5 great car chase scenes and why they endure

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The chase scene is an art form. It is a visceral experience unique to movies.

“The chase is the purest form of cinema, something that can’t be done in any other medium,” William Friedkin, writer and director of some of the most famous car chase scenes, wrote in his memoir, “The Friedkin Connection.” 

Even though “Bullitt” and “The French Connection” top most lists as the best car chase scenes of all time, other films have been canonized as classics for different reasons. 

“There has to be an element of spontaneity,” said Dann Gire, award-winning film critic from The Daily Herald and founder of the Chicago Film Critics Association. “It can’t feel like it’s been choreographed and they’ve made no effort to dissuade you that it hasn’t been choreographed.”

That’s a high level of authenticity for two-minute scenes that can take two months to make. But that’s not all. 

“There has to be an element of danger,” said Raymond Benson, film historian and author of nine James Bond books, the “Black Stilleto” series, and dozens of others. “Chase scenes can be cool–oh that was a neat thing they did, but there has to be a feeling of oh my god is he going to get out of this alive?”

Gire and Benson teamed up last week to present their top 10 movie chase scenes of all time on a Zoom call through the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, in a northwestern suburb of Chicago. In non-pandemic times, Dann & Raymond’s Movie Club is a traveling program that highlights a singular moment of the moviegoing experience. I caught up with them by phone after the presentation.

Though their list covered chases of any kind, from Cary Grant getting crop dusted in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” to John Wayne’s breakthrough role in the 1939 Western, “Stagecoach,” the majority of the films had car chase scenes. They’re distilled here from top ten chase scenes down to top five car chase scenes. The film buffs’ take on what makes for the most enduring chase scenes differs from most car buffs’ choice for best scenes. 

5. “To Live and Die in L.A.”

This1985 action thriller starring Willam Petersen as Richard Chance features a chase scene of Chance escaping assailants in a 1985 Chevy Impala. The nearly 8-minute sequence goes through the grittier industrial parts of L.A. then into the dry viaducts of the L.A. River. Those viaducts have starred in more movies than most of the actors in Los Angeles, from the dirt bike-semi truck chase in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to “Drive” and even “Grease.” But the chase in “To Live and Die in L.A.” is personal; it was inspired by director Friedkin falling asleep at the wheel of his own car during a Chicago snow storm, then spinning out to awake to oncoming traffic on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, according to Gire. That harrowing suspense comes through in “To Live and Die in L.A.”

4. “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark”

This might be a surprise to car buffs, but the Nazi truck fight scene where Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones chases down the Ark of the Covenant has something lacking in most Indiana Jones films: authenticity. 

This is why only one James Bond film made the film critics’ top ten list, and it wasn’t for a car chase. Chase scenes are as common as dry martinis and objectified women in Bond movies, but only “Casino Royale” starring Daniel Craig made the cut for the parkour foot chase through a construction zone. 

“The person involved in the chase has to be afraid,” Gire said. “This is why the Roger Moore as James Bond movies don’t really count because Roger Moore doesn’t have any fear. It doesn’t have that essential element of believability.”

Indy gets knocked out, nearly run over, then dragged underneath and behind a massive military truck that was raised to allow the stunts. Harrison Ford did some of his own stunts in the eight weeks it took to film that scene, including hanging onto the grille of the truck and being dragged behind it.

The other Indiana Jones films delved into 007 territory. 

“The Roger Moore films became action comedies instead of action thrillers,” Benson, the author of nine James Bond books, explained. 

“The Fast and the Furious” franchise is also loaded with cool chase scenes that strain credibility. 

“There’s an element of disbelief that you can’t disregard,” Gire said, citing CGI and other digital moviemaking tricks. “I’m surprised we haven’t been protested by the F&F crowd. (The films) are just not good.”

3. “Grindhouse” 

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to direct “Grindhouse,” which features Kurt Russell as a stunt driver serial killer in a 1969 Dodge Charger chasing down a group of young women in a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Among the women is stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who plays Zoe Bell and is spun all over the Challenger’s hood during the course of the five-minute chase. 

That’s as authentic as it gets. 

Gire and Benson agreed that authenticity, in part, comes from “organic physical stunts” and cars going through a chase sequence compared to ones augmented with digital graphics. 

That explains why “Road Warrior: Mad Max 2,” “The Bourne Identity,” the original “Italian Job,” and “Ronin” were honorable mentions. 

Even though car buffs typically put those movies in the top 10 if not top 5, there are two points of agreement between the two camps: “Bullitt” and “The French Connection” take the top two spots.

The most striking similarity in the best car chase scenes is what they lack: a score.

2. “Bullitt”

Muscle cars help. So did Bill Hickman, the stunt driver in both “The French Connection” and “Bullitt.” The chase scene in “Bullitt” between Steve McQueen in a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 and the bad guys and Hickman in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T is just under ten minutes long. It takes place within and outside of San Francisco, with no dialog and no score. Gire said it was “Bullitt” composer Lalo Schifrin who suggested eliminating the score in the chase scene. 

And that might be the key in making the greatest car chase scenes. 

“There’s such a thing as gilding the lily,” Gire quipped. “The most important thing is what you leave out.”

1. “The French Connection” 

The soundtrack to the legendary chase scene in the low-budget “The French Connection” is the urban landscape of New York City. With a runaway elevated train rumbling overhead, and Gene Hackman’s character Jimmy Doyle in congested pursuit in a 1971 Pontiac Lemans on the street below, Friedkin’s frenetic masterpiece embodies all the elements that make for a great chase scene: authenticity, unpredictability, danger, and suspense, all set within the visceral sound of the city.

“The sound of squealing tires, the revving of engines, it all works,” Benson said. “I think it was because of this car chase that it won best picture.”

It’s won the hearts of car and movie lovers, as well.

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