You know how it is at B&S About Movies: discussing mainstream, Tinseltown-made movies is anathema. So when we started digging into the antecedents of The Fast and the Furious franchise for this tribute week, you know we’re heading to the VHS shelves stocked with the films directed by Daniel Haller (Die Monster, Die, Devil’s Angels, and The Dunwich Horror), William Asher (Johnny Cool and “Beach Movies”), and Richard Rush (Hells Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out, The Savage Seven) that star the actors we care about, i.e., Frankie Avalon (Blood Song), Fabian (Disco Fever, Kiss Daddy Goodbye), Mimsy Farmer (swoon . . . Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Autopsy), Annette Funicello, and Diane McBain (Maryjane, The Mini-Skirt Mob, The Delta Factor). So, yeah, we’re going to review Thunder Alley (1967), The Wild Racers (1968) and Fireball 500 (1966) in quick succession. We’d be derelict in our reviewing duties if we didn’t inhale anything with the Corman-AIP stank on it. (Ditto for Jim Drake’s (Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol) 1989 car-crash homage, Speed Zone.)
So while this “mainstream” film is directed by Howard Hawks and released by Paramount Pictures, we’re breaking those mainstream-rules since this racing “epic” features an early starring role for James Caan (who did this and the space “epic” Countdown and water “epic” Submarine X-1 . . . on his way to the apoc-epic Rollerball . . . oh, and some mob-movie called The Godfather).
But don’t let Caan’s presence and the iconic name of Howard Hawks fool you: This is pure Elvis-as-a-race car driver-via-process shots tomfoolery, ala Viva Las Vegas (1964), Spinout (1966), and Speedway (1968), without the singing. Hawks should have cast Frankie Avalon and Fabian, and dumped it in Drive-Ins, and called it a day. At least it would have turned a profit, like those abysmal (yet adoring) Elvis race romps.
“We gotta win this race . . . lemonade, that cool, refreshing drink.”
It’s true: The days of Hawks wowing us with the gangster classic Scarface (1932), the war epic Sergeant York (1941), the noir must-see The Big Sleep (1946), his one-two punch oeuvre with John Wayne of Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) (yeah, we know they also did ’62s Hatari, ’67s El Dorado, and ’70s Rio Lobo), and — the big daddy of sci-fi — The Thing From Another World (1951), were clearly behind him. Critics weren’t kind then, and retro-critics aren’t kind now, to this NASCAR romance-saga — and as someone who watched all of the Hawks-Wayne films with his dad (and loved them): I can honestly say this truly is the weakest film in the Hawks catalog.
In the backwash of Hawks-Paramount Pictures’ production, John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, the blimp-disaster Black Sunday) put together the superior Formula One-centric Grand Prix (1966) with James Garner (chronicled in document, The Racing Scene). That Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “blew the doors off” Paramount’s Red Line 7000, with a $20 million gross against $9 million, making it one of the Top-Ten grossing films of 1966, which earned a DGA Award for Outstanding Directing in a Feature Film — even though it featured real-life, stock-shot racing footage, just like the Hawks racing drama.
As with Tom Cruise developing his love of car racing into Days of Thunder (1990), Steve McQueen — himself an accomplished racer of Porsches — produced his affection for France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with Le Mans (1971) for 20th Century Fox. As with Red Line 7000, and unlike Grand Prix, McQueen’s racing epic — even though it filmed all of its racing footage “on-location” during the 1970 Le Mans race — failed at the box office, making less than its $8 million budget. Ditto for Paul Newman who made Winning (1969), his Indy 500-dreamer race romp with James Goldstone (TV movie heaven with Cry Panic and the amusement-disaster Rollercoaster) for Universal.
And what’s our analog god of all things UHF and VHS have to say about all this racing tomfoolery: Quentin Tarantino has stated that he’d “rather saw off his fingers” than sit through Winning, as it was worse than Steve McQueen’s Le Mans. He’s also said that if he was to direct a racing movie (Please do! Don’t let Once Upon a Time In Hollywood be the end?), it wouldn’t be pretentious, like Grand Prix, it would be like Red Line 7000, with it’s soap-opera-everyone-trying-to-sleep-with-everyone-else storyline, but fun — and play like a really great Elvis Presley race movie.
And Quentin loves his cars (in movies) and didn’t miss that Red Line 7000 features the then “new” 1965 Shelby GT-350 speeding on the track and that one of the characters drives a 1965 Cobra Daytona Coupe. In his own Once Up a Time in Hollywood, he broke production protocols and used over 2000 vintage rides in the film: the average film uses between 300 to 500 cars. To that “racing end”: Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) drove a 1962 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) drove a 1969 Pontiac Firebird, and Tex Watson (Austin Butler) drove a 1959 Ford Galaxie.
So, am I out of line saying that I’m waiting for Humphrey Bogart to crawl out of the cockpit, unzip the flame retardants, and jump into the Holiday Inn sack with Lauren Bacall?
That’s how outdated (even back in the early UHF ’70s) this racing romp feels to me, with the horses traded out for cars and the western wastelands for circular asphalt. And that Nelson Riddle score! Talk about wanting to saw off fingers . . . and ears. Where’s that swingin’ n’ screechin’ Dick Contino (Daddy-O, Girls Town) jazz score when you need it? (The ‘Con bagged Leigh Snowden from The Creature Walks Among Us, so he’s a “cool cat” in my book.)
But that’s the plot, sans the horses and Nevada dirt: everyone is trying to bed everyone else except their own girlfriends, either punching out or trying to kill their romantic rivals. And in between: they race via process shots via stock footage (including several high-profile crashers) filmed at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Daytona International Speedway, and Riverside International Speedway — A.J Foyt’s violent crash at Riverside earlier in 1965 served as the “death” of Caan’s team mate at Daytona. The “romance” gets so heated that Caan’s Mike Marsh trades paint with Dan McCall (Skip Ward of Ann-Margret’s Kitten with a Whip, Elvis’s Easy Come, Easy Go, and the box-office bomb Myra Breckiridge) and tries to kill him on the track.
On the casting side: George Takei, on his way to where no man has gone before, is Kato, a member of Caan’s pit crew. And no disrespect to the mighty Jonathan E., but how cool would it have been to see Paul Mantee of Paramount’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (and the Bond rips A Man Called Dagger and That Man Bolt) in Caan’s role (who was also a Paramount contract player)?
Again, it all comes back to the actors we want to see: Paul Mantee. Do you remember Paul on Seinfeld as the Health Inspector busting Poppy for peeing and not washing his hands? And — surely Sam will give me shite — we’re back to my “Six Degrees of Seinfeld” foolishness, again.
Sorry, kids. No freebies. Not even on TubiTV and Vudu. You’ll have to settle for an Amazon Prime VOD.