EVEN if you've never seen Bullitt, the 1968 film widely considered to contain the first -- and still the finest -- car chase, the chase itself is instantly familiar: the obligatory camera shot of the pursuer in the rear-view mirror; the beeping of confused innocents; the suspension-destroying jumps over dips in the road; the last-minute swerves and screeches; the unfortunate motorcyclist who ends up riding the tarmac; the jostling of the two cars as each tries to ram the other off the road; and, of course, the final, inevitable, satisfying explosion as the baddies plough into a petrol station.
Peter Yates, Bullitt's director, who died earlier this year, filmed the chase sequence by mounting cameras on the cars themselves. Over nine minutes of tyre-screeching, tramcar-dodging footage, Steve McQueen's detective chases the baddies at 110mph across the streets of San Francisco, the soundtrack provided by the full-throated roar of the Dodge Charger and the Mustang GT.
Yates thereby created a new genre, ushering in a golden age of car chases in films such as French Connection (1971), To Live and Die in LA (1985), Ronin (1998), and, of course, the latterday James Bonds. The insertion of a car chase into a thriller became as essential a set-piece as a shoot-out in a western, a montage in a romantic comedy or a song in a musical. Many won awards for their editors, praised for their skilful splicing of complex, competing footage.
For Yates, though, the chase formula was simple. "In the beginning you establish anticipation. The middle should confuse people so you're not sure where everyone is going. The end is where the good guys come out best."
And yet many now wonder whether it is not time to write the chase's obituary. "You watch Bullitt and it still looks good, but very dated," says David Gritten, a film critic for the Daily Telegraph. "You can do the whole thing on a computer screen, and it looks a lot more breathtaking, even if you lose some of the human element. The conventional car chase is now a part of history."
If so, it's a rich history. Film buffs argue fiercely over the best sequences. Geeks are particularly fond of a 1971 film, the little-known Steven Spielberg directed Duel, in which a salesman is pursued for the entire movie by a petrol-tanker driver whose face is never seen.
Most, however, agree that French Connection, made three years after Bullitt, comes a close second, as Gene Hackman hurtles through the streets of New York in pursuit of a train on the tracks above (note Hackman's silent scream when he is shot through the windscreen, the noise drowned out by the screeching tyres).
Fourteen years later, William Friedkin, French Connection's director, swapped New York for Los Angeles' rush-hour freeways in To Live and Die in LA, a riot of gunmen and mic-ed up engines. Other films that regularly top the list of best chases include: The Italian Job (1969); Gone in 60 Seconds (1974); Blues Brothers (1980 and 2000); Terminator 2 (1991); The Rock (1996); and The Fast and The Furious (2001).
Two of these are more comic than thrilling. The Italian Job and Blues Brothers have, respectively, Minis and a Bluesmobile driving through shopping arcades, pursued by hilariously incompetent police (over 300 vehicles are smashed during the Blues Brothers films; the second instalment has the distinction of featuring the largest pile-up in cinematic history).
The other films on the list, however, are white-knuckle rides -- for the characters, the actors and the audience. Consider Robert De Niro's panic-stricken face in Ronin during the high-speed sequences in Paris and Nice that destroyed more than 80 vehicles (he was often in the car during filming). Or Sean Connery's escape from FBI custody in The Rock, pursued in a Hummer by a yellow Ferrari and police squad cars.
Nothing quite beats the adrenaline -- or the cinematic beauty -- of a city rushing past at speed as people try to shoot each other with one hand while driving with the other. And it's difficult to imagine much more at stake for an audience than the chase in Terminator 2 featuring the saviour of the human race pursued by a speeding tractor-trailer full of liquid nitrogen piloted by a T-1000 robot.
In the Bond films, the car chases have become as iconic as the spy's womanising quips. Like much of the series, the sequences tend to merge together in one's memory, but the aerial twist in Man With the Golden Gun and the two-wheel escape down a narrow alley in Diamonds are Forever are often cited as highlights.
Of course, the problem with chases is the lowlights. Pierce Brosnan driving around in a tank with a horse on top in GoldenEye; Brosnan driving a remote-controlled car in Tomorrow Never Dies; Brosnan driving an invisible car in Die Another Day.
And while the Bond franchise has reinvented itself with Daniel Craig (his second outing, in Quantum of Solace, includes an excellent chase between an Aston Martin and two Alfa Romeos along the banks of Lake Garda), the film industry has struggled to find new twists on a rather tired formula.
Mission Impossible II (2000) features a ridiculous slow motion scene in which Tom Cruise's attempt to flirt on the road almost drives the object of his infatuation off a cliff. And remakes of car-mad Gone in 60 Seconds (2000, from 1974) and The Italian Job (2003, from 1969) have not been enjoyed as much by audiences as the originals -- partly, perhaps, because the cars aren't so stylish, or as manoeuvrable.
"You can really throw an old car like a Ford Capri around, doing handbrake turns and all sorts of things," says Steve Griffin, a stunt driver who drove the iconic van in last year's hit film Inception.
"A new car has anti-this and anti-that."
Griffin, denies that computer-generated images threaten the traditional car chase. "You just have to take extra care to make sure it looks real," he says. "People are always coming up with new ideas, but what we're doing as stunt drivers is not actually that different to what happened in Bullitt. It is the camera technology that has changed."
Directors don't even have to use the technology to create a good car chase scene, as Doug Liman showed in The Bourne Identity (2002) -- one of the more memorable sections in this film featured Matt Damon bouncing a retro Mini down a Parisian staircase. And when directors do use CGI, it can be deployed to great effect, as in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), with its nail-biting futuristic chase along a motorway. Car buffs should take heart, then. The chase is neither dead, nor dying. Just changing -- perhaps rather slower than it should.
For as long as there are films -- and as long as cars remain the primary mode of transport -- there will be police and fugitives and spies to use them: the ultimate escapism within the most escapist of mediums.
Indeed, in an era where a fleeing hero in a modern car would face as many distractions from the airbag, beeping seatbelt messages and flashing speed cameras as the baddies in hot pursuit, there is even more call than ever for tyre-screeching turns and gravity-defying turns.
As Steve McQueen, who did much of his own stunt driving, put it: "An audience digs sitting there watching somebody do something that I'm sure all of them would like to do."
Sunday Independent Supplement