With the summer movie scene coming to a close, here’s an arbitrary guide to the greatest car chase sequences in film history:
High Sierra (1940): This film marked Humphrey Bogart’s debut as a leading man opposite Ida Lupino in this Raoul Walsh film-noir classic. It also has the grandaddy of car chases as Bogart is pursued into the Mount Whitney Portal Road in California by police. (“You’re looking at the pride of the Sierras, brother – Mt. Whitney,” says the gas station attendant to Bogart. “Tallest peak in America.”) At the wheel of a 1938 Plymouth Deluxe Coupe, Bogart careens along the dirt highway through breathtaking mountain switchbacks. The car chase features a double 360-degree camera pan that shows both the pursued and the pursuers as they gun it around a hairpin bend. Unforgettable chase and, yes, Bogey buys it in the end.
Bullitt (1968): Steve McQueen had done a stunning motorcycle chase scene (much of it himself) a few years earlier in The Great Escape (1963). But Peter Yates’ Bullitt sets the baseline for modern car chases as McQueen tries to escape hit-men over the steep San Francisco streets. Lasting a glorious 10 minutes and 53 seconds, the chase starts at the Fisherman’s Wharf area and ends up at Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in Brisbane, Calif., with the cars going up to 170 km/h. Ford loaned two 1968 390 V-8 Mustang GT fastbacks (325 hp) with four-speed manual transmissions for McQueen and stunt driver Bud Eakins. The bad guys are in two 375-hp 440 Magnum V-8-powered Dodge Chargers. The airborne cars on Hyde and Laguna streets set the bar for what was to come. You can tell when McQueen is driving because the visor is up.
The French Connection (1971): If Bullitt’s chase was freewheeling, the car chase in William Friedkin’s classic is urban claustrophobic with near-misses and “I can’t watch” scenes beneath the New York City subway. Gene Hackman’s 1971 Pontiac LeMans tries to follow the BMT West End Line subway train above him in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. It’s the slightly speeded-up scenes shot from a camera on the front bumper that make this a classic. Look for the scene when Hackman’s car runs into a truck with a “Drive Carefully” bumper sticker.
The Seven Ups (1973): Philip D’Antoni produced Bullitt and The French Connection but also directed this gritty cop story and its hair-raising chase. The bad guys’ 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville sedan is chased by Roy Scheider’s 1973 Pontiac Ventura Sprint coupe across Upper Manhattan. Stunt co-ordinator Bill Hickman reprises his role from French Connection, with the chase ending in a Jayne Mansfield-style crash scene as the top of the sedan is torn off. The 2006 DVD release has documentary footage showing Hickman setting up the scene where an open door is torn off a car.
The Road Warrior (1981): Pure post-apocalyptic, non-stop bad-assery starring Mel Gibson (when he was cool). Along a barren Australian desert highway, an 18-wheeler Mack R600 Coolpower is being pursued by an army of motorcycles and rigged-up vehicles. The second in the Mad Max series includes one of the great stunts in cinema history when a car hits a stationery vehicle head-on and the thug perched on the hood is sent cartwheeling through the air about 30 metres. The more iconic vehicle is Mad Max’s Ford Falcon XB Coupe, V8 351 ‘Interceptor,’ although he doesn’t use it in the best sequence of the film.
To Live and Die In L.A. (1987): William Friedkin returns with the spiritual companion to The French Connection. Friedkin took six weeks (and went $1-million over budget) to choreograph and shoot the sequence as cars go against traffic on Terminal Island Freeway near Wilmington, Calif. The sequence has so many pileups and car crashes, it’s The Blues Brothers without the comedy. Gritty, hard core. The main car in the chase is a 1981 Chevrolet Impala, and the freaked-out reactions of actor John Pankow are real. Many of the Grand Theft Auto games borrow heavily from this film.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991): James Cameron did car chases before sinking the Titanic. The T-1000 robot (Robert Patrick) drives a 1987 Freightliner FLA 9664 Mack truck chasing through the L.A. water ducts after John Connor, who’s on a 1990 Honda XR 100 dirt bike with Arnold Schwarzenegger in close support aboard his 1990 Harley Davidson Fat Boy. Bonus points for two stunts: where the truck crashes through a barrier on a bridge and lands in the water duct, Arnold comes flying off a ramp into the duct after it. Iconic scenes in a film that is a watershed for computer-generated graphics.
Children of Men (2006): Pure technical brilliance. They had to choreograph, almost like a dance routine, five actors to the movements of the camera perched inside the vehicle as it pivots with 360 degrees of motion in a tiny 1998 Fiat Multipla. What’s most amazing is the car itself is really not a car but engineering wizardry. It was the body of the Multipla on a flat top with wheels and a driving pod on the roof. The driving pod also had a seat for the cameraman who remote-controlled the movement of the camera inside the car. Each car seat was on hinges so that actors could lay back or pull forward to allow space for the camera to move. Oh, and the sequence is about a four-minute take. A landmark sequence of which there are a few in this film.
Drive (2011): If style points and atmosphere matter, there are few better chases than the opening sequence of Drive. Ryan Gosling, in a silver 2006 Chevy Impala, coolly uses every trick in the book to evade police as he shepherds a pair of thieves to safety through the concrete maze of Los Angeles. The use of sound to complement tension – the sustained silences, the timely rev of an engine – and masterful use of lightning, all set to the low, pulsating beat of Tick of the Clock by the Chromatics. One of the few car sequences in film history to involve not a single dent or ding yet still make you feel like you’ve just risked driving 130 km/h through a school zone – during school hours.
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