Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on March 9, 2014
This Thursday TCM is featuring four films that fall under the theme of European Auto Racing: Le Mans (Lee H. Katzin, 1971), Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966), The Racers (Henry Hathaway, 1955), The Young Racers (Roger Corman, 1963), and Speed (Edwin, L, Martin, 1936). Last month I sold the Subaru that I’d owned since 1996. The odometer had 102,000 miles on it, and probably only had that many due to the two or three road-trips I’ve taken to visit various film festivals every year over its almost two-decades of service. That’s my way of saying I’m not much of a car guy, so it’s probably not a surprise I’ve missed out on all the aforementioned films except for Le Mans, which I saw for the first time at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. Special guests Chad McQueen and race-drivers Derek Bell and Vic Elford were in attendance, and the experience was truly riveting. For the film, Steve McQueen famously tossed out most of the dialogue and it seemed like a half hour went by before anyone said anything at all – leaving viewers instead to marinate in the sound of motors…. motors going dangerously fast and rubbing shoulders with death, both on and off-screen.
Sadly, I’ll be missing the TCM Classic Film Festival this year, which really bums me out because I see they’ve added a screening of Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977), a film I’ve been dying to see on the big screen since I first saw it during it’s original theatrical run. Talk about killer cars – or in this case trucks – nothing like adding unstable dynamite to the cargo load to make things that much more dangerous. Based on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s excellent The Wages of Fear (1953), the original miscreants transporting nitroglycerine past shoddy bridges and bumpy roads provided a hard act to follow – but Sorcerer delivers the goods, and this despite Freidkin passing over Steve McQueen in favor of Roy Scheider for the lead.
Two days ago over beers with director Alex Cox we were discussing Sorcerer, deadly film shoots, and cars. Alex hired Eddie Hice to help with Repo Man (1984) as stunt coordinator. Hice got the gig thanks to his credentials working on Sorcerer. Had Alex been in a position to reach Friedkin directly at that time, he probably would have heard about some of the careless mistakes made by Hice that, among other things, resulted in a drug bust at a Mexican airport when a drug-sniffing dog made a beeline toward Hice and marijuana he was packing. It’s one of many uncomfortable moments spelled out in The Friedkin Connection, the 2013 memoir by William Friedkin.
Although the drag racing sequence in Repo Man that takes place in the L.A. river might seem benign by comparison to the heavy machines thundering around in Le Man, there was one scene that left no room for error, and Hice gave cast and crew the wrong directions. Luckily, no error occurred and everything was fine, but had Plan B been executed people could have been killed.
I guess this is where I need to say that if you have not seen Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), Repo Man, or Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian, 1971), the next section has major spoilers.
What do those three very different and otherwise incongruous films have in common? All three have stories that orbit around cars, albeit in very different ways. Additionally, Grease and Repo Man have climactic drag racing scenes in the L.A. river, while Vanishing Point has what might be considered one long drag race against time. Alex, with maybe an exception or two, is no fan of musicals and has never seen Grease – but he is familiar with Vanishing Point and was even pitched a project once by Malcolm Hart, who provided the Vanishing Point story outline (Alex passed, being too busy with other scripts). Again, the aforementioned vehicles are like apples and oranges, all three works very different, none derivative of each other, but there is one thing they all had in common: flying cars.
In Grease, John Travolta and Olivia Newton John jump in a car and float off into the sunrise. In Repo Man, Emilio Estevez and Tracey Walter board a highly radioactive Chevy Malibu and zip into the evening sky past L.A. skyscrapers on what one can only surmise will be memorable time-travel adventures. Vanishing Point? The stunt coordinator on that was Carey Loftin, who also worked on Grand Prix, Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968), and The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971), which might provide some interesting digressions, but none that put the car in the air. However, if what Alex told me is true, in the originally scripted ending, Barry Newman’s character (Kowalski – originally meant to be played by Gene Hackman), doesn’t explode his 1970 Dodge Challenger into a blockade of bulldozers in a final suicidal explosion, but rather he bursts through it and ascends into a higher existence, revealing all the preceding mileage to be a shorter part of a longer journey. Holy shades of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! That last nugget would have altered Vanishing Point almost as dramatically at having Steve McQueen atop a truck full of unstable dynamite.
Speaking of explosions and plowing into bulldozers, for some reason I managed to mangle my last post on The Last Picture Show so that only the first few words appeared while omitting the bulk of the post and somehow disabling the comments section along the way. The lack of comments would not, normally, be so rare if not for my propensity for mistakes which are quickly rectified by alert readers. Any gluttons for punishment with good proofreading skills should now feel free to fly in with input, if so moved.
For more pics of films that put wheels on the L.A. river:
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