When I was a young boy I learned to love movies. And, strangely, I learned to write categorized lists of certain particular things that stood out for me. Perhaps I had a touch of OCD about making lists. Or maybe I just was really moved by certain cinematic moments and wanted to keep track of them. Possibly I just didn’t want to forget the names of the movies. I wouldn’t forget the scenes themselves, but back in the 70’s and early 80’s there weren’t such convenient ways to watch a movie again. You essentially just had to wait until it came on television, albeit in a interrupted-by-commercials version. And also edited for content and time constraints. No salty language, no nudity, and no graphic violence. And hell, this movie is too long for network broadcast anyway, so let’s just cut out an additional 25 minutes while we’re at it. It’s gotta fit in-between the new episode of Happy Days and the 11 o’clock newscast.
Of course I made a master list of pretty much every movie I’d seen. Movies seen in theaters had that fact denoted by a bold capital T next to it, for theater. Movies I watched at home on TV had no code written by the title. I would start with the movie title, the year it came out if I could find it, and then a star rating between 1 and 4 stars. My lists were written on classroom notebook paper with the blue lines and three holes on the left side. I wrote my lists in pencil, like I was doing a research project for my 6th grade project. Which, in hindsight, I should’ve actually done for some school credit.
Looking back on this I totally understand the fascination with car chases. These are very exciting scenes in films, riveting and smartly edited. Fast motion and danger always intrigues viewers. Also I would have been fascinated by car chases because it was a magical foreign powerful thing to a child who isn’t old enough to drive. It was like watching a science-fiction movie with a character flying a starship into warp drive. It was unattainable and fantastical. You can’t get your permit to drive in Oregon until you are 15 years old. So to a 7-year-old boy, even the possibility of driving a huge steel gasoline-powered vehicle was still another 8 years away. So my entire lifetime up to that point would need to be doubled for me to even be allowed behind the wheel of a car.
The car chase need was also fulfilled more regularly on television shows of the times. Ones that I watched regularly were Dukes of Hazzard, CHiPs, The Streets of San Francisco, and Starsky and Hutch. The car chase became an expected staple of these shows, and some achieved quality chases less and less regularly. Watching these predictable and sanitized car chases each week just made me appreciate the real deal found in theatrical films all the more. There was literally never any threat to the main characters, because we knew they would return the following week in the next episode. These tv show car chases mainly felt like an opportunity to crash some cars in slow motion.
Most of my favorite car chases have one thing in common. No music. A truly great car chase lets the sounds of the engines, squealing cars, and car horns be the soundtrack. Then add in some panicked dialogue, gunshots, and breaking glass to this symphony. My top three car chases are Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985). No music. Well, Bullitt has some moody jazz music while they play their slow cat and mouse game around San Francisco. But when they click in their seatbelts and start the car chase in earnest, the engines roar and the music disappears. I hate when a Hollywood film adds music that is essentially telegraphing to us what we should feel at that moment. We don’t need it. Especially with chase scenes. They are exciting enough and the visceral excitement of the scene will transfer to us off of the screen.
Yet another complaint about recent trends of car chases is the unnecessary use of CGI, or computer generated images. You’ll notice that none of the films I cite as my favorites have any fake effects in them. So they’re primarily from the 70’s and 80’s. There are indeed some filmmakers who continue to shoot films honestly, seeking realism over grandiosity. I don’t list any of the Fast and Furious films on my lists. Fuck those movies. Ridiculous cartoons with cars and humans defying the laws of physics on the regular. It’s like watching an updated Wile E. Coyote cartoon with the Road Runner in a tricked out muscle car. Any computer graphic designer can animate a realistic looking car and add smoke and skid marks. But why would you? Then we’re watching a video game cut-scene. Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean that you should do a thing. Give me rubber on asphalt. Let me hear the gears shifting and grinding. Let me see actual human actors in the driver’s seat looking over their shoulders in panic. Let me see windows shattering and broken glass on the road. Put a camera in a chase car and follow the cars at 90 mph. Give me a real car chase.
The movies I grew up watching were from the 70’s and 80’s. So obviously, all car chases were actually done in-camera. I have so much respect for the stunt coordinators and drivers of the cars in the chase scenes. Back then, you had to block off entire lengths of streets or highways and close them off with Police barricades. Then you would repopulate them with dozens of stunt drivers. Not only were the two cars involved in the chase driven by professional stunt drivers, but every single other car in the background was too. You had to coordinate every element of that chaos. It was vehicular choreography. A precisely timed dance of sedans.
Unless you were William Friedkin filming The French Connection. He went out in the streets of NYC without the necessary permits, and filmed one of the most frenetic, stressful and exciting car chases in cinema history guerrilla-style. Stunt driver Bill Hickman drove the Pontiac while William Friedkin filmed from the backseat. Some of the cars that veer into Gene Hackman’s path are just neighborhood residents who didn’t even know that a movie was being filmed. One actual collision was just a random guy heading to work that drove in front of Hackman’s chase car. This crash is in the movie. The producers later paid the man’s repair costs for the car. This movie’s chase was also unique because it didn’t involve two passenger vehicles. It was a chase between Gene Hackman’s car and the elevated subway train that the bad guy had commandeered.
Then about 15 years later, William Friedkin gave us yet another of the best car chases in cinema. To Live and Die in L.A. is a gritty, dark, unique crime thriller that came out in 1985 and starred William Peterson and Willem Dafoe. I imagine that director Friedkin had to say to himself, “OK, I currently have one of the finest car chases under my belt. It’s time to top myself. I can do even better.” And for my money, he certainly did outdo himself with this one. While The French Connection is indeed great, it’s one guy in a car chasing an elevated subway train. With To Live and Die in L.A., he has two secret service agents in a car trying to get away from pretty much everybody. It starts out with a payoff gone wrong and their contact being shot by unknown shooters. They flee, and more and more cars and shooters pop out of every overpass. Clearly their operation was being surveilled, and they are greatly outnumbered and disadvantaged. Just when they lose one car, another one pops out and joins the chase. More agents shoot at them from nearby overpasses and cars. The desperation grows. One great element is the point of view perspective of our anti-heroes inside the car where the sound disappears and it’s just the noise of the passenger’s panicked breathing as he sort of loses it. The driver flashes back to his bungee jumping scene of adrenaline rush, and the passenger replays the shooting death he just witnessed. They recklessly charge through alleys, streets, railroad tracks, and dry aqueducts before they are stopped and surrounded. Then, in an even more desperate and insane move, they decide to enter the highway going the wrong way to escape. It’s a batshit crazy scene. Even stranger is that Friedkin actually put our two anti-heroes on the correct side of the highway. It’s all the other traffic that is going the wrong way. Just another subtle directorial choice to put the viewer on edge. I didn’t notice this disorienting detail until years after first seeing the film. This car chase took 6 weeks to shoot, again giving us about 10 minutes of an amazing chase sequence.
Now we arrive at my ultimate favorite car chase movie, Bullitt. Stunt driver Bill Hickman did the driving in this classic Steve McQueen film from 1968. You can also see him driving in the 1973 Roy Scheider film The Seven-Ups. In Bullitt, he drives the black 440 Dodge Charger against Steve McQueen’s Ford Mustang GT Fastback. Steve McQueen was an avid race car driver, and wanted to personally do all of the driving that the insurance company would allow. He was a stickler for realism, and he wanted as many shots as possible to actually show him driving so the audience bought into it. He knew that anytime we see a shot of a driver that isn’t the actor, we are immediately brought out of the movie. Some of the shots where the two cars are raging along at 90 mph, ramming into each other, skidding, and even firing shotguns are made all the more amazing because we can see that it’s actually the actors. Today you would more likely see a digitally recreated actor’s face on a stunt driver’s body. And the scene would suffer because of it.
In my opinion, Bullitt has the car chase to end all car chases. There might be more showy car chases now, or chases with a higher body count, but this one will be rightfully copied and imitated forever. For me, this car chase has not been bested in the 50 years since it came out. And every car chase that has come after was influenced by it. Steve McQueen’s detective Frank Bullitt realizes that he is being tailed by two bad guys. He loses them and comes around behind them. The hunter is now the hunted. The assassins click in their seat belts and we know we’re in for a ride. At one point the car that Bill Hickman was driving corners just a little too widely and actually crashes into the camera setup. This was a tripod camera set up on a parked car. The screen flashed to white and we cut to the next scene. The camera itself was destroyed but the film canister was salvaged, and the shot was left in the film. Things like this greatly add to the believability and realism of the action.
This chase goes all over San Francisco and has so many iconic moments. It’s also messy, like a real car chase would be. McQueen overshoots the turn on a residential street and has to back up and peel out again. The entire chase is brought to a halt when they can’t navigate around a grouping of cars and trucks and a motorcycle. McQueen’s character actually pauses to make sure that the fallen motorcycle driver gets up and is ok before restarting his pursuit. This chase has all of the key elements of a great car chase. Avoiding obstacles. Jumps. Point-of-view camerawork. Collisions. Innocent bystanders getting in the way. Very high speeds. Ramming each other off the road. Gunfire. And a very explosive climax. Some car chases just have one or two of these essential elements. Bullitt has every single one. If you haven’t seen this chase, shame on you. It’s arguably the most influential car chase in cinema history. It reportedly took three weeks of shooting, and gave us almost 10 minutes of high-octane car chase perfection.
I saw this film countless times on television growing up. Then it was the first VHS tape I purchased as a kid. I remember it was in an oversized clamshell case. I saved up $29.99 to buy it from the local video store brand new. I found the book it was based on at the library and read that (Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike). I bought the plastic model kit of the 68 Mustang and glued that together. As per usual, I immersed myself in this film as much as possible. I read up on any trivia I could find about this film. Then, as an adult in my 30’s, this film screened at a high-end cinema here in Portland, Oregon. I finally got to see a screening of one of my favorite films ever in a great theater with amazing sound. The sound of the engines absolutely screamed from the screen, filling the theater with RPMs from 35 years ago. The point of view shots of the cars jumping the hills actually made me move in my seat like I was bracing for the impact of the jumps. The screeching tires were so loud it made me wince. When the white-haired assassin fires his shotgun at McQueen, there is a shot with McQueen driving and bullet holes from the shotgun appear on the windshield. His car starts to veer back and forth at 90 mph making an unearthly squealing sound before he rights it. It’s a harrowing moment, especially because losing control at that speed would result in the car rolling a dozen times before finally stopping. The print had been restored so it looked like it was filmed just a few years ago, instead of the washed out, grainy, damaged print I had seen so many times on TV. And no commercial breaks. I was in car chase heaven that day. I felt like I was an 8-year-old boy again sitting at home my pajamas watching this movie for the first time on TV. And that’s exactly what movies are supposed to do.
Just for reference, here is my listing of greatest car chases from when I was a little guy. It honestly hasn’t changed much. There’s just a couple of additions from more recent films.
- BULLITT (1968)
- DUEL (1971)
- THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
- THX-1138 (1971)
- THE SEVEN-UPS (1973)
- THE DRIVER (1978)
- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
- MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981)
- THE TERMINATOR (1984)
- TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
- THE HITCHER (1986)
- THE HIDDEN (1987)
More recent additions:
- TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
- TRUE LIES (1994)
- RONIN (1998)
- BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
- THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
- MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
- VANISHING POINT (1971)
- TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
- THE GETAWAY (1972)
- THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)
- GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974)
- THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)