Anatomy of the Car Chase: A History of Crash and Bang, From ‘The French Connection’ to ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

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(Video by Sean Witzke)

Car chase sequences are pure cinema, even if it’s the kind that cinephiles don’t rate that highly. These are sequences that rely on stunt doubles, second-unit direction, and technology of the moment, with a need for great editing and visual effects. Even the great car chase scenes are regarded as technical efforts, designed to overclock the audience’s excitement. Pauline Kael referred to The French Connection as “cinema du zap” in her original review, calling out William Friedkin for using sensationalist tools for sensationalism’s sake. I disagree. A great chase scene is the finest moment in film. It’s exhilarating, dropping all the inessential fat of the form in favor of pursuit and conflict.

Chase scenes are really suspense scenes — they’re about the establishment and release of tension. Cars plow through roadblocks, construction signs, and plate glass windows, soar through billboards, and destroy suspiciously placed roadside fruit stands. Sometimes boats are involved. To increase the pressure, a passenger puts on their seat belt in quiet terror. Windshields get smashed, cars mount sidewalks and career down stairwells. Desperate men go the wrong way down freeways.

The difference between an exciting chase scene and a boring one is thin, having less to do with what happens in the chase than its execution. The key to a chase scene is danger. If there isn’t a real fear that the characters are going to die — that they won’t make their getaway — there are no stakes. Without this fear, few films are good enough to trick you.

Mad Max: Fury Road is notable for its lack of trickery. George Miller, after decades working on children’s films and animation, has offered something fresh to a culture that has long disregarded realistic stunts. Fury Road is two hours of expertly staged chase scenes, with every character illustrated only by their behavior during those massive sequences. Every moment has an element of shock because viewers know they aren’t watching CGI or actors falling on wires in front of a green screen. The response has been ecstatic.

We’ll talk about some of the greatest chase movies ever in a bit. But first, a little history. Here are three key figures in the history of the chase scene:

• Carey Loftin started off as a stuntman in Dick Tracy and Green Hornet serials in the ’30s and ’40s and worked as a stunt driver and coordinator up until 1998’s Patrick Swayze trucker movie Black Dog. You can see Loftin’s driving in The French Connection; Bullitt; Vanishing Point; Thunder Road; Duel; The Getaway; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; Blow Out; and Against All Odds. He’s been Bond. He’s been Indiana Jones. He drove for Tom Cruise and Kurt Russell. He’s the motorcycle driver who lands on his neck in THX 1138. Loftin’s driving work emphasizes realism and personal danger. While he isn’t single-handedly responsible for the end of rear-projection driving scenes, his work, starting in the ’50s, made it nearly impossible for those films to be taken seriously.

• Hal Needham began his career doing horse stunts for television shows and moved into features in the mid-’60s. Needham worked with some of the great action directors early on — John Frankenheimer, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Rush — and began directing second unit with the Deep South revenge movie White Lightning. The film (during the making of which Needham almost died) was his first collaboration with Burt Reynolds, a relationship that would come to largely define both artists’ careers. Needham went from doubling for Reynolds to directing him in six features, including Hooper, Smokey and the Bandit, and The Cannonball Run. Needham may have invented the blooper reel, but he prioritized realism even when filming gags.

• John Glen is a living testament to Eon Productions’ employment practices. The company behind James Bond has, at various points, turned down Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, but you can’t say it doesn’t promote from within. Glen began working for Eon as editor and second-unit director for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (directed by former Bond editor Peter R. Hunt), a position he held until taking over as full-time director for the five films released in the ’80s. Before working for Eon, Glen did second-unit direction for The Italian Job and British spy shows The Avengers and Secret Agent. Glen’s tenure on the Bond franchise emphasized stunt sequences and chases above all else. Bond films, in general, are important to the history of the chase scene for normalizing them as traditional action spectacle.

Most chase scenes you see these days are because of one of these three men. Sometimes you’re seeing the outrageous stuntman influence of Needham and Glen, or Loftin’s intense car violence.

Now let’s talk about some of the great chase films.

Bullitt (1968), directed by Peter Yates
The French Connection (1971), directed by William Friedkin
The Seven-Ups (1973), directed by Philip D’Antoni

Bullitt has what is considered by many to be the best car chase ever filmed, and it’s not a bad choice. Peter Yates was handpicked by Steve McQueen after he made Robbery, a British heist movie that opens up with a nasty car-chase set piece.

Bullitt is proto–Michael Mann, protoJohnnie To filmmaking. McQueen plays a cop with an unspoken and idiosyncratic code of ethics who will do anything to get the men he’s after. Only in the final scene do we really learn where his line is.

The chase scene, shot in San Francisco, leads out of the city onto the highway. There is no sound but the roar of engines and screech of tires. It’s an amazing chase, and it’s kind of the least interesting thing in the movie. The most interesting would be McQueen; every acting choice he makes is the coolest and smartest thing you could do on camera.

Producer Philip D’Antoni pushed for a long chase sequence, leading him to catch the bug for them. D’Antoni produced The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, which is as scary and real and character-driven as cop movies get. Loftin drives in both films. The French Connection is palpably dangerous, all the choreographed near misses becoming moments of contact. Gene Hackman’s face never lets the audience feel anything but his rage as he makes rash decision after rash decision. D’Antoni would direct and produce a pseudo-sequel to The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, with Roy Scheider playing out a variation on the Bullitt chase in New York City.

D’Antoni’s version isn’t as good as Friedkin’s, but the chases almost feel more dangerous. Friedkin would go back to chases, too, with the purely instinctual escape of To Live and Die in L.A.

Vanishing Point (1971), directed by Richard C. Sarafian

Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point is the apex of ’70s nihilist Americana car movies. Barry Newman’s Kowalski is an existential crisis in motion. Traces of backstory (ex-cop, ex-racer, Vietnam vet) are used to illustrate his self-destructive nature rather than explain his behavior. Kowalksi is making a car delivery from Denver to San Francisco and tries to do it overnight, but that’s really just a vague setup that prompts his seemingly arbitrary decision to take on the world while out of his mind on speed. The film shares Loftin’s stunt brilliance and head-down coolness with Bullit and The French Connection, but those films are traditional cop narratives, even at their most gutter moments. Kowalski’s chase is an internal journey, externalized by how he drives a car. While films like Duel, Two-Lane Blacktop, Gone in 60 Seconds, Race With the Devil, Cannonball!, Electra Glide in Blue, and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry all share some of the same spirit, few manage to unite the hero with his car like Vanishing Point.

White Lightning (1973), directed by Joseph Sargent

Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds’s collaboration defined their careers as easygoing leaders of movie-length cast parties. Their first effort is a cutthroat revenge movie. Directed by Joseph Sargent, White Lightning is like a modern version of The Outlaw Josey Wales that’s about running moonshine.

The final chase scene is a cat-and-mouse sequence of righteous vengeance. The reeds and lake he darts in and out of play as biblical grace notes.

Ronin (1998), directed by John Frankenheimer

John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, his second-to-last production in a storied career that started at the birth of narrative television, is a David Mamet–scripted story of old espionage operatives playing out private conflicts for money. The dialogue is perfect, the violence is sharp and brutal, and the car sequences — both of them — are the perfect marriage of story and skill.

The Paris chase is not flashy, emphasizing ruthless driving ability over everything. Ronin is one of the few canon chase-scene films that features a woman driving, with Natasha McElhone proving to be more dangerous than Robert De Niro in every beat of the scene. She’s not outdriven; in fact, she has to have her tires shot out to be taken out of commission.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004), directed by Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass’s approach to action, prioritizing sound design and fast editing over having the shots, has had a deleterious effect on action movies as a whole. Greengrass’s work on the Bourne series, particularly The Bourne Supremacy, proves that the style could be jaw-dropping in the right hands. Doug Liman’s chase in the first Bourne film is about emphasizing driving ability and has more in common with the chases of Ronin, The Peacemaker, The Italian Job, and the Transporter movies.

Supremacy’s big chase has Jason Bourne bleeding and on the run, and keeps introducing more and more dangerous elements without ever letting you breathe. If the editing is meant to put you into the chase, it goes too far in trying to force you into a panic. It is the cinema du zap that Kael described, and it’s never been as successful as this frenzied, living car crash.

Death Proof (2007), directed by Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino’s slasher-meets-car film Death Proof plays out its meta-narrative in miniature during the climactic chase sequence. The first half places three women in the Vanishing Point Challenger and posits them as victims, terrorized by the maniac in Bullitt’s car with the hood ornament from Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy. After a near-death experience, the tables are turned (and the front end of the Challenger is torn off like the Interceptor in Mad Max). The women use the phallic symbol they were attacked with to go after their aggressor, taking revenge for themselves. This is a textbook Carol J. Clover reading of the genre, but the cars representing masculinity rewrites the context.

Tarantino’s film traces the role of women in exploitation cinema backward, giving them more agency as they slide back from ’80s lovesick victims, to ’70s survivors, to the bloodthirsty girl gangs of Russ Meyer.

Full Alert (1997), directed by Ringo Lam

Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s personal favorite of his own films is Full Alert, which takes his “no good or bad guys” cops-and-robbers dynamics onto the road. A gang is trying to break its leader out of a prisoner transport convoy. The cars are all nondescript, earth-tone sedans, hard for viewers to differentiate from pedestrian vehicles until contact is made.

The Driver (1978), directed by Walter Hill

Walter Hill’s first action classic is a minimalist text. Hill was inspired by the reticent hit men of Le samouraï and Point Blank, and allowed his scenes to be overtaken by pregnant silence. Every character is defined by their job. Ryan O’Neal was never better, Isabelle Adjani never held back a reaction as tightly, Bruce Dern never glared with more menace. Everything is restrained and dialed tight, except the chases.

Multiple variations on what these scenes are supposed to be are played out — the getaway, the car fight, the climactic good-car-vs.-shitty-car sequence, a showcase of how to destroy a car in a parking garage, a cat-and-mouse suspense sequence in a warehouse. Each one is more violent than anything that historically preceded it, and each is shot differently from the others. The final chase, in which The Driver is in an old truck chasing down his money, alternates shots between disorienting, mounted POVs while blasting through red lights and the sight of O’Neal and Adjani being thrown around the cab of the truck. You don’t feel safe. The opening chase of The Driver directly influenced Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but Hill’s film is still the bible for shooting in L.A. at night.

The Road Warrior (1981), directed by George Miller

Miller is the director who best understood Sergio Leone. Using extreme framing and stories about isolated heroes torn out of history, the films of the Mad Max franchise are biker and racing films told in the language of Westerns. The first and third Mad Max movies are notable for the stunt work of Grant Page, who doubled for Mel Gibson and did insane dangerous shit in every Australian action movie throughout the ’70s (Miller and Page even shot the action scenes for Ian Barry’s Chain Reaction).

The first Mad Max is a revenge film about civilization slowly unraveling, owing a little to the Australian road war films The Cars That Ate Paris and Stone. Miller was an emergency room doctor who saw victims of car crashes appear more and more in his practice. Each entry into the series tears away another layer of dignity from Max, removing elements of the world as we know it. The first film only hints at the scale of The Road Warrior and its perfect action set piece.

The tanker chase has its own multiple acts and invents nonintuitive editing rhythms. Without Road Warrior, you don’t get The Dark Knight, Justin Lin and James Wan’s Fast & Furious films, or Terminator 2. The Road Warrior may be the foundational text for postapocalyptic sci-fi, but it’s also the difference between ’70s action and ’80s action. In the chase, all moral and emotional elements are on display. It’s a siege as well as a chase. There are so many real people doing impossible things (Miller acted as his own set doctor, which is a scary idea for an action director) that you’re not sure if that’s a real body or not. Miller has no illusions about people elevated to myth out of desperation. What drives these characters isn’t heroism; it’s their survival instincts.

Sean Witzke (@switzke) is a writer and cohost of the Travis Bickle on the Riviera movie podcast.

Filed Under: Movies, Sean Witzke, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hal Needham, John Glen, George Miller, Ronin, John Frankenheimer, The Road Warrior, Burt Reynolds, Mel Gibson, Cary Loftin, White Lightning