Top Ten Chase Scenes

a scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.

When I first began work on this list, I foolishly assumed it would be a breeze. I recalled—albeit vaguely—hundreds of chase scenes that I felt qualified and thought it would simply be a matter of sorting out the best from the rest. When the time came to actually compile the list, however, I found the work far more difficult than I had anticipated. The simple solution to the problem would have been to limit my selection to car chase scenes. My main concern there, though, was that once you’ve seen one car chase list, you've pretty much seen them all. So, in an effort to avoid the monotony of these lists, I decided against leaning heavily upon straightforward car chases. I committed to this goal, dammit, and I fully intended to see it through no matter how much grief it caused.

Perhaps as a result, the list still favors chases involving vehicles, but sprinkled in are a few entries that I feel deserved some recognition. Of the more striking omissions, none will be more glaring than the exclusion of Bullitt. True enough, the chase in Bullitt is fairly exciting and well put together, but it failed to meet one of the unwavering criteria I established at the onset of compiling this list; namely, that the movie in which the chase takes place had to actually be good beyond the chase itself. In all honesty, I always thought Bullitt was fairly mundane. It's not enough to simply place a dazzling chase incongruously into a mediocre movie in hopes that it will somehow prompt the audience to reassess the film’s worth. The best chases integrate their excitement organically into a narrative that doesn't require distraction from the ennui it invokes. In other words, if the chase happens to be between two vehicles, all I ask is that it at least rises above what I could potentially recreate in a thoroughly involved game of Grand Theft Auto. Beyond that, anything else was fair game.

10. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)

The first entry on this list is by far the oddest. Considering that it doesn’t follow the conventional parameters of chase scenes, I almost neglected to place it here where it belongs. It occurs when a jealous Lotte chases a very pregnant Maxine through Malkovich’s subconscious. The chase takes them through the actor’s various buried memories, setting up a number of bizarre comic situations. Watching it again, I found it even more reminiscent of Buñuel, almost as if director Spike Jonze were attempting to distill the brilliant surrealism of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie into a two-minute pursuit. The excitement of watching this scene isn’t in the chase itself, but in the way the characters traverse different levels of reality and in the way the camera manages to intertwine different aspects of Malkovich’s subconscious into a blueprint upon which to carry out this pursuit.

09. Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)

Easily the most conventional chase included on the list. But why let that diminish its impact? This one set the standard for adventure films, centering the action around the stagecoach of the film’s title as those inside find themselves hotly pursued by a group of relentless Indian attackers. Of all the additions to this list, it was this choice that I felt most conflicted about, merely because I cannot excuse the less than flattering portrayal of the Native Americans. Yet, this is hardly the place to discuss the racial implications of the film (and for that matter, be glad I didn’t opt for the chase in Birth of a Nation), so we’ll set that aside for a different time and instead turn toward the death-defying feats that find actor John Wayne jumping from horse to horse, or Ford’s ingenious placement of the camera underneath stampeding horses. So pervasive are the techniques Ford used here that the innovation of this scene may be lost to a modern audience, but don’t make the mistake of dismissing it on that basis. It’s still one of the best.

08. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

Leave it to Tarantino to orchestrate a chase in homage to one of his favorite movies (Vanishing Point), only to wind up ultimately surpassing it in both style and execution. The chase scene in Death Proof is astonishing for many reasons, but none so apparent as Tarantino’s decision to place one of the three women being pursued on the hood of the speeding car. To that extent, the majority of the praise goes to Zoë Bell, the stuntwoman skilled enough to cling tenaciously to the hood of a Dodge Challenger while Tarantino’s camera unflinchingly rolls. Since he uses cuts sparingly, it makes the expertise, and consequently the tension of the scene, all the more intense. So solid is the choreography behind it that, despite being only a few months old now, I couldn’t neglect to put it on this list among all these timeless classics.

07. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

Of all the chases that occur throughout the Indiana Jones series, none can ever hope to match the one that takes place in the original film. It occurs when Indy attempts to abscond with a truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The brilliant aspect about this particular chase is the way Spielberg anchors the action around the truck itself—much like Ford did in Stagecoach. Only in this scene, rather than simply having the action scroll linearly across a terrain, he establishes the truck as the locus of action around which the dynamic of the chase rotates. The battle for control sways back and forth between the two combatants. At one point Jones is the pursuer and the Nazis the pursued, but as Indiana takes control of the moving vehicle, the roles switch—only to have something else outrageous occur to throw the balance once more the other way. All this culminates in one perfectly executed stunt that finds Indy clinging desperately to the bottom of the truck while it’s moving. Does it resonate on some deep psychological level? No. Not really. But it's still one hell of a fun chase to watch.

06. To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)

How do you match Friedkin's superb car/train chase scene in The French Connection? Well, it helps if you happen to be Friedkin, and if you have the audacity to attempt a chase as ornately complex as the one found in To Live and Die in L.A.. Friedkin throws everything he can into the mix, including a car dashing in front of a barreling freight train, a sprawling chase through a drainage canal and a hair-raising finale going the wrong way down a crowded freeway. The stunts and pinpoint execution of it would mean nothing without the story built around it, and Friedkin, much like his previous chase masterpiece, assuredly positions this chase as a reflection of his hot-headed characters' intractability. The final thirty seconds that take place on the freeway are shot so authentically that I can't believe Friedkin found stuntmen crazy enough to involve themselves in this. It may not possess quite the brilliance of The French Connection, but on the basis of pure technical expertise, it ranks among the best.

05. The General (Buster Keaton, 1927)

Simple logic dictates that such a chase as the one that appears in Keaton’s The General should not work, let alone exist. One train pursuing another? Doesn’t leave much for improvisation, considering that both opponents are confined to a quite linear route. And yet, defying belief, Keaton not only makes his scene work, but he does so in such a way that confounds all reason and plays out to near-perfection. The spectacular timing of his stunts and the fact that many of the feats are accomplished without the use of montage justifies the film’s presence on many critics’ ten best lists. Keaton’s use of deep focus to orchestrate a number of his funniest comic situations will never be properly recreated by any director. To be fair, two chases actually occur in the film—the one in which Keaton pursues the Union soldiers who have stolen his beloved train, and the second chase in which the roles have reversed—but since both chases pretty much stand on equal footing, I see no fault in counting them as one magnificent and inimitable comic chase.

04. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

From the moment Harry Lime arrives at the café to discover that Holly Martins has sold him out, to the final gunshot that ends Lime’s life, the final nail-biting minutes of Carol Reed's The Third Man lock the audience in a chase scene of such claustrophobic proportions that, no matter how many times you view it, it still gets under your skin. The best chase scenes make use of the their environment, integrating them fully into the actions of the scene, and this one makes superb use of the sewers of Vienna. As Harry Lime twists and turns through the tunnels, you want to believe he's going to escape his fate, even though the odds are stacked insurmountably against him. But as more and more of his escape routes are cut off by MPs, be becomes less the witty fugitive evading the police than a trapped animal that knows it has met its match. The scene isn't about whether Lime lives or dies, however, but serves as a means to prolong his struggle as a way of further damning the betrayal of Martins. By the end, we understand exactly why, in the closing scene of the film, Anna determinedly walks past a penitent Holly without so much as a casual glance.

03. Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981)

Never mind what a peculiar movie Diva is. Right smack in the center of it lies a chase of such recklessness and excitement one would think it was stripped from an American action film and transplanted into this abstract French thriller. It involves a moped-riding delivery boy who accidentally comes into possession of a rather incriminating tape. By the middle of the film, he finds himself unwittingly pursued by the police, a gang of Korean bootleggers and a nefarious criminal duo with a penchant for throwing knives at their victims—all of whom appear eager to get their hands on the tape in question. The chase scene itself takes place in the Paris Metro. The delivery boy rides his moped down stairways, on and off trains, and up escalators while the camera maddeningly trails him. The handheld, gritty look of the scene gives it an exhilarating feel while somehow maintaining a poetic tone uncharacteristic among typical chase scenes. If nothing else, it’s easily the most beautiful chase put to film.

02. The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

The brilliance of William Friedkin's chases lie in the psychology of their setup. Friedkin is not one to remain content in merely orchestrating a complicated chase and setting it as the mesmerizing centerpiece to his film just for excitement. There's a psychologically revealing element to it. In The French Connection the seething, ravenous determination of Doyle's chase reveals something about his character that had been building throughout the film: his reckless pursuit not only endangers his own life, but the innocent lives of those around him. From a technical standpoint, pitting Doyle against an adversary confined to the unwavering route of an elevated train car is perhaps the greatest aspect of this chase. It adds a rigid dimension to the pursuit that makes the maniacal impact of its execution all the more intense.

01. Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)

Upon first glance, the chase near the end of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï may appear a peculiar, if not a downright wrong-headed choice for all-time best. In fact, some may not even categorize it along with the other chases on this list. It certainly doesn't capture the same unrestrained carnage of Friedkin’s best chases or the pure entertainment of Indiana Jones’ most noteworthy pursuits. What is does deliver is a lethal dose of tension and paranoia, orchestrated with the type of impeccable precision only Melville could invoke. It's exciting in the most subversive of ways. The hired killer, Jef Costello, knows he's being tailed through the Metro, but finds evading a literal army of undercover officers more difficult than he expected. Melville adeptly crosscuts Costello's scenes with sequences involving the chief of police at headquarters presiding over a map of the city upon which lights appear whenever a contact picks up Costello's trail. Melville takes his time with the scene, milking the tension for all its worth. Many other chases position their players as two aggressive combatants locked in a linear contest of endurance; Melville places his participants as pieces on a chessboard. Both sides know what's at stake, and both wait patiently for the other to make that one tactical error that exposes a weakness or, for Costello, an escape route. Costello's profession demands anonymity. If he can't shake the massive police tail attached to his movements, he cannot conduct his business. For a hired killer, that might as well be the kiss of death.

By: Dave Micevic
Published on: 2007-06-28
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