When you think about it, what’s more typical of our modern age than a movie car chase?
After all, automobiles and the motion picture were invented within years of each other, at the end of the 19th century. While movies recorded action, cars provided actual movement.
Put them together in a chase—adding the obsessions of the drivers as essential ingredients—and you have the elements for visceral, riveting and inherently visual storytelling.
Car chases have been around since cinema’s beginning, and moviemakers are continually updating and reinventing them in all sorts of ways.
This notion occurs to us at Anglophenia as we anticipate the new season of Top Gear, which premieres later this May.
So here’s a brief look at some landmarks in the history of movie car chases:
1. Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
This now legendary motorcycle/car chase is actually the extended dream of Buster Keaton‘s meek projectionist imagining himself to be a Sherlock Holmes-like sleuth, obsessed with capturing the thief who stole his fiancée’s necklace. Keaton did all his own stunts, and this scene, as in most of Keaton’s work, also raises the perennial question about live action versus special effects.
2. Bullitt (1968)
When British-born director Peter Yates died in 2011, his obituary in The New York Times noted: “Mr. Yates’s reputation probably rests most securely on Bullitt, his first American film—and indeed, on one particular scene, an extended car chase that instantly became a classic.” Steve McQueen’s pursuit of cop killers over the hilly streets of San Francisco is widely considered to be the most famous car chase in movie history, marking the arrival of the chase as we know it today.
3. The French Connection (1971)
Director William Friedkin said the concept for the chase scene came when he was walking in New York with his producer, Phillip D’Antoni, who had also produced Bullitt. “While we were talking about what we would do, I hear the subway rumbling beneath my feet,” Friedkin said. “The idea came to me right off the streets—what about a car chasing a train?”
4. Duel (1971)
Not just a car chase scene, Duel is an entire car chase movie, but unlike any other that had ever been made. Dennis Weaver plays an ordinary traveling salesman who is stalked by an enormous and menacing truck in the middle of the desert. This bleak, existential thriller, Steven Spielberg‘s second feature-length effort, was originally made for television but later released in a slightly longer theatrical version.
5. The Driver (1978)
Director Walter Hill set out to do a different kind of car chase in his toned down neo-noir thriller in which no one is known by their names – Ryan O’Neal‘s character is simply “The Driver,” Bruce Dern is “The Detective” and Isabelle Adjani is “The Player.” The chases are tense but not generally slam-bang, and they take place at night.
6. Ronin (1998)
More than 80 cars were said to have been intentionally wrecked in the shooting of John Frankenheimer‘s espionage thriller. Some scenes used 300 stunt drivers, said Frankenheimer, who himself was an amateur racing driver.
7. The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
A wild blending of live action and computer-generated effects, the bravura freeway chase in the Wachowskis‘ first sequel to The Matrix is probably the part of the movie that most people remember best. To film the scene, producers built a one-and-a-half mile freeway on a decommissioned naval airbase.
8. Death Proof (2007)
The nail-biting scene in this Quentin Tarantino “grindhouse” film has a woman trying to stay on the hood of a car during a chase in which she is pursued by a serial killer. Tarantino deliberately avoided using any CGI.
9. The Suspect (2013)
This Korean spy thriller, directed by Shin-yeon Won, is about a North Korean agent who defects to track down the killer of his wife and child. Gong Yoo, who plays the lead, had never been in an action movie before, so in addition to learning Russian martial arts and sky-diving, he did some of his own stunt-driving.
10. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The apotheosis of car chase movies, Fury Road is both essentially one long, high-octane chase and a genre film that magnificently transcends its several genres—Western, sci-fi, and adventure, for starters. It’s also fitting that, since this selection is so huge, it’s also sort of a two-fer: Fury Road‘s brilliance goes hand-in-hand with director George Miller‘s 1981 Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Honorable mentions: The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
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