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Every so often, a movie features a car chase or two that really knocks it out of the park. You know, the sort of movie, even years later, people are still talking about the car chase. After bouncing it back and forth at the Automoblog office, here are our picks for the five best car chases in movie history. These are in no particular order but feel free to argue amongst yourselves or give us a hard time on Twitter.
Bullitt gets a bit of a bad rap amongst our fellow gearheads for being a “boring cop movie,” but we think that’s unfounded. It’s a great movie with excellent casting and one of the best (if not the best) chase scenes ever committed to film.
King of Cool
Two words: Steve McQueen. If that doesn’t get you watching Bullitt, you’ll have to surrender your gearhead club card. In addition to The King of Cool starring as the title character, we’ve got Don Gordon as McQueen’s partner, Detective “Dell” Delgetti.
Robert Vaughn plays the oleaginous and untrustworthy U.S. Senator Walter Chalmers, and Simon Oakland as the gruff boss-cop, Captain Sam Bennett. There’s also Jacqueline Bisset as Cathy, Bullitt’s girlfriend (and a welcome relief in such a macho, dude-oriented movie). Most importantly, there’s Paul Genge as Mike, The Hitman, and Bill Hickman as Phil, The Hitman’s Partner (and we’ll get back to Hickman later on this list).
Directed by Peter Yates
British filmmaker Peter Yates might have been seen as an odd choice to make a movie like Bullitt because his other directing credits include Murphy’s War (1971), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Deep (1977), Breaking Away (1979), Krull (1983) and The Dresser (1983). Not the kind of chief you’d think to team up with an actor like McQueen, but boy, did it work in Bullitt. All of those other movies came after he did Bullitt. Working so well with McQueen is what put Yates on the map.
Don’t Get Too Hung Up On The Chase
As great as the chase scene is, this is a good time to tell any pedantic gearheads out there not to get too hung up on the chase. If you’re getting picky, you’ll see one too many hubcaps fly off, note pre-existing skid marks from previous takes, and seriously trip over the geography gone nuts. Ignore that. Don’t get lost in the details. Frank just made a right on Divisidero and is now on The 101 in Daly City? I know, I know, but go with the flow. This is still one of the best.
Police lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) seeks out the underworld boss who killed the witness in his protection. Many critics agree that Bullitt has one of the best chase scenes in movie history.
Best Car Chases Class: Neo-Noir Action
Fun Fact: Although Steve McQueen was credited with the driving during the chase sequence, the duties were actually shared by McQueen and Bud Ekins, one of Hollywood’s best stunt drivers. ~ IMDb
#2: The French Connection
With William Friedkin at the helm, The French Connection set the benchmark for every dirty, gritty, low-rent, hard job cop film that followed. The story, inspired by actual events, revolves around grumpy cop Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, his world-weary partner, Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, and an obsession with busting French heroin kingpin Alain “Frog One” Charnier. It also has one of the best car chases in movie history.
Trying To Catch The Train
The French Connection is justifiably famous for this completely bonkers chase scene in the middle of the movie. Specifically, Popeye Doyle is chasing after one of the henchmen, only the bad guy is in an elevated subway train, and Popeye is in a ’71 Le Mans he just grabbed from a passerby. To make matters worse, there’s traffic: lots and lots of stupid, slow-moving, middle of New York traffic. Popeye’s the kind of guy that gets PO’d if his coffee is cold, so he handles this situation with all the aplomb and gaiety you’d expect. Screaming, horn honking, wild gesticulating, ramming – you know, the usual stuff they tell you not to do in driver’s training, and it’s friggin’ fantastic.
The cast is chock full of guys that look like 40 miles of bad road on a hot day. Gene Hackman as Detective Doyle is perfect. Fernando Rey plays Alain “Frog One” Charnier, the enigmatic French drug lord. Of course, we find Roy Scheider as Detective Russo, Popeye’s long-suffering partner. Other recognizable faces include Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, and Bill Hickman as FBI Agent Bill Mulderig.
About That Teardown Bit
The French Connection all boils down to finding the junk, the smack, the H, the China white, the heroin. Frog One has got to have it in his car, a pretty sweet all-black Cadillac, right? We gearheads get to witness a disturbing scene of that Caddy getting torn apart, panel by panel. Do they find the heroin? Oh, just watch the film, it’s great!
William Friedkin helms this Academy Award-winning film about a pair of NYPD detectives (Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider) and their pursuit of a French drug dealer named Alain “Frog One” Charnier.
Best Car Chases Class: Crime, Drama
Fun Fact: According to Friedkin, the significance of the straw hat in the rear window of Doyle and Russo’s car was a universal sign in NYC that undercover cops were on duty. ~ IMDb
Here’s a film that, in my opinion, has the single best car chase ever filmed. It’s about a squad of plainclothes New York cops who use dirty, unorthodox tactics to catch their target on charges leading to prison sentences of seven years or more, hence the team’s name: The Seven-Ups. It’s an ideal cop movie with twists and turns, but man, what a chase scene.
The Seven-Ups was directed by Philip D’Antoni, the guy who produced Bullitt and then The French Connection, so it’s no surprise there’s an impressive chase scene. Filmed in and around Upper Manhattan, the chase sequence was edited by Gerald B. Greenberg, who won an Academy Award for his work on The French Connection, so we can see where this is going.
We’ve got the bad guy’s 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville sedan wildly pursued by Detective Mannuci’s ’73 Pontiac Ventura coupe, with the two cars bouncing down the gradients of the Upper West Side, including West 96th Street and onto the George Washington Bridge, leading to New Jersey’s Palisades Interstate. It all ends with a death-defying accident that puts other chase scenes to shame. Seriously, one of the best.
Who Is That Guy!?
Bill Hickman is perhaps the unsung hero of Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Seven-Ups. He coordinated and did the driving stunts in all three movies. Hickman is a certified badass, a fantastic stunt driver, and not that bad of an actor. The fact he’s attached to films of this caliber is nothing short of impressive.
Detective Buddy Mannuci (Roy Scheider) leads the Seven-Ups, a squad of plainclothes officers who use unorthodox tactics to bring criminals to justice. The film bears a close resemblance to Bullitt and The French Connection.
Best Car Chases Class: Neo-Noir Action
Fun Fact: This is one of only two roles for Benny Marino, who played Lou, Tony Lo Bianco’s brother, in The French Connection and has a smaller part in The Seven-Ups. It was also Bill Hickman’s last film. ~ IMDb
The Bourne Identity
It’s hard to top the chase scene in The Bourne Identity. The story of a clandestine government agency operative wonderfully played by Matt Damon, the film takes us from one exotic locale to the next as amnesiac Jason Bourne tries to outwit bad guys and find out who he is and what got him to this point. It’s a heck of a spy movie from start to finish, and right in the middle of it, there’s this excellent chase scene.
Much Can a Mini Take?
Poor Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente) meets this Jason Bourne guy, and the next thing she knows, he more or less kidnaps her, steals her car, and ends up on the run from Paris to the four corners of the Earth. Said car is a rather beat-up original Mini, but in the capable hands of Bourne, it is a terror to behold.
Rally ace Paddy Hopkirk said, “A small road looks like a big road to a Mini,” but that alleyway? No way, no how that’s gonna fit. Nor is a Mini going to fit through that gap. Or outrun a slew of French cops. On motorcycles. Going against the flow of heavy midday traffic! Seriously, The Bourne Identity has one of the best car chases of all time.
Great Movie For Everyone
Yes, for us gearheads, there’s that chase scene. But for everyone else, The Bourne Identity is simply a good flick. Rounding out the cast with Damon and Potente are Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles. Overall, chase scene or not, the Bourne Identity is a good ride.
Based on the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Identity follows the story of Jason Bourne, a skilled operative who attempts to regain his memory as enemies close in. The series continues with The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), The Bourne Legacy (2012), and Jason Bourne (2016).
Year: 2002 (franchise debut)
Best Car Chases Class: Action
Fun Fact: Producers used the same stunt driving team that orchestrated the famous Paris car chase scene in Ronin. ~ IMDb
The General is arguably Buster Keaton’s best work. The 1926 silent film, inspired by The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger, is a true story that occurred during the American Civil War. Even though it’s not technically a car movie, we couldn’t resist putting it on this list. For being a century old, most have no idea just how good of a film The General is, let alone how good of a chase movie it is.
The “Limited” Premise
There isn’t a single chase scene in The General per se, but the entire movie (all 75 minutes) is a chase, as in one train chasing another. If you think about it long enough, the main criticism is how it takes place on one-way train tracks. It’s different from most movies with great chase scenes where you have an entire city to burn up. In The General, you don’t have that, so it seems limited, but that’s where Keaton’s genius shines.
The Great Stone Face
Yes, Buster Keaton, a comic virtuoso of such towering ability that even Johnny Knoxville said he would never attempt some of the stunts he’s seen Keaton do. And that’s what makes The General so unique in this day and age. There are no special effects and no regard for safety. When Keaton barely gets a railroad tie out of the way of a speeding steam locomotive preventing a literal derailment, he had to do it. No second takes, no computer graphics, no stunt double.
If Keaton blows it, he dies in a literal train wreck and steam explosion! And that’s just a minor gag. The bigger stunts involve cannons and explosions and train trestles. The General has enough close calls to make an OSHA official pass out.
Rolling On The Floor
The General is hysterical. You’re laughing at basically three things: a funny gag, an even funnier gag, or the fact Keaton didn’t die doing that. And you want to know the real funny bit? It bombed. The General failed at the box office to the point of nearly taking Keaton’s career with it. But now it is recognized among the most significant American films ever made; not silent films, not comedy films, simply one of the best films ever. And it’s all a giant chase.
After being rejected by the Confederate army, engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) must reclaim his beloved locomotive (The General) after Union spies capture it.
Best Car Chases Class: Silent Film
Fun Fact: For the scenes with the opposing armies, Keaton had the extras (which included 500 Oregon National Guard troops) wear the gray uniforms of the Confederacy and march in one direction past the camera, then had them change to the Union blues to march past the camera in the opposite direction. ~ IMDb
Best Car Chases In Movie History
After all this chasing and running around, where do we find ourselves? Entertained, at the very least, cause you’ve got five shining examples to watch right here. Plus, we all get to remember the work of Bill Hickman. These are the best car chases we could find for now. Have we missed any? There’s a lot out there, so if we have, hit us up on Twitter and let us know!
Longtime Automoblog writer Tony Borroz has worked on popular driving games as a content expert, in addition to working for aerospace companies, software giants, and as a movie stuntman. He lives in the northeast corner of the northwestern-most part of the Pacific Northwest.