Those familiar with these pages will have read the occasional glowing reference for the 1977 movie Sorcerer, in which a group of mercenaries agree to drive trucks loaded with nitro-glycerine over a mountain in the South American jungle.
That movie’s director, William Friedkin, sadly left this mortal coil in August, and with it a memorable body of work that, aside for its sheer entertainment value, resonates with the tensions unleashed by the forced march of modernity and the old souls ensnared by its advancement.
There is an exhilaration concomitant to seeing vehicles pitted, in desperation, against the least cooperative of environments. Ask any diesel mechanic.
Friedkin also understood it, much to the pleasure of his audience.
Sometimes this would take form as a heart-stopping race against time, and, when at his best, manifest itself in wild chase sequences, the likes of which had never been attempted before.
Even the most casual moviegoer has a shortlist of their favourite movie car chases. Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection, with good reason, is usually among them.
The sequence, in question, begins outrageously enough with Gene Hackman’s New York cop, commandeering a civilian car to pursue a subway train, upon which a criminal has escaped, on an elevated track. The chase through Brooklyn goes for 26 blocks.
That it was shot without proper city permits only adds to the tension.
Just over a decade later, Friedkin would perhaps top this feat in To Live and Die in LA (1985). In the film two secret service agents, played by William Peterson and John Pankow, nearly blow their cover during a botched deal involving the death of a federal agent, who, to their immediate despair, is under surveillance.
What ensues is an audacious chase on the highways, railways and flood channels of Los Angeles with one particularly heightened section, in which, the vehicle being pursued drives against oncoming freeway traffic at breakneck speed.
The idea came to Friedkin in 1963 when he was driving home from a wedding in Chicago.
According to the story, he fell asleep at the wheel and woke up in the wrong lane with oncoming traffic heading straight for him as he recalled it. He swerved back to his side of the road and for the next 20 years wondered how he was going to use it in a film.
Stunt coordinator Buddy Joe Hooker was made aware that if they could come up with a chase better than the one in The French Connection then it would make it into the film.
It’s safe to say they did but it’s about the only safe thing about it.
Another decade would pass before Friedkin would attempt a car chase on this scale.
Upon reflection, even a potboiler like Jade (1995) works best when viewed as a car chase from which a dodgy erotic thriller somehow mutated.
This time working with the scarped surroundings of San Francisco, home of many a fabled movie car chase, Friedkin, like the conductor of a symphony orchestra using a Ford Thunderbird and a Taurus as if they were musical instruments, seemingly attempts to outdo Bullitt, the previous benchmark for sequences of this nature in the same city, only this time, to complicate matters further, by running the hot pursuit through an obstacle of congested traffic.
Indeed, the phrase cutting to the chase, which is to say getting down to the essentials, in the case of Jade is at once figurative and literal.
The signature ability to choreograph impossibly tense scenarios and shoot a sequence, often precariously, around it, is part of the Friedkin adrenalin rush. What makes the effect so visceral?
The question boils down to a sense the filmmaker, like many of the heroes featured in his movies, is trying to master events beyond his control medias res and given the ordeal at hand perhaps has no right to do so.
That’s bound to be of interest to anyone who makes a living working against centrifugal forces whether it be pit crews or fleet managers.
“No man can be blamed for being ill-favoured by nature; but every man can be blamed for making the worst of himself,” notes the physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple.
Friedkin, it might be said, was hellbent on dramatising that conflict and carried it closer to fulfillment better than almost anyone.