- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

From the early days of movies when skilled cameramen hand-cranked the film through the camera and punched the sprocket holes as they cranked, automobiles (and motorcycles too) have been a part of the movies. It was a perfect pairing.

Automobiles moved and many times that was the only point of early films. Crazy car chases often were a large part of early silent films. Some of them became classics in Laurel and Hardy films, Keystone Cops movies and early action films such as Tom Mix’s “The Speed Maniacs.”

From those early days, films featuring cars quickly deteriorated into B movies with strange titles, little or no plot line and very few recognizable stars. Car films became a joke. Still, there is a rich history of good films that used a car plot line or featured cars. So here, as a public service, I present my list of the best auto and auto-related movies.

Grand Prix (1966, color) — “Grand Prix” is still one of the best auto racing films ever made. It starred James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Yves Montand and was directed by the late John Frankenhiemer. Great camera work and great sound — remember the split screen and sound when the Formula One grid fired up — make “Grand Prix” a classic.

Mr. Garner trained with race driver/instructor Bob Bondurant so he could do his own driving to make the action scenes look more realistic. Watch carefully for appearances by racers Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and others.

Gumball Rally (1976, color) — Forget the later “Cannonball” movies, this was the first one and it was the best of the lot. Racers John Morton and Wes Swan did the stunt driving in the Cobra and the Ferrari. The late Raul Julia does an excellent job as the famous Italian racing driver who, when he rips the rearview mirror from the windshield says, “What is ah behind me is not important.” This movie is just for fun, but auto enthusiasts will get the inside jokes — especially the Jaguar that won’t start in the Redball Garage.

On Any Sunday (1971, color) — A motorcycle racing documentary by Bruce Brown who created the surfing epic “Endless Summer.” It features motorcycle racers Mert Lawwill, Malcom Smith and motorcycle enthusiast Steve McQueen, who was an excellent motorcycle rider. This one is fun and is suitable for the entire family. I recommend this film to families trying to convince Mama that motorcycling is a true “family” sport.

Bullit (1968, color) — The fantastic car chase scene set in San Francisco started a trend we still see today in films and digital games. Despite the fact that Mr. McQueen claimed to have done his own stunts, it was actually stunt driver Cary Loftin behind the wheel of the famous Mustang for the serious stunts. For race fans, it is interesting to note that the camera car was one of the Old Yellar race cars stripped down to carry the cameras and the camera operators.

Vanishing Point (1971, color) — This is a classic car chase movie with Barry Newman trying to deliver a 1971 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco without being caught. Clevon Little plays a hip, small- town disc jockey helping Mr. Newman avoid the police roadblocks.

Duel (1970, color) — This was Steven Spielberg’s first movie for television and it starred Dennis Weaver as a salesman being pursued by a dirty, scary-looking 18-wheel tank truck. We never see the driver and we never learn why he is trying to run Mr. Weaver off the road. Mr. Spielberg made it in just 14 days on a low budget, but this is a great story supported by good camera work and good stunts.

Thunder Road (1958, black and white) — Robert Mitchum stars (and even sings the title song) in this very interesting film about bootlegging in the Deep South. The cars are interesting and the story works, too. Look for the modified 1950 Ford with the oil release gimmick that spins the lawmen into the guardrail.

C’ Etait Un Rendezvous (1976, color) — After years of only fuzzy VHS copies, there is now a remastered DVD available. See what happens when French film director Claude Lelouch, who directed “A Man and a Woman,” mounts a 35mm movie camera to a red Ferrari 275 GTB and races from one end of Paris to the other at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August.

This short film (just under nine minutes) was made on a bet and it’s a pure adrenaline rush immersed in numerous urban legends. Check out the number of slow Parisian pigeons hit by the fast-charging Ferrari.

Heart Like a Wheel (1983, color) — This is the true story of drag racer Shirley (don’t call me Cha Cha) Muldowney who struggled to prove herself in the man’s world of drag racing. Ms. Muldowney became the first woman to get an NHRA Top Fuel license and go on to become a multititle Top Fuel champion and a racing legend. Bonnie Bedelia does a great job playing Shirley Muldowney, with Leo Rossi and Beau Bridges as drag racing legend Connie Kallitta.

There is not much enthusiast detail in the film, but it’s fairly accurate and the message comes across.

The Racers (1955, color) — Think of this as an early version of “Grand Prix.” “The Racers” features a great cast including Kirk Douglas, Gilbert Roland, Lee J. Cobb and Cesar Romero but the story line is weak. This one is worth watching for the (now) vintage race cars. Of particular note is the race car that Kirk Douglas drives. It’s a 1949 HMV, the first grand prix car that Sterling Moss ever drove.

Also worth renting or collecting: A Man and a Woman — the ultimate date movie; The Italian Job — both old and new version; Gone in 60 Seconds — both old and new version; The Big Wheel — 1949, black and white with Mickey Rooney; Two-Lane Blacktop — starring singers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson; and Le Mans — Steve McQueen and friends go prototype racing.

Grab some popcorn, fire up the video or DVD player, sit back and enjoy.

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