Peter Yates, the British filmmaker whose credits include the giddy caper flick The Hot Rock, the heartwarming small-town comedy/drama Breaking Away, and the Jacqueline-Bisset-in-a-wet-T-shirt classic The Deep, died Sunday of heart failure. He was 81.
As enjoyable as those films are (seriously, they’re all on Netflix Instant, we can wait), Yates is probably best remembered for Bullitt, his lean, mean 1968 cop flick featuring Steve McQueen at his absolute coolest. And Bullitt is best remembered for its jittery, thrilling car chase — a rip-roaring, tire-squealing pursuit through the streets of San Francisco that set the template for decades.
Yates’s chase has an immediacy (McQueen did much of his own driving) and bareness (after it gets going, there’s no need for a pushy score to assure us of how exciting it is) that has been frequently imitated, but never quite duplicated. Here (in chronological order) are a few of the films that have come closest.
As in Bullitt, this thrilling chase through Brooklyn — with protagonist Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) pursuing a hit man who is riding on the elevated train above him — uses no score to pump up the action. It doesn’t need to. However, director William Friedkin cut the scene to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” providing a sultry pulse for this kinetic sequence. (Bonus fun: here’s an examination of the physics of the chase.)
No, no, not the 2000 Nicolas Cage/Angelina Jolie remake, which all but glistens with the sheen of CGI “stuntwork” and Michael Bay-esque hyper-editing. No, we’re talking about H.B. Halicki’s low-budget, down-and-dirty 1974 original, which famously smashed up 93 cars for its 30+ minute chase scene (see more of it here, here, here and here). Halicki wrote, directed, produced, starred, and did his own stunt driving; tragically, he was killed when a stunt went awry early in the production of Gone in 60 Seconds 2 in 1989.
Richard C. Sarafin’s 1971 road movie is basically one long chase, so you can pretty much take your pick from any of its beautifully-executed set pieces. But we’re gonna go with this one, in which Barry Newman’s Kowalski, driving that iconic 1970 Dodge Challenger (you’ll see that car again later in this list), is pursued by police and ends up crossing the highway median, playing chicken with an 18-wheeler, and literally leaving the cops in his dust.
Who says car chases have to be outdoors? In John Landis’s over-the-top showcase for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live characters, the titular brothers lead Illinois State Police from a traffic stop through the city streets and straight into the Dixie Square Mall, which they basically destroy between quips (“Lotsa space in this mall!”). Landis and his crew rented the abandoned shopping center for eight weeks in 1979 to create the notorious sequence, though Universal was later sued for $87,000 by the Harvey-Dixmoor School District (the building’s owners), who claimed that the film crew hadn’t properly repaired the considerable damage they left in their wake.
When you create one of the iconic car chases of all time, as William Friedkin did in The French Connection, you can’t just cavalierly go off and do another one. No, you’ve got to top it. This was the dilemma facing the fading filmmaker when he directed To Live and Die in LA in 1985. But how on earth do you top The French Connection? Well, first you set your chase on the Los Angeles freeway. Not thick enough? Okay, fine. You put it on the LA freeway — going the wrong way.
When director John Frankenheimer shot this Robert De Niro actioner in 1998, he was thankfully determined to resist the then-rising movement of computer-aided stunt scenes. Instead, he employed a battery of gifted stunt drivers (including Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier) and De Niro and Natascha McElhone in tricked-out cars that allowed the stunt drivers to control the cars from the “passenger” seat. The result is a thrilling nail-biter of a chase (even if, at the time, the pursuit through the tunnels of Paris somewhat unfortunately echoed Princess Diana’s recent death).
What makes this scene great isn’t the impressive stunt work, the ingeniously chosen Paris locations, or Paul Oakenfold’s pitch-perfect musical accompaniment — though all of those things are terrific. What’s wonderful about this one are the bookends. The first great moment comes (unfortunately) just before the embedded clip, as Matt Damon’s amnesiac super-spy realizes that he’s about to lead French police on a chase in a car (traveling companion Franke Potente’s mini-Cooper) that’s not his. So he does a perfectly sensible thing that you never see in movies: he asks her about the car. Are the brakes soft? Does it pull? Because the thing is, you’d actually want to know those things before a car chase. After the chase ends, once the duo are safe in a parking garage, director Doug Limon makes another unconventional move: he holds on them, just a moment, as they catch their breath and take in what they’ve just been through. In most movies, no matter how mild-mannered or super-savvy the driver and passenger may be, they walk away from a high-octane chase without a second glance. Again, by leaving that moment in, Limon grounds this somewhat impossible chase firmly in the real world.
Yes, we know, The Matrix Reloaded is basically a terrible movie, full of long-winded pseudo-philosophy and sluggish navel-gazing. But in the irritation over the film’s weak stretches, we tend to forget about that insane freeway chase scene. And while the rise of CG has been justifiably blamed for the death of the great car chase (seen any of those Fast and Furious movies?), a car chase in a Matrix movie kind of gets a pass, what with the physics-bending nature of the series and all. (View the rest of the scene here.)
Undoubtedly the most meta-chase on this list (it’s Quentin Tarantino, what do you expect?), the climax of his half of the Grindhouse double feature is steeped in car-movie lore, what with the stuntman villain, the name-checking of Gone in 60 Seconds and Dirty Larry Crazy Mary, and the near-starring role given to the 1970 Vanishing Point-style Dodge Challenger. Stunt women/thrill seekers Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms are driving the vintage vehicle and enjoying a game of “ship’s mast” when homicidal “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell) decides to amp up the danger; Taratino forgoes CG (noticing a theme?) and score (for most of the sequence, anyway) in both this throwback sequence and the revenge scene that follows.
With only ten slots, we had to leave out a couple of our favorites. How about yours? Any egregious omissions from this list?