“What this movie needs is a good chase scene…”

Master of motion

Although acclaimed director John Frankenheimer (1930 – 2002) is probably most well-known for his classic mind control epic THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), I’d like to take a brief moment to recognize him for his ability to craft intensely realistic car chase scenes, something that is absolutely required of any director wishing to make a living in the action/thriller genre.

Frankenheimer was clearly a “car guy” who was really into the technical aspects of immersing the viewer in the sense of speed and danger.

Here in this long clip from GRAND PRIX (1966, nominated for a Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement), Frankenheimer uses a wide variety of camera-mounting techniques to give the viewers a taste of the intensity of motorsports.  And check out how his cutting style goes from long takes to quick cuts to pump up the tension, particularly during the climactic end of this clip.

Frankenheimer employed the same types of techniques in 1998’s RONIN: mounting a camera low on the front of the car to denote speed, using helicopters to track from overhead, adding danger to the setting by allowing people out onto the “course”.  This is the stuff that gets the viewer on the edge of their seat.

Can a creative car chase overcome a sketchy story and awful acting?  No, but it can make a movie worth watching, and certainly explains the commercial success behind horrible movies with cool car scenes.

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One comment

  1. HakSnider · March 22, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. It’s interesting to see how Frankenheimer basically kept the same style for his chase scenes over the years – sans the 70’s zooming that is now beyond passe. He really liked cutting back out to a wide long shot after going with closeups and both of these scenes are cut together make them feel more frantic.

    The style was great for the time, but I believe that it has become dated and that filmmakers who emulate this style today would have to be considered hacks. The big car chase scenes can’t save a movie, as you can’t make a Fast & Furious movie without one, but they do make them more watchable. The problem now is that the big car chase scenes have been done to death so you really have to be creative in order to figure out how to shoot one that feels fresh.

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