Cars on Film

As we said earlier this year in our look at racing pictures, movies are meant to move. When plot bogs down and characterization is going nowhere, you can trust the savvy director to toss in a car chase. From "A Night in Casablanca" to "Speed," the sight of cars careening wildly through city streets or country lanes adds a level of excitement to a motion picture that would often otherwise be sadly lacking. Cars and movies seem to be made for one another.

But what about movies that in some way or other revolve around cars? Do they capture the essence of our collective love affair with the automobile or do they wind up missing the point?

In our humble estimation, some car flicks hit the nail squarely on the head. Others are wildly off the mark. But even at their worst, when the plot is dismally predictable or sadly laughable, you can still enjoy the images of cool cars flashing across the screen.

So, without further ado, pop up some (more) corn, settle into your easy chair and get ready to re-live some of the most notable car movies of all time.

Hot Rods To Hell (1967)

In this classic "so-bad-it's-good" movie from the mid-Sixties, screen veteran Dana Andrews is disabled in a car wreck and decides to move his family to the desert and operate a motel. But on his way from his unnamed East Coast hometown, his family is beset and bedeviled by local kids driving souped-up cars. Oh my! It seems the motel Andrews' character is set to take over sells beer to underage kids, so those young hellions can't stand to see the old guy, the hero of the classic Otto Preminger movie "Laura," get control of the place. Even worse, one of the young hot rodders, Paul Bertoya, puts the moves on Andrews' comely teenage daughter, played by Mimsy Farmer. Jeanne Crain portrays her mother in a performance that consists primarily of her proclaiming "Oh, no!" while wringing her hands. As the tagline warned: Call them punks, call them animals but you better get out of their way!

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

They live to race; they race to live. That describes the two main characters in this film that's so minimalist the characters don't have names. Singer James Taylor is the driver of the primer-gray '55 Chevrolet; Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, who was later to meet his death in a diving accident, is the mechanic. As the laconic drama unfolds, the duo travel across the southwestern United States looking for worthy racing opponents. Along the way they run into veteran character actor Warren Oates, the driver of a GTO, who challenges them to a race to Washington, D.C., where the winner will get the loser's car. Laurie Bird is "The Girl," who does, well, girl things. It's not for everyone, but if you get into the rhythm of this one, it's really not bad.

Crazy Larry, Dirty Mary (1974)

Can you say drive-in movie? This is the perfect accompaniment to fresh buttered popcorn and a front seat smooch, and, appropriately enough, the first time this reviewer saw this picture was at the Route 66 Drive-in in Countryside, Illinois, in 1974. Peter Fonda, relatively fresh from "Easy Rider," is Larry, and Susan George is his main squeeze, Mary. They're two fairly likable young people who decide to kidnap the daughter of a grocery storeowner and then escape with the ransom. Whenever the plot seems to wane, director John Hough is smart enough to toss in a fairly engaging car chase, and Larry's Dodge Charger becomes the unsung star of the film. If you go into this one with low expectations, you'll be rewarded with an entertainingly low-brow film.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

What better way to welcome the new millennium than with this, another from the "it's-so-bad-it's-good" school of film-making. With a cast that includes David Carradine as Frankenstein and a pre-"Rocky" Sylvester Stallone as Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo, how could this be anything else? The premise is that in the year 2000 road racing has evolved into a death sport in which competitors get points for running over pedestrians, seemingly anticipating something on its way from Fox or the WB. The only problem is, they warn the pedestrians, so when the racers roll through, they're lying low. Still there's some completely politically incorrect carnage, including several folks in wheelchairs and on crutches biting the dust. Included are some wacky "political statements," now so anachronistic that they only add to the fun. Topping it all off, the racecars are some of the weirdest damn dune buggies you'll ever see.

Vanishing Point (1971)

In some ways this underrated film is the Holy Grail of car movies. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, it has just the right texture and gritty feel, as if screenwriters Malcolm Hart and Guillermo Cain had actually been sniffing nitro. Barry Newman gives a surprisingly evocative performance as Kowalski, who overdoses on speed, literally and figuratively, and spends the rest of the movie trying to outrun the cops. Along the way, a blind disk jockey, portrayed by Cleavon Little, catches on to Kowalski's predicament and makes him the subject of a long pre-rap rap. The driving footage is tremendous as Newman, at the wheel of a muscle car, rockets through the wide-empty landscape between Denver and San Francisco, pursued by the cops the whole way. The classic ending makes the conclusion to "Thelma and Louise" seem wimpy in comparison.

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad is currently working on screenplay based on his recent Avon true crime book, Fatal Photographs.