The Big Screen
1:00 am
Fri June 20, 2014

Hollywood's classic car flicks

From the classic Robert Mitchum 1958 film "Thunder Road"

Once again it’s summertime, and the living is… well, in many instances… mobile. What with enjoying the seasonal events and travels, and the upcoming weekend of big racing at the Kentucky Speedway, I started thinking about the symmetry between two of Americas great loves: cars and movies.

Of course, these two things have gone hand in glove since the beginning. Even when the car was a model T filled with Keystone Kops, American moviegoers have always loved getting their thrills and laughter from cars in movies.

I am sure you all have your favorites. Recently there has been the Fast and Furious series, none of which I’ve seen, for no particular reason. Ticket sales say I’m in the minority.  During the heyday of the so-called drive-in movie boom of the 1970s, the Smokey and the Bandit series dominated the speedscape. Even the Disney Company got in on the act with the flying flivver from The Absentminded Professor and Son of Flubber, to The Love Bug series, to the animated Cars.

In thinking back over the speedy cinema I’ve seen over the years, some are more impressive than others. If I have to make a short list of recommendations for your exploration, these movies would be at the top.

While car chases have been with us since the silent era, they made a big popular splash with Steve McQueen in Bullitt. This 1968 cop thriller had audiences gasping with its daring cat-and-mouse chase through the streets of San Francisco. The law enforcement pursuit was a big part of the attraction of 1971’s Oscar winner The French Connection, in which Gene Hackman drove like crazy through the streets of New York so as not to lose a murder suspect who was on a commuter train zipping along overhead. And who can forget 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, which featured all those great 1930s vehicles whizzing along the countryside while Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” rang out on the soundtrack.

Speaking of the drive-in movies of the 1970s, you could hardly go to an outdoor movie during that decade without seeing something that had to do with cars, speed, or chases.  I really like the existential action flick Vanishing Point, in which Barry Newman breaks every existing traffic law while trying to deliver a Dodge Charger cross-country in a finite amount of time. And as a follow-up to the Bonnie and Clyde theme, there was 1974’s Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry with social miscreants Peter Fonda and Susan George on the lam while being chased by Sheriff Vic Morrow in a helicopter.

Car chases managed to work their magic spell in comedies too. From Blake Edwards’ The Great Race with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood, to Stanley Kramer’s all-star comedy epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the possibility of mayhem and destruction took a back seat to evoking laughter.

Even European locales made the cut with speed freak thrills in such items as The Italian Job, Ronin, and the Jason Bourne and James Bond series.

But of all the movies that rely on cars as another character in the action, for me there is one classic at the top of the heap. Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road. Mitchum plays a Korean War vet who returns home to work in the family business… moonshine running. He drives illegal liquor all over the roads of Kentucky and Tennessee while being run to ground by not only the Feds, but by gangsters who want a piece of his action. If you had the thrill of seeing this on the big screen when you were a kid, you likely came away with visions of everything from a 1950 Mercury to a 1957 Ford parked in your driveway. Hopefully, though, without being outfitted with a whiskey tank. Despite its obvious low budget, Thunder Road is still a cinematic icon.

So enjoy your summer, whether it involves movies or cars or both… but please don’t forget the words of wisdom from Click and Clack on “Car Talk” when they advise, “don’t drive like my brother.”

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