10 great chase films

From silent comedies to modern action blockbusters, cinema has always thrived on the thrill of the chase. Catch your breath while we go after 10 essential chase movies.

23 January 2014

By Matthew Thrift

The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s 1926 feature The General is not only one of silent comedy’s defining masterpieces, but also one of the great chase films. Keaton plays Johnnie, a man of twin, all-consuming passions, as besotted with his beloved steam train, The General, as he is with his sweetheart, Annabelle. When the country erupts in civil war, The General is stolen by Union spies – with Annabelle aboard! – and Johnnie, deemed more valuable to the railroad than the war effort, sets off in quick pursuit…

The chase film is as old as cinema itself. A quick footrace in 1901’s Stop Thief! could well lay claim to being the first example of the chase scene, but it would take a couple more years for it to be appropriated by screen comedians, with France’s The Bath Chair Man and The Escaped Lunatic (both 1904) proving notable early examples.

Things would take a turn for the more elaborate when Mack Sennett and his Keystone Cops got in on the act the following decade, but it wouldn’t take as long for the first car chase to appear. R.W. Paul’s 1906 film The Motorist (complete with road-trip to Saturn!) provides perhaps the most famous early example, but even that was preceded by Runaway Match, as early as 1903.

Yet none of those earliest experiments feature anything like the complexities of the chase films that would follow in later decades. With The General pulling into cinemas once more, we take off in pursuit of 10 more breathless classics of the genre. The chase is on.

Fast and Furry-ous (1949)

Director: Chuck Jones

Fast and Furry-ous (1949)

If there’s one director above any other who dedicated the best part of an entire career to the thrill of the chase, it’s animation maestro Chuck Jones. While he’d later literalise his affection for on-screen games of cat ‘n’ mouse by joining the MGM stable to produce a run of Tom and Jerry cartoons in the early 1960s, it was his anarchic subversion of that series’ tropes for Warner Bros 15 years earlier that introduced the world to what director Joe Dante describes as chase films of “cosmic significance”.

Aided only by a never-ending series of ill-considered purchases from the ACME Company, the endless pursuit of the Road Runner by Wile E. Coyote (based on the coyote in Mark Twain’s 1872 travelogue Roughing It) begins in 1949’s Fast and Furry-ous, though it took until 1980’s Soup or Sonic for the coyote to finally catch his prey. Then, its pursuer having been miniaturised through a series of increasingly diminutive pipes, the Road Runner simply lets the now tiny coyote catch up with him. “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him,” reads the sign held up by the dejected Wile E., “Now what do I do?”

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock had already had plenty of practice in the art of the chase, The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942) being stellar and middling preceding examples respectively, but his commitment to the form reached its apotheosis with North by Northwest. In many respects, it’s the quintessential Hitchcock film (it’s certainly the most fun), stuffed with the tropes and preoccupations the director had spent 30 years refining.

Like those earlier examples from which it borrows so liberally, it’s a ‘wrong man’ thriller, yet it’s also one of Hitchcock’s funniest films. Its unashamedly ludicrous plot sees ad-man Cary Grant shunted cross-country between glorious set-pieces, evading crop-dusters and James Mason to end up dangling from Mount Rushmore (in place of Saboteur’s Statue of Liberty).

Of course, Hitchcock made films of much richer psychological complexity, but that takes nothing away from the pleasures of this one. It remains a marvel of pacing and technique, its surfaces as tailored as its star’s grey suit. North by Northwest wears its confidence as a crown, as it should: it’s one of the great chase films, one of the great Hitchcock films, one of the great films.

The Naked Prey (1965)

Director: Cornel Wilde

The Naked Prey (1965)

There’s little dialogue in director-producer-actor Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, a chase film that smartly riffs on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story (and Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 film) ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, in which humans are hunted for sport by rich landowners. Flipping the premise on its head, Wilde’s film sees a group of white hunters in Africa captured by local tribesmen. While most are tortured and killed for the chief’s amusement, Wilde is stripped and sent out onto the plains to be hunted down.

A clear influence on Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), The Naked Prey is as pared back as you’d expect from a reportedly nine-page shooting script. Its lush widescreen lensing captures all the natural beauty and brutality of the African savannah, and if it’s ‘man = animal’ visual rhymes occasionally come across as laboured – and its political/cultural perspective somewhat naive – it’s still the starkest, most primal distillation of the chase on this list.

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

Director: H.B. Halicki

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

No other film or director has turned stunt driving into as stripped-down a statement of auteurist intent as H. B. Halicki with Gone in 60 Seconds. With a major part of its running time dedicated to arguably the single greatest car chase ever committed to celluloid, the 1973 Ford Mustang (nicknamed ‘Eleanor’) driven by Halicki immediately earned its place alongside the Mustang in Bullitt (1968), the Challenger in Vanishing Point (1971) and the DB5 in Goldfinger (1964) in the movie petrolhead hall of fame.

The writer-director-producer-star suffered 10 compressed vertebrae during the film’s final set-piece – a jump clearing almost 130ft – but it wasn’t the first (or the last) of his injuries sustained during production, all of which were left in the finished film. Slamming into a lamppost at 100mph after missing a mark, the first thing Halicki was reported to have said after regaining consciousness was, “Did we get coverage?”

His commitment to the art of the car chase and auto-carnage abandonment continued with 1982’s The Junkman, which until the release of The Matrix Revolutions in 2003 held the record for the highest number of vehicles written off on screen. It would be Halicki’s second and final film. Two months into the shoot of 1989’s Gone in 60 Seconds 2, the film’s most complicated stunt ended in tragedy, killing the director instantly.

The Gauntlet (1977)

Director: Clint Eastwood

The Gauntlet (1977)

Way before he began sinking into the more sluggish rhythms of his prestige pictures, Clint Eastwood turned a laconic eye to the deconstruction of both his movie star persona and his most iconic on-screen creation. The Gauntlet was his first cop picture as director after a run of Dirty Harry films, and its famous poster art by Frank Frazetta (of Conan the Barbarian fame) was clearly in on Eastwood’s joke. Depicting the star as a muscle-bound hero with a lithe Sondra Locke entwined around his waist, the film itself serves to lampoon and puncture the tough-guy/whore archetypes cartoonishly inflated in its promotional material.

Charged with bringing in prostitute Locke, a “nothing witness for a nothing trial” (who turns out to be a sociology graduate), Eastwood’s alcoholic deadbeat Detective Shockley finds the mob and the entire Vegas police department out to stop him. Bookies are giving 50-1 odds that he won’t make it, though presumably lower that this odd-couple won’t finally get together. Gender politics get a subversive lashing as the picture builds in scale, with its final showdown – as a reinforced bus makes a play for City Hall – a magnificent burlesque of one-man-against-the-world action movie heroics.

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron

The Terminator (1984)

While its sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) serves up more of everything – more mythology, more effects, more Arnie, more chase – its predecessor remains James Cameron’s best film by a long shot. Expertly paced and astoundingly structured and conceived, there’s not an inch of fat in The Terminator’s meshing of B-movie thrills and high-concept sci-fi.

There’s little escaping the religious allegory in the story of a killing machine sent back in time to eradicate the saviour of mankind before he’s born, but the most potent image lies in the eponymous cyborg’s relentless, unstoppable momentum – a metaphorical future that must be fought to be changed.

If it remains foremost in the mind a thrilling chase movie, it’s the tone between the action beats that leaps out on subsequent viewings. With a present tainted by a vision of an apocalyptic future, it’s the quiet moments (and its final scene) that take on the character of an elegy for humankind.

The Fugitive (1993)

Director: Andrew Davis

The Fugitive (1993)

On the run for 120 episodes, it took David Janssen four series of The Fugitive to get his name cleared in 1967’s final episode, ‘The Judgement’. Harrison Ford may have managed it in 130 minutes in the 1993 big-screen version, but then David Janssen didn’t use his newfound freedom to make Six Days Seven Nights (1998).

Holding on to the show’s ‘A One-Armed Man Killed My Wife!’ premise, Ford is Dr Richard Kimble, a surgeon sentenced to death for his wife’s murder. Escaping in transit to prison, he’s soon on the run, trying to prove his innocence, pursued by an Oscar-nabbing Tommy Lee Jones.

While Andrew Davis would later go on to ape Hitchcock more explicitly (and far less successfully) with A Perfect Murder (1998), his direction of familiar ‘wrong man’ tropes here is never less than efficient. The early prison bus escape and a close call that bleeds into a St Patrick’s Day parade prove particularly effective, but it remains a star-vehicle for Ford and Jones. It’s the charismatic performances that serve to keep the tension up, our rooting for both sides of the chase that keeps us invested in its outcome.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Just as it’s impossible to make a list of chase movies without including Hitchcock, it’s difficult to ignore contributions to the genre by that other one-man-industry, Steven Spielberg. His debut TV movie Duel (1971) offers perhaps his purest distillation of the form, and the likes of The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), Minority Report (2002) and even Jurassic Park (1992) would continue to incorporate such elements to varying degrees.

One of his best, the oft-overlooked Catch Me if You Can, is a cat ‘n’ mouse flick par excellence. Recounting the true story of runaway teenager Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the 1960s evaded capture for millions of dollars-worth of cheque fraud by assuming brazenly fake identities, the film sees Spielberg at his brightest and breeziest.

Its foundations are made up of those thematic concerns that echo throughout the director’s CV – absent/surrogate fathers, suburban disillusionment – but its effervescent wit, style and propulsive, jet-set momentum ensure his more saccharine tendencies are mostly held at bay. Casting here proves key, not least in its two excellent leads, but also in a brilliant supporting term from actor du jour, Amy Adams. Its surface subversions may serve only to mask an essential conservatism – broken homes lead to crime – but it’s masked with the zip and zing (and emotional resonance) of Spielberg at his best.

The Hunted (2003)

Director: William Friedkin

The Hunted (2003)

You only need to have seen The French Connection (1971) or To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) to know that William Friedkin knows a thing or two about a chase. Both those movies contain stunningly conceived sequences that would make it onto any list of great chase scenes, yet his most sustained example arrived in 2003 in the form of The Hunted – a lean, mean chase film if ever there was one. There’s a tangible physicality here, not just to the two grizzled leads but to Friedkin’s direction, something sorely missing from his output of the preceding decade.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a military instructor charged with tracking down one of his former charges, an unhinged psychopath (Benicio del Toro) unable to turn off his killer instinct after returning from Kosovo. Set amid the forests and towns of Oregon, its centrepiece is an on-foot chase sequence that ranks among this director’s best, while a brutal knife-fight offers ferocious punctuation to its testosterone-fuelled momentum.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Director: Paul Greengrass

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Hurtling forward from its opening frames, this second instalment in the superlative Bourne franchise not only cemented Paul Greengrass’s reputation as one of the most visceral proponents of modern action cinema, but also yanked a series of familiarly Hitchcockian tropes – the chase, the macguffin, the wrong man – into the 21st century with a muscular vision of no-nonsense style.

The immediacy with which Greengrass imbues his images and his shattered-glass approach to editing find their bedrock in his insistence on real-world locations and effects. As spectacle cinema increasingly turns to the pixel for comfort, Greengrass’ vital modernity remains refreshingly old-fashioned in its approach, and arrives all the more blisteringly tactile for it.

Upping the ante on Doug Liman’s debut instalment, The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy sees amnesiac government assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) with the world on his tail. It’s the strongest of the three films (ok, fine, four films), with Greengrass keeping his foot on the gas from the opening Indian set-piece, before quite literally slamming it to the floor for the breathless, masterful Moscow car chase with which the film ends.

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