Comedy, tragedy, mystery, romance - practically every movie you can see, no matter what the style or subject matter, contains a car chase. Two cars go careening through a city, squealing at the turns, ignoring traffic lights, weaving onto sidewalks, zooming up one-way streets, and leaving behind them a tangle of other cars, pushcarts and flimsy buildings wrecked along the way.
Comedy is provided by the indignation of people whose property is destroyed along the way. For extra laughs, these people are usually either old ladies or ethnic businessmen - the way they wave their arms in the air after the car has whizzed by is supposed to be comic. Best of all is a person on a ladder who is stranded high in the air after the chase has passed through and knocked over his support.
Tragedy is confined to the principal characters.They are likely to be shooting at one another while driving, but this is not as dangerous an occupation as one might suppose, because they rarely die of it. But then likely consequences of reckless driving - the gruesome slaughter of bystanders - is never seen. It's all as merry and harmless as the Krazy Kar ride at amusement parks.
Excitement is provided by filming through the front window of one of the cars, giving a roller coaster view to the audience. Romance is supplied by the presence of a woman in the passenger seat - or simply by the fact that the driver is disobeying traffic laws, and is therefore perceived as some sort of independent-spirited urban cowboy. Occasionally the claim is made that the car chase sequence in the film is actually a satire of car chase scenes in the other movies, but with the exception of "Dear Inspector," which has the lead car in such a sense driving in first gear, a satire of a car chase looks excatly like a car chase.
Given the entrenchment of this tradition in current films, the logical development is the film in which anything extraneous to the car chase has been eliminated. There are two such new films in town, "The Driver" and "Stingray."
As much as possible, each has eliminated character, motivation, plot and development, and scenes other than car-chasing ones have been kept to a minimum. Significantly, one is named for the car, and the other for the role of piloting the car.
In "The Driver," even the characters' names have been eliminated. Ryan O'Neal plays the "the driver," a man who lives by the trade of driving getaway cars, but inexplicably has no use for the money that crime brings him. He lives a frugal life, bereft of possessions or emotional ties, although no attempt is made to explain why. Bruce Dern, as "the detective", has one motivation in life, which is to get "the driver." The third character, "the player," is Isabelle Adjani as an equally cheerless woman who hires out for crime.
All three as though as the shells of the cars, their emotional range being from sullen to nasty. The superiority they have to the minor characters in the film is that those people are occasionally prey to fear or irrationality, while the leads have mental hearts.
In "Stingray" there is a hint of a plot when two young kids buy a second-hand car in which some criminals have stowed their cocaine and cash. The entire film is taken up by the kids, in their car, being chased by the criminals in their car.
While two of the criminals seen at least to be after money, their leader, played by Shirley Jackson, is motivated by a gratuitous viciousness that would seem to be a serious career handicap. Her erratic behavior in shooting people whose death can bring her no advantage and considerable trouble, a trait for which no motivation isever suggested, does not fit with the reputation the character has of being a master-mind. As in "The Driver," none of these characters exhibits any expression except pure evil.
It might seem as if there would be a contract, in "Stingray," with the two innocent boys, Christopher Mitchum has the triangular-eyebrows expression of his father, but not the intriguing dissipation of Robert Mitchum's little cynical eyes beneath; Les Lannom, as the other kid, exhibits an appropriately boyish fight throughout the chase.
But the possibility of a contrast between evil and innocence is never realized. For one thing, the chasing hardly leaves time for any such question; and then they waver easily between the idea of going over to the police or going over to crime themselves, however much that is glossed over by the fact that they would not have actively stolen the goods they propose to enjoy.
It is part of the toughness of both films that true morality seems to be a sucker's choice. In this, it would seem to harken back to the tough-rebel idea of '50s films, except that women, then, were made to pull for some sort of morality, even if they finally threw that over for love, while now, presumably in the interests of equality, the women are as bereft of emotion or deceny as the men.
Or, one might say, as machines. The cars, built for speeds that are dangerous to human life in the cities in which they are raced, are the true characters.