Lights, camera and on the road action

By Ben Selby

Here are five films where cars,not actors, are the real stars

Bullitt starring Steve McQueen and a 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 fastback
Bullitt starring Steve McQueen and a 1968 Ford Mustang GT390 fastback

You bury the throttle. Glancing in your rear-view mirror, you see cops running to their cars. Your eyes widen as you grip the wheel, the lines on the road are a blur. Then the unthinkable happens ... you drop the remote.

Here, in no particular order, are five of the greatest car chase flicks of all time.

Bullitt (1968)

The grand-daddy. The chase involving Steve McQueen's Ford Mustang GT390 and the black Dodge Charger RT around the hilly streets of San Francisco is legend among car nuts.

What makes Bullitt so special is its rawness. There's no soundtrack - the only music you hear during the chase is V8 thunder, tortured tyres and graunching metal.

Steve McQueen - a keen racer - did his own stunt-driving in the Mustang, while Hollywood stunt guru Bill Hickman piloted the Charger. Other stuntmen acted as pedestrians, knowing just how to react to Steve and Bill as they tore past.

The two cars were prepared by Max Balchowsky with duplicates on hand in case something went wrong.

Part way into the chase, the Charger power-slides towards camera and takes the camera out. McQueen in the Mustang then overshoots a street, slams the car into reverse, smokes it up and blasts off down the street, leaving behind him a billowing trail of tyre smoke.

A modified Corvette was used as a camera car, managing to keep pace at over 160km/h for the high-speed shots. All the footage you see is real, with no camera trickery to speak of.

At the end of the chase, director Peter Yates wanted the Charger to crash into a petrol station and explode. However, if you watch carefully after the explosion, you can see the Charger miss the petrol station entirely. A second explosion was used to try to camouflage the mistake.

The Italian Job (1969)

The Italian Job starring Michael Caine and three Mini Coopers
The Italian Job starring Michael Caine and three Mini Coopers

Directed by Peter Collinson, The Italian Job stands as not only one of the best car flicks, but as one of the greatest English cult films.

It tells the story of a gang of crooks who pop over to Italy and attempt to steal gold bullion from under the noses of the mafia and the Italian police.

Despite a great Cockney performance by Michael Caine and the oh-so-British Noel Coward, the cars were the film's real stars.

An Aston Martin DB4 Volante, two Jaguar E Types, a host of Fiat Dinos and even an orange Lamborghini Miura all get their turn to bask in the Italian sun, briefly.

Think of The Italian Job though, and you think of the Minis.

Those three red, white and blue Mini Coopers used in the helter-skelter chase scene down staircases, over rooftops and through sewers were driven by French stunt driver Remy Julienne and his team.

During the sequence in the sewer system, which was filmed back in Britain, it is said Julienne tried to attempt a full 360-degree loop in the tunnel, but couldn't get enough speed up. You can see him having a go in the film.

Six original Coopers and 25 regular Minis were used throughout production, with many biting the dust.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

H.B. "Toby" Halicki wanted to create the most hair-raising car chase film. He must also have been a charming soul, because there is no way this film could be made today.

Halicki was almost a one-man film crew - writing, producing, directing and starring in the lead role as ace car thief Maindrian Pace. Pace and his team of thieves are required to steal 48 cars for an international client, one of which is a yellow 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1, codenamed "Eleanor".

Pace and Eleanor lead the police departments of several California towns on a 40-minute chase sequence, destroying 93 cars in the process.

Many parts of the chase were unscripted. Halicki nearly killed himself when he spun out and collided with a power pole on a Films celebrate the joy of driving freeway off-ramp (it's in the film).

The Mustang suffered a ton of damage and was constantly tinkered with between takes. Halicki did all his own driving, including the final bone-crushing jump over the accident scene. No wonder he was known the world over as "the car crash king".

The film was remade by Jerry Bruckheimer in 2000 and starred Nicolas Cage. The chase was exciting, but nowhere near as good as the original.

Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point starring Barry Newman and a 1970 Dodge Challenger RT
Vanishing Point starring Barry Newman and a 1970 Dodge Challenger RT

This film is one big chase. It tells the story of Kowalski (Barry Newman), a Vietnam War veteran and former racing driver with a past he would rather forget, working for a Denver car delivery service.

He makes a bet he can deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger RT from Denver to San Francisco in just 15 hours. During his flat-out odyssey across four states, guided by blind Radio DJ "Super Soul", Kowalski meets a snake-charming hermit, a nude girl riding a motorbike and a couple of camp newlyweds, all with the police hot on his tail.

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, Vanishing Point was a minimalist film which stuck two fingers up at the American establishment.

Most driving stunts were done by Hollywood stunt driver Carey Loftin, with Barry Newman doing some of the less life-threatening stuff.

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro and Jean Reno star in the French-based tale about a team of former intelligence agents hired to steal a mysterious package, with the Russians and IRA involved.

What sets this film apart are the slick chase scenes. Director John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix) made it clear he wanted nothing less than gut-wrenching realism.

The car action does not let up with an Audi S8, BMW M5, Peugeot 406, Mercedes 450SEL and Citroen XM tearing through Paris and Nice pitting baddie against baddie.

For the M5/Peugeot chase through Paris, De Niro sat in the passenger seat, holding a dummy steering wheel while a stunt driver drove the car. You can see the look of fear on his face in the close-up shots.

Ronin makes the list for its lack of computer-generated imagery and realism. Brilliant stuff.

Worth a look:

The French Connection (1971)

Gene Hackman stars in this gritty cop thriller and chases a train through New York in a Pontiac Le Mans sedan. Cue the gritted teeth.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed try to ship a truckload of booze from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours to win a bet. Reynolds at the wheel of a Pontiac Trans Am, along with Sally Field, is pursued by stereotypical redneck sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Good corny fun.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Not a car film as such, but still awesome. Jake (John Belushi) and Elwood (Dan Akroyd) Blues reassemble their band to save their childhood orphanage from closure. Note the excessive carnage involving police cars and shop windows.

Mad Max (1979)

A young Mel Gibson makes his mark in Hollywood as maverick cop Max Rockatansky in this dystopic Aussie tale of grit and violence. Add a murderous motorcycle gang, a menacing Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe and you have a classic.

C'etait un Rendez-vous (1976)

French director Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman) sticks a camera to the front of his Mercedes and drives flat out through early morning Paris. The Ferrari V12 soundtrack was dubbed over to make it more authentic. All filmed for real.

Goodbye Pork Pie (1981)

New Zealand's greatest road movie about the Blondini gang driving a stolen yellow rental Mini from Auckland to Invercargill. Lovely.

- NZ Herald

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