Simon Foster looks at some classic on-screen pairings of stars and their cars. 
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16 Apr 2009 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

The release of the latest film in The Fast & The Furious franchise, called...Fast & Furious achieves little in the way of memorable screen moments. It's poorly-acted, inanely-plotted, badly-directed, even deceptively-marketed (note to Michelle Rodriguez fans – don't be late if you're desperate to see her return in the role of Letty).

But Eff & Eff does reinforce the starring role that our four-wheeled friend, The Car, has enjoyed in over a century of cinema. In director Justin Lin's ode to the automobile in its most modern form, The Car is the aphrodisiac that woos the love interest; the horse that carries the cowboy; the symbol of all that is good and bad in our characters.

The Car is the greatest movie star to never receive billing.

One of the most exhilarating examples of the fluidity that The Car has brought to the art of film-making is Claude Lelouch's short film C\'était un rendez-vous (Paris 1976 in a Ferrari). With a camera secured to the hood of a Ferrari 275 GTB and a Formula 1 driver at the wheel, Lelouch recorded a high-speed tour of the (almost) deserted early morning streets of the French capital. It is a dizzying, dangerous and thrilling experiment and far more enthralling over its seven minutes that the entire four-part Fast & Furious franchise has ever achieved.

Doubt the role of The Car in cinema history? Imagine Peter Yate's Bullitt without Steve McQueen's Ford Mustang G.T. 390 Fastback; Luc Besson's Taxi sans Samy Naceri's Peugeot 406; Grace Kelly's subtle Rhode Island-seduction of Frank Sinatra minus her Mercedes 190 SL in Charles Walters' High Society. How about Smokey And The Bandit without five black Trans-Ams and two Pontiac Le Mans? The Mini Coopers of The Italian Job? Ferris without Cameron's father's 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder SWB?

The role that The Car has played in international cinema has become representative of any given films country of origin. For the American film industry, The Car is intrinsically an extension of the male persona. Picture the iconic moments from the careers of some of America's greatest, toughest movie stars:

McQueen in Bullitt:

Gene Hackman hurtling through the streets of New York in a commandeered 1971 Pontiac Le Mans in William Friedkin's The French Connection:

De Niro behind the wheel of the Model A8 Checker Cab in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver or the Audi S8 in John Frankenheimer's Ronin. There is nothing subtle about what The Car means to American cinema – Barry Newman beat down two gay killers then took on the nation's police force with a 375 horsepower 440 Magnum Dodge Charger in Richard C. Sarafian's 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point; the weapon of choice for serial killer Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof was a 1969 Dodge Charger, a sinister, none-too-subtle extension of the murderer's dysfunctional sexuality and psychic malaise.

I leave open for debate the transformative affect of the open road and the 1966 Ford Thunderbird on its passengers, Thelma and Louise, but few onscreen characters from the 1990's had bigger cojones.

As recently as Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, the American male defines himself by the love and self-image he affords and derives from his car.

For films bred of The Continent, however, The Car is a symbol of grace, style and urbane charm – a manifestation of the man, as crucial to his image as the cut of his clothes or the brand of cigarette that hangs from his lips. In the 1979 George Lautner crime thriller Flick ou voyou (Cop or Hood), Jean-Paul Belmondo creates an indelible screen image merely by sitting behind the wheel of his Chaterham Seven (the ensuing chase through a bullfight is breathtaking).

\"\"Andre Hunebelle's 1964 melodrama Fantomas features Jean Marais as a playboy-thief who woos women with ease in no small part due to his Citroen DS. This 1955 car, a revolutionary model that changed the direction of car design forever, became the darling of the international film set – Gina Lollobrigida (left, (c) Citroen) ordered the second one ever produced; Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles drove theirs through the streets of southern France during the Cannes Film Festival. The Citroen DS would become synonymous with continental style onscreen, in such films as Francois Truffaut's La Peau douce (The Soft Skin, 1964), Henri Verneuil's Le Clan des siciliens (The Sicilian Clan, 1969), Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Samouraï (The Samurai, 1967) and Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses (Going Places, 1974), in which an enthusiastic Gérard Depardieu praises the delights of hydraulic suspension.

Few countries have explored their car culture on-screen so enthusiastically as Australia; few countries love The Car, have allowed The Car to play such a defining role in the creation of a nation, as much as we have. It's only fitting that our film history should so emphatically honour The Car, in all its forms – the beachside shaggin' wagon (Christopher Frazer's Summer City, Igor Auzin's High Rolling, Chris Lofven's Oz, Bruce Beresford's Puberty Blues); the ultimate middle-finger to the Establishment (Scott Hick's Freedom, Nadia Tass's The Big Steal, Evan Clarry's Blurred); and unashamed love-letters to The Car itself (Clara Law's The Goddess Of 1967, Michael Thornhill's The F.J. Holden, Quentin Marster's Midnite Spares and Eric Bana\'s Love the Beast).

But no Australian Car (and very few international ones) can match the flame-driven fury of Max Rockatansky's MFP-standard issue 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT Coupe. As the demon that Max flew upon to avenge his family\'s murder in George Miller's landmark action classic Mad Max, the car was the man – it fuelled the rage that drove Max's bloodlust, and held the road with as powerful an intent to kill as the grieving widower behind its wheel.

\"\"The truly iconic Cars of cinema history have become as beloved as the films themselves. Would Venkman, Stantz and Spengler have impacted so supernaturally upon Manhattan's elite without their 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor, a.k.a Ecto 1? Could Jake and Elwood have made it to the Cook County Assessor's Office without their 1974 Dodge Monaco? Would Marty McFly still be in 1955 if Doc Brown hadn't customised a Flux capacitor into a 1981 De Lorean DMC-12?

Do The Cars of Fast & Furious cut it as modern greats? Technically, sure – the film offers up state-of-the-art 'tuners' (Japanese or Euro imports custom-tuned to perfection) and 'muscle' (American powercars designed to pummel their competition). But the film lets the machinery down badly – the leads (a soporific Vin Diesel and a shrill, posturing Paul Walker) are dwarfed by the might of the street cars. When Diesel's Dom Toretto slides behind the wheel of his 1970 Chevrolet SS Chevelle, or Walker's Brian O'Connor stares nervously at the dashboard of his Nissan Skyline GTR, it's as if they were the newest stablehands at an Old West ranch, asked to ride the meanest bronco in the yard.

The Car has had title character importance before, but more often than not as the villain – the 1958 Plymouth Fury in John Carpenter's Christine, for example. With Fast & Furious, The Car may have finally taken its rightful place as the star of a movie... though besting Diesel and Walker for acting honours ain't so hard.

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