to transport 400 cases of Coors beer across state lines, with an apoplectic, hilarious Jackie Gleason (as Sheriff Buford T. Justice) in pursuit. Loads of light fun filled with clever, excellently edited and just plain stellar car-chase sequences, "Smokey and the Bandit" is, as the infectious Jerry Reed song proclaimed, "loaded up and truckin.'"
2. Mad Max (1979)
"Mad Max" gives new meaning to the term "playing chicken." After super-studly, leather-clad cop Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson in a star-making performance) explosively wins this game with an escaped criminal named The Nightrider, thug-in-arms biker-gang leader The Toecutter (oh, how I love these names) seeks vengeance, killing not only Max's partner but Max's family as well. So now Max is, as the title states, mad. Very, very mad. As directed by George Miller, this dystopian vision of violent recklessness and ultimate revenge is wonderfully paced, beautifully textured and even quite emotional at times. It also, in terms of ingenious car chase, crash, smash and explode sequences, is incredibly, punk-rock badass. And it features one of cinema's coolest cars: The Interceptor, a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT, the auto-erotic fixation of the petrol set. Where can I get one?
1. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
If Jean Paul Sartre had directed a drive-in movie, he might have crafted Monte Hellman's existential, car noir Two-Lane Blacktop. The stoic central characters are stripped down to their basic handles -- James Taylor is known only as the Driver, Dennis Wilson the Mechanic, Laurie Bird the Girl and the late great Warren Oates, in one of his most unforgettable roles, is GTO. All players drive and drive and drive, seemingly to challenge other cars and race cross country, but is that really what they're seeking? The characters don't even know themselves. But they do love their cars. Taylor and Wilson drive a seriously souped-up '55 Chevy that's all muscle and speed, no frills, while Oates rolls a yellow 1970 Pontiac GTO -- something Taylor scorns as right off the lot. What makes this film unique is its absolute auto-centric vision (the continual purr and hum of the engine makes even the viewer feel at one with the car) mingled with art-house beauty. And it's one of the few movies in which the Driver can state with extra, ambiguous meaning, "You can never go fast enough." A masterpiece.
*I apologize that all these movies are from the late '60s and through the 1970's but...car-centric movies were simply superior during this time. A lot of movies were better during these years. Less Bruckheimer produced flash and cocaine induced editing style? Perhaps.