Death Proof II: The Italian Job & Bullitt

Ah, the car chase.  A fundamental building block of the action genre, a good car chase is easy to take for granted nowadays – and for good reason.

It’s not a reflection on the stuntmen themselves – the drivers have not gotten worse.  It’s just few and far between that a film highlights the inherent skill involved in coordinating a car chase.  Instead, it’s glossed over with CGI, lightning-quick cuts, and more often than not, a Christ-awful Modern Rock soundtrack.  You can put a guy in a flame retardant suit and have him roll his Chevy Nova through the air between two skyscrapers and I will be rendered incapable of caring if you make me listen to Nickleback at the same time.

Popular taste has almost neutered the car chase.  People have attention spans that can only be measured in nanoseconds.  As much as I love the patently retarded Fast & Furious series (because it sorta gets that it’s patently retarded) it’s far more indicative of what people want to see nowadays.  But here, let’s chalk up another post in the Death Proof series and applaud the totally fucking rad car chases of times gone by as we compare two classics: The Italian Job and Bullitt. 

For me, there’s an incredible tempation to compare The Italian Job with Bullitt.  They’re snapshots of two different cultures at the same point in time.  In their execution and tone, each is a hallmark of it’s class.  Bullitt is quintessentially American: hulking muscle cars tearing through the streets of San Francsico.

Rock, Flag & Eagle.

And is there anything more magnificently British than Michael Caine in a blue jumpsuit behind the wheel of a Mini?

Chim-chiminey, Chim-chiminey, Chim-chimm-cha-roo!

But you have to be careful – you cannot hold Bullitt up against The Italian Job as films.  The simple fact of the matter is, revolutionary car chase or not, Bullitt is not a very good movie.  The performances are great, but the plot is convoluted and just… just wrong.  The Italian Job is hands down, a better, more satisfying film.Furthermore, comparing the two leading men is an awful idea.  Michael Caine and Steve McQueen operate on two completely different levels – it’d be like comparing athletes from two different sports on statistics from a third sport.  You can have a preference, that’s fine, but you can’t say one is better than the other and back it up with any hard evidence.The only place where it’s safe to make comparisons between these two cinematic endeavors is the element where it’s all on equal grounds:  the car chase.  Let’s go through each one individually first.Bullitt (1968)

I can’t help but feel that I am not alone in this opinion.  And yet, in 2007, the U.S. National Film Registry made the move to preserve Bullitt within the Library of Congress.  The criteria for which is that a film be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.  Significant is the perfect word for this one.Bullitt didn’t invent the car chase, but it redefined what was possible and it dramatically altered what people expected out of such a sequence.  It may seem dated now – even tame.  But within the context of it’s own era, one can appreciate how special it really is.The Cars: The baddies drive a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T 400… fuck, it just looks evil, doesn’t it?

And then, of course, there’s Bullitt’s ride – the 1968 Ford Mustang GT 2×2 Fastback.

McQueen did a fair bit of the stunt driving himself for the first portion of the sequence.  After a close call, producers 86’d that idea and veteran stuntman Bud Ekins finished it off (previously, Ekins had done the Triumph jump in the Great Escape).  Watching the scene, you can tell who’s who by the way the side mirror is tilted.  If it’s up, it’s McQueen – down, and it’s Bud behind the wheel.
The Chase:
And then we have…The Italian Job (1969)

“If you haven’t seen The Italian Job, well – you probably haven’t lived.”

– Eddie Izzard 

The original Italian Job is a remarkably gleeful film.  It just has this undercurrent of joy to it that immediately registers as sincere.

Michael Caine is Charlie Croker, released from prison by the Warden (British prisons really need reformation) to pull off a beautifully articulated heist in Italy.  In a nutshell: steal a massive amount of gold from an armored car, create the world’s biggest traffic jam to stall the police and the Mafia, flee via an incredibly elaborate pre-mapped escape route in Mini Coopers, their back ends weighed down with the gold.

The heist itself is wonderful.  The chase is nothing less than perfect: roaring through the crowded streets of Turin, leaping over buildings, whisking through a fucking sewer pipe (again, 1969 we’re talking about here).

The Cars:

Personally, Charlie drives a 1962 Aston Martin DB4.

There are also performances by a Lamborghini Miura and Series 1 Jaguar E-Types.  The police drive cars donated by Fiat specifically for the movie.

But the real stars of the show are, obviously, those glorious Minis.

The Chase:

In Conclusion:

The Italian Job will always be more fun than most films.  It never seems to take itself seriously for longer than a few seconds before something outlandish and hilarious pops up.  On the other end of the spectrum, Bullitt is a movie that seemingly always takes itself seriously.  Perhaps the film suffers for it (no, wait, it’s definitely the bullshit script).

But tone aside, the films are fascinating to watch from the vantage point of a modern viewer.  I love seeing the myriad of circa late 60s advertising and architecture in these films.  Each features a city and utilizes it to the point where it’s a character unto itself.  This deliberate decision adds an awful lot to their charm.  Bullitt just doesn’t feel right if you try to imagine Steve McQueen running through New York City.

Ultimately, both are incredibly  innovative for their time, feature incredible stunt driving, and forty years on, are every bit as endearing and fantastic as they ever were.

If you’re a woman and you haven’t seen these yet, do yourself a favor a check them out as soon as you can.

And if you’re a male and you’ve never seen these – take out your man card and pass it forward because that shit’s been revoked.

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