Car chases bore me. To some extent, that’s probably because I grew up in the ’70s, when the default mode of entertainment was to stick Burt Reynolds behind the wheel and put Smokey on his tail. Overkill aside, though, all vehicular mayhem looks essentially identical. If you have the budget to destroy a whole of bunch of cars, as in The Blues Brothers, you may raise some eyebrows, but there are only so many possible variations on the basic pursuit, and only so much inherent interest in fast-moving metal objects crossing the screen. As a rule, the sound of screeching tires is my cue to zone out a little bit, secure in the knowledge that there’s almost no likelihood of anything truly interesting happening until the sequence concludes with the inevitable crash or (more rarely) outright escape. Here’s a very tight turn around a corner. Here’s high-octane blur No. 1, followed seconds later by high-octane blur No. 2. Here’s the fruit cart, and there’s Roger Ebert mentally yelling “Fruit cart!” as it gets mowed down.
Obviously, there are exceptions—most recently, the opening chase in Drive, which fashions a nifty little cat-and-mouse scenario in which multiple cops (and one police helicopter) pick up and lose our hero en route to a clever and surprisingly abrupt conclusion. Bullitt’s celebrated excess-hubcap madness is kinda fun, and I have vague memories of being astonished by a setpiece in Don Siegel’s The Lineup; no doubt you will cite plenty of your own favorites below. The gold standard, however, remains the elevated-train chase toward the end of The French Connection, if only because it’s hard to fathom that nobody was actually killed in the process of shooting it. Stunt driving doesn’t come any more reckless, and in fact, this scene could not legally be recreated today. (Nor was it even remotely legal at the time, for that matter.) Director William Friedkin, though justifiably proud of the result, now insists that no amount of awesomeness justifies the insane risks he took—not just with his own life, but with those of random citizens on the road. Odds are, we’ll never see the likes of it again, except in a sterile, computer-generated kind of way.
According to Friedkin, the scene was conceived in direct response to Bullitt (although both films used the same legendary stunt driver, Bill Hickman). Rather than attempt to top Bullitt’s car-vs.-car action, he decided to have their hitman flee in an elevated subway train, with Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in a desperate race to intercept him at the next station. That choice immediately subverts expectations, as a train can’t take evasive action—it’s on a track, and all the bad guy can do is hold a gun to the driver’s head and force him to keep driving rather than stop as scheduled. Nor can Popeye follow him directly—although I do remember seeing a later movie in which cars race along an elevated track, which I believe may have been Running Scared. But while that’s more novel, it’s not nearly as harrowing as the alternative, which requires Popeye to maintain high speed on the crowded, narrow street immediately underneath. After all, he has to arrive at the station before the train arrives, if he’s to nab the culprit—well before, in fact, given that he also has to “park,” then race up a flight of stairs to get into position.
This plan doesn’t work out, of course, because the train plows right through without stopping. And in the chase’s second leg, as Popeye hauls ass to the next station, things truly get nuts. Early in the scene, it’s mostly Hackman (who later became a mildly successful amateur race-car driver) behind the wheel, clearly visible either in profile or in the rear-view mirror. But the second half features footage shot from the front bumper, and that’s Hickman (“Hickman, Hackman. Hackman, Hickman”) barreling down actual, non-staged Brooklyn traffic at what Friedkin, who was operating from the back seat, claims was upward of 90 miles per hour. Some sources—notably cinematographer Owen Roizman—claim this is exaggerated slightly, that the camera was undercranked to create the illusion of greater speed. Even if that’s true, though, you can still tell that what you’re seeing was in no way safe, and the idea that most of those other cars are just ordinary folks going about their day is mind-boggling. Do they even know they’re in the movie, or do they just think they narrowly avoided being hit by some random asshole?
Watching the scene again, I now realize that’s the aspect I find electrifying. Far less impressive are the bits that were clearly staged, like the woman with the baby carriage who nearly gets run down (providing the requisite “Fruit cart!” moment, with the fruit cart represented by some random pile of boxes next to an old-style corrugated-tin trash can). The parallel action on the train itself, meanwhile, verges on the embarrassing—Marcel Bozzuffi, the French actor playing the escaping hitman, can’t quite sell tough-guy dialogue like “Touch the brake and I blow you in half” (which he seems to be saying phonetically), and Friedkin opted to cast actual transit employees as the conductor and operator, to pretty awkward effect. Even consummate pro Hackman indulges in some hammy grimacing during reaction shots. What makes the sequence memorable is the sense of velocity it conveys, which isn’t even always about dangerous weaving through traffic—two of the most effective shots were taken from another vehicle altogether, pacing both the ’71 Le Mans and the train just above it from what appears to be a few blocks away.
All the same, I do wonder whether I’d see this as just another car chase, maybe a little more energetic than most, if I didn’t know the background, which I’m fairly certain I’d read about even before my first viewing many years ago. There’s a sense in which fictional features metamorphose into documentaries during action sequences, or at least used to in the days before digital manipulation took over. Viewers didn’t need to suspend disbelief; they could enjoy a feeling of shivery awe from the recognition that they were seeing things that actually happened, in which there was at least some degree of genuine risk. I felt the same way a few months ago watching Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, despite being well aware that Tom Cruise is harnessed up the wazoo when he’s scaling the Burj Khalifa. He’s still up there, and that means something in the green-screen era. Here, the knowledge that key shots depict an actual high-speed run down an actual Brooklyn street, with the driver dodging vehicles entirely unconnected with the movie, gives the scene a frisson that no amount of spectacular CGI can possibly match. It’s a viral video, shot in glorious 35mm.