Cutting to the chase
Nicolas Winding Refn's explosive new thriller, Drive, which opened here yesterday, looks set to be one of the most talked-about films of the year. It stars Ryan Gosling as a taciturn movie stuntman who doubles as a getaway driver in the Los Angeles underworld.
Surprisingly, given its title, it doesn't actually involve all that much driving, but it does open with a very stylish chase sequence that gives a new twist to a much-loved movie convention.
Gosling's character is sitting in a car outside a warehouse at night when two masked characters bust out and jump into the back of the car. They take off, pursued by police cars and helicopters. Instead of racing off up the wrong side of the road, as is the norm, however, he fools the cars and choppers by pulling in and parking time and again, turning off his lights and waiting.
These stalls add considerably to the tension of a beautifully handled scene, and prove that there are always new ways of shaking up your basic car chase.
The tradition of movie car chases dates back to the silent era, though the earliest chases were little more than an extension of the horseback pursuits that had been a staple of early Westerns. In the Warner Brothers gangster pictures of the 1930s, hoodlums and cops chased each other through Chicago's south side clinging to the running boards of great big jalopies which didn't go very fast.
The old cars swerved around corners as their occupants exchanged gunshots but it was pretty tame stuff compared to what was to come.
The first modern car chase occurred during the 1968 crime thriller Bullitt. Steve McQueen's character, Sergeant Frank Bullitt, careered across San Francisco after a pair of gun-toting hoods in a pursuit which ended in flames, but what was really special about the sequence was that it was edited to feel like real time and give the audience the sensation they were driving.
Bullitt's innovations led to an explosion of car chases in the 1970s and '80s in films as varied as The French Connection, Live and Let Die and Freebie and the Bean. Some chases involved literally hundreds of cars, such as John Landis's antics in The Blues Brothers, and the advent of CGI in recent years has only expanded the car chase's repertoire.
But some things you can't realistically fake, and the best chases are created by the unseen heroics of expert stunt drivers and the cameramen who risk their lives working with them. Here are 10 of the very best -- and by the way, you can enjoy most of them on YouTube.
Peter Yates's rather sombre 1960s thriller might hardly be remembered at all were it not for its seminal 10-minute car chase.
Yates hired legendary stuntman Carey Loftin to co-ordinate the elaborate chase across midtown San Francisco using Ford Mustangs modified for the task. Special cameras were used to give a behind-the-steering-wheel perspective, and Steve McQueen can clearly be seen doing some of the driving. He would have done it all if he'd been let, but stuntman Bud Ekins handled the most difficult moments.
Brilliantly edited by Frank P Keller, the Bullitt chase is a breathtaking and remarkably realistic piece of cinema that set the bar for all others to reach.
The French Connection (1971)
It's no coincidence that Bullitt's producer Philip D'Antoni was also involved in William Friedkin's masterful crime thriller The French Connection, because D'Antoni was a connoisseur of realistic car chases and this film contains one of the very best.
Gene Hackman plays obsessive New York narcotics cop Popeye Doyle, who commandeers a civilian's Pontiac to chase an elevated subway train.
During the extraordinary sequence Doyle's car is hit side-on by another, races into oncoming traffic, narrowly misses a woman wheeling a pram and crashes into a steel fence.
Most of the driving was done by legendary stunt driver Bill Hickman, with Friedkin himself filming from the backseat wrapped in a mattress for protection.
The Seven-Ups (1973)
Philip D'Antoni directed as well as produced this 1973 crime drama, and while it's not quite up to the standards of The French Connection, it contains a remarkable car chase. Roy Scheider plays Buddy Manucci, the head of a tough covert NYPD unit that tracks down bad guys using unconventional methods.
In the film's climactic, 10-minute chase scene, Buddy careers around Upper Manhattan on the trail of two kidnappers in a sequence that features some of the most breathtaking stunt driving you'll ever see. Most of it was done by Bill Hickman, who also appeared in a small role.
The roaring Pontiacs are reminiscent of the Bullitt chase, but this one is even more spectacular.
The Italian Job (1969)
Peter Collinson's 1969 crime caper The Italian Job gave us a uniquely British take on the traditional car chase. Michael Caine played a dapper London hoodlum called Charlie Croker who heads to Turin to rob the payroll of the Fiat motor company and avenge the death of a friend.
The daring plan involving stealing gold bullion in broad daylight using three Mini Coopers and a Bedford van, and in a delightfully whimsical chase sequence, the Minis race through downtown Turin, around the rooftop test track of the Fiat factory and down the grand steps of a church as a wedding party emerges. One of the drivers even stops to grab a slice of pizza.
Only Steven Spielberg could have managed to spin out a simple plot into an 80-minute film involving a driver who's pursued for no reason by a murderous truck driver.
Duel was Spielberg's directorial debut and was originally made for TV. It was shot for half nothing and starred Dennis Weaver as a suburban salesman who overtakes a large tanker truck that's travelling too slowly and is then chased across the open deserts by the never-seen truck driver who's clearly trying to kill him.
In the film's most chilling scene, Weaver urges his Plymouth Valiant to keep moving after the radiator has blown up.
To Live and Die in LA (1985)
William Friedkin returned to the car chase with a bang in his stylish 1980s thriller To Live and Die in LA. When he and stunt co-ordinator Buddy Joe Hooker were planning the sequence, the director told Hooker that they'd only include it if it was a better chase than the one in The French Connection.
It's certainly almost as good, and its finest moments involve a terrifying driver's view of the car careering up the wrong side of a busy freeway. The film's star, William Petersen, did a lot of the driving himself, and the chase took six weeks to shoot.
Friedkin's inspiration for the scene came from an incident in 1963 when he fell asleep at the wheel while driving home from a wedding and ended up on the wrong side of the road.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
It may have had the most meaningless title of all the Bond films, but Roger Spottiswoode's 1997 thriller also boasted possibly the best-ever Bond car chase. Pierce Brosnan played 007, who staged a dramatic escape from a Hamburg office block using a remote controlled BMW with a talking onboard computer.
The whole thing took place in an underground car park and Bond controlled the BMW with a handheld palm pilot. But the real driving was done in a modified 7 Series BMW with a steering wheel hidden in the back seat. The sequence was filmed in a London car park and took three weeks to shoot.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
You don't need a fancy car to film a thrilling car chase, and in Doug Liman's 2002 action film Jason Bourne did it in a Mini Cooper.
When Bourne (Matt Damon) is confronted by police outside Paris's Gare du Nord, he takes off at high speed across the city, followed by a posse of cop cars and motorbikes.
At one point he warns his passenger, Franka Potente, "eh, we got a bump coming up" before plunging the little car down a narrow flight of steps. He also uses footpaths and unfeasibly narrow alleyways to avoid his pursuers and ends up, William Friedkin-style, speeding down the wrong side of the roadway along the Seine and causing a pretty impressive pile-up.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger's terrifying portrayal of the Joker is the thing everyone remembers about Christopher Nolan's acclaimed 2008 superhero film, but The Dark Knight also includes a cracking chase involving a Batmobile, a Bat-Pod, some tanks and a massive articulated truck.
District Attorney Harvey Dent is being escorted by the army across Gotham when The Joker races alongside in a truck and opens fire.
His attack is disrupted by the arrival of Batman, and the two do battle against a backdrop of downtown Chicago.
Some of the driving is brilliant, but sadly a stunt technician called Conway Wickliffe was killed during filming. The finished movie was dedicated to Wickliffe and Ledger.
The Town (2010)
In the middle of Ben Affleck's seriously underrated 2010 thriller The Town, a gang of Boston criminals launch a daring raid on a security van before escaping through winding back streets wearing fancy-dress nun masks that seem alternately sinister and funny.
The hoodlums' car and pursuing cops career through alleys bashing into parked vehicles before pausing for a machine-gun shootout. Then they switch cars and set fire to the abandoned one before disappearing into south Boston.
It's a brilliantly executed chase scene and there's a chilling moment as the criminals take off, when Ben Affleck in his nun mask stares out the car window at a small boy, who stands horrified and transfixed.