The origins of the movie car chase began in the 1890s. That was the decade when mass automobile production began, and when Frederick Lanchester built the UK’s first four-wheeled, petrol-driven car in Birmingham in 1895. Across the channel in France’s second metropolis of Lyon, the Lumière brothers completed the very first motion picture that same year. Since then, cars and movies have evolved at breakneck speed, coalescing in that classic staple of action cinema, the chase.
After decades of back projection, where speed was artificially created from the safety of the studio, the spectacle of vehicular pursuit hit top gear in the late sixties. 1968 was the year of Frank Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s laconic tough-guy cop who pursues two hitmen for ten high-octane minutes through San Francisco’s undulating streets, the same terrain in which a transfixed James Stewart followed Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s Vertigo ten years earlier.
Yet whereas Stewart’s hypnotised pursuit marked a gradual unravelling of his mind, McQueen forever remains the master of his domain, deftly manoeuvring his Ford Mustang with consummate cool, staying so resolutely phlegmatic you’d think he was heading to Sainsbury’s for the weekly shop. The uncompromising realism of Bullitt’s chase scene is the movie’s perfect metaphor. McQueen is the principled underdog throughout, steering tenaciously across a sleazy metropolitan underbelly of dimly-lit hospitals and grimy hotels. But just like in the chase he keeps coming back, snaring the bad guy and leaving slimeball politician Robert Vaughn floundering in his moral afterburn.
A year later across the Atlantic, the car chase transformed into a riotous explosion of comedy and colour. The Italian Job is quintessential British sixties cinema, a laddish tale of cockney criminals who leave Swinging London in a roar of Carnaby Street fashion and flag-waving patriotism, revved up to pull the birds and put one over Johnny Foreigner in his own back yard.
In the movie’s climactic chase, the bullion thieves run riot across Italy’s automotive capital Turin, their red, white and blue Minis embarrassing the olive-coloured Carabinieri cars in the home of Fiat, before fleeing to the Alps with the loot. It’s a classic away-win powered by bulldog spirit, with upper class gent Noël Coward, working class upstart Michael Caine and randy IT nerd Benny Hill displaying British ingenuity at its best.
The gang’s future may be left hanging in the balance at the end, but there’s never a real sense of danger in The Italian Job. The same could not be said two years later in The French Connection, where headstrong cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) commandeers a Pontiac LeMans and dementedly pursues a crook who’s taken refuge on a speeding New York train.
Whereas The Italian Job is spectacularly calibrated fun, The French Connection is full-throttle chaos, with director William Friedkin shooting the scene at 90 miles per hour withoutpermission amid real, unsuspecting Brooklyn traffic. Ragged and relentless, Doyle’s Pontiac is an extension of its driver’s personality, taking reckless chances in the belief that the end justifies the means. Friedkin became the youngest recipient of a Best Director Oscar for his efforts, but would later regret taking such lunatic gambles in the name of entertainment.
Destruction would be wreaked on an even greater scale in 1980, thanks to the epic police car pile-up and surrealmall scene which light up cult comedy The Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood are two siblings far too cool for driving school, donning Ray Bans, kicking back to the movie’s sensational soundtrack and letting their Bluesmobile leave a trail of soul-inspired havoc nonchalantly in their wake.
Two fugitives of a different kind used a Ford Thunderbird convertible to break free of society’s shackles in 1991. Thelma and Louise is female emancipation as extended car chase, a brilliant piece of populist cinema and a neat rebuke to mainstream cinema’s predilection for meathead machismo. Finally cornered above Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Thelma and Louise stay true to their new found sense of liberation, calling the cops’ bluff and going out in a blaze of white, reverential glory.
Back in Birmingham, the birthplace of the British motor industry, another modern-day hero finds freedom at the wheel. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is the love-rat construction boss at the centre of Steven Knight’s absorbing one-man show. Locke may not break any speed limits, but it still feels like a chase movie. The eponymous protagonist races down the motorway in his BMW X5 to witness the birth of his illegitimate child, pursued by marital breakdown, a career going tits-up and the imagined spectre of his father goading him through the rear view mirror.
|Going solo: Tom Hardy in Locke (2013)|
Flawed, insular yet admirably unflappable, Hardy’s Locke is Frank Bullitt reinvented, sharing the same tough-sounding surname, choice knitwear and willingness to risk it all to do the right thing. And it’s this sense of a personal mission that’s the engine behind every great movie car chase.
No matter where they’re going, the characters’ principal journey is always through the landscape of their own heads, whether they’re the hunter or the hunted. And we, as audience and passengers, have no choice but to be swept away in their slipstream – sitting tight, buckling up and enjoying what it means to be truly driven.
This article originally appeared in the May-June 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.