The Cars That Got Away

As NCMA Cinema revs up for the Car Crazy series, I’m already anticipating the many audience comments about films that should have been included. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a long list of suggestions, nor have I ever watched so many films in preparation. Here are some ideas for curating your own series at home, if you just can’t get enough.

First to go were films we’ve already shown at the NCMA: Detour, Thunder Road, The Italian Job (the old one), Breathless, Back to the Future, It Happened One Night, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Talladega Nights. I didn’t want the series to be entirely about death by automobile, either, so that eliminated another raft of titles. Stunt driving often defines the action movie: the Bournes, Fast and Furious, The Italian Job (the new one) Ronin. Exciting chases, but too monotonous to show week after week.

NCMA Cinema is a 35 mm house, showing archival prints on film. I could not get a print of A Man and a Woman, a cool French new wavy romance/race film directed by Claude Lelouch (with that song you can’t stop singing) or Gun Crazy, which has a thrilling bank robbery shot from inside the getaway car. It’s currently touring with the UCLA Festival of Preservation, so we may screen it another time.

Many of the racing movies have the exact same plot—Le Mans, Grand Prix, Days of Thunder—with only the cars and leading men changed; we’re showing The Crowd Roars with James Cagney. Grand Prix was my favorite of the also-rans, but it is a Cinerama movie (super wide screen), three hours long, with an overture, intermission, and exit music. We could never do it justice.

James Bond films are famous for their motor cars, but the Carolina Theatre just finished a superb Bond retrospective, so it seemed superfluous. May I recommend the fascinating overview of Bond cars on the Top Gear50 Years of Bond Cars” special?

Of the ’70s existential “the journey is more important than the destination” films, we’ll be showing Two-Lane Blacktop. Other prime candidates include Vanishing Point (1971), The Driver (1978) with Ryan O’Neal (a clear inspiration for the Ryan Gosling Drive), and The Mechanic (1972) with Charles Bronson, which has a chase along Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

I watched the original The Fast and the Furious from 1954, which has Dorothy Malone street-racing a Jaguar, and the original Gone in 60 Seconds from 1975.  I watched Thelma and Louise, but it felt a little dated (discuss) and The Love Bug (1968), which has a groovy 1960s San Francisco vibe, but it’s a kids movie, even though Herbie drives Bullitt’s mean streets.

I even watched Bikini Beach, because it contained custom cars by the designer of the Porsche in which James Dean died. Bikini Beach is fascinating, because it is filled with disdain for British Invasion music, which would soon put Frankie Avalon out of business. Yet he plays his own rival, the Potato Bug, a Beatles-esque singer in a double role, and he’s much funnier than when he’s playing himself.

If you wonder which cars you are seeing in any film, try the Internet Movie Car Data Base, where even the background vehicles are identified.

Fasten your seat belts—we’re in for quite a season. See you at the movies!

Laura Boyes is film curator at the NCMA. The Car Crazy film series is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Porsche by Design: Seducing Speed.

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