Too big for their boots

The original Gone in 60 Seconds showcases a shapely young starlet known simply as ”Eleanor”. HB Halicki’s 1974 action romp credits 28 actors in its cast, but all of them play second fiddle to Eleanor. In her acting debut she achieved what most actors only dream of: top billing in a Hollywood movie. After that, she probably retired to a garage someplace. Eleanor, you see, was a 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1.

Gone in 60 Seconds confirms what most of us secretly know: that cars are often the unsung stars of films. They can take the role of four-wheeled sidekicks, innocent victims, sometimes bona-fide movie stars.

To my mind there are three main players in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. The first is Sean Connery, of course; the second is Gert Frobe; and the third is the snazzy silver Aston Martin DB5 with the spring-loaded ejector seat.

Small wonder that cinema and the internal combustion engine make such natural bedfellows. They were developed at roughly the same time, and came of age during the white-hot era of 1920s American capital. Side by side, they seduced the masses and changed the world. And down the years they have developed a sophis-ticated, ongoing dialogue.

A car in a movie is never just a car in a movie. It is a cultural and political statement; a shorthand that defines the film and its characters. How do we know that Robert de Niro’s Deer Hunter is still clinging to notions of patriotism even after his tour of duty in Vietnam? Simple: he drives a tail-fin Cadillac; that flamboyant bastion of American capitalism.

How can we tell that Richard E Grant’s Withnail is a debauched English rake? Partly, I suspect, because his mode of transport is a battered Mk 2 Jaguar, favoured by East End criminals and fading British pop stars circa 1969.

And just as certain stars have films tailor-made to suit their own particular gifts, so it is with automobiles. Without the VW Beetle there would have been no Herbie movie franchise, and without the Plymouth Fury no Christine. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine The Italian Job pruned of its Austin Mini-Coopers, or Vanishing Point without its white Dodge Challenger, ploughing down the freeway en-route from Denver to San Francisco.

But before we turn too misty-eyed over cinema’s long association with the automobile, let’s not forget that we are dealing with the entertainment business here — with the emphasis on business. Behind its sleek lines and bold colours lurk the unmistakable fumes of commerce.

Prompted by the success of The Graduate, which featured Dustin Hoffman behind the wheel of a red Alfa Spyder, Alfa-Romeo developed a new model named after the movie. The success of Thelma and Louise inspired a long-running set of TV commercials for the Peugeot 307. (The stars of Ridley Scott’s film actually drove a Ford Thunderbird, but never mind.)

In recent years car companies have become more proactive. The blockbuster season now risks being almost as profitable for the manufacturers as it is for the studios and the result, inevitably, is a cinema awash in product placement. Terminator 3 placed Arnold Schwarzenegger at the controls of a Toyota Tundra pick-up truck that went on sale just after the film’s release.

On other occasions the line between the adverts and the feature presentation breaks down completely. In the summer of 2002 UK film-goers were treated to a trailer for a slick Hollywood thriller called Lucky Star, directed by Michael Mann and starring Benicio del Toro as a gambler on the run. Except that it wasn’t. Lucky Star, in fact, was just a cleverly disguised commercial for the open-top Mercedes SL.

If there is a danger in all of this, it’s that we risk getting to a point when the car is almost too powerful; where every Herbie and Eleanor enjoys A-list status and ironclad script approval and has the clout to drag a movie in any direction they want to. And that can’t be right.

Cars are a wonderful component of contemporary cinema. They add pace, drama, glamour, and sometimes comedy too. But they should also know their place. No one likes a star that’s got too big for its boot. — Â

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