Everyone loves a gangster movie. And there can’t have been many gangster flicks that didn’t feature a healthy garage full of bad-boy motors. Right from the beginning of the movie industry cars have been icons loaded with meaning. When representing archetypes like villains, filmmakers from Ealing Studios to the Parisian Left Bank (not to mention Hollywood) have hooked up our most infamous characters with cars that have represented everything from existential ennui to oedipal mother love. Here are some of our favourites.
Think of the classic Brit flick of 1969 The Italian Job and what immediately comes to mind is the trio of Mini Coopers blasting through the backstreets of Rome. But the preternaturally beautiful opening sequence of the film, in which a Lamborghini Miura dances through a succession of alpine bends is absolute poetry in motion.
In 1971’s Get Carter, perhaps the best known and darkest British gangster movie of all time, there the classic getaway vehicle is featured, the MK 2 Jag. The Mk 2 represents a very British, very working class brand of hard-won sophistication and brutal potency which is embodied in the flesh by the hard-as-nails Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine.
A lesser known, and certainly less successful Brit gangster flick was Villain, which also opened in cinemas in 1971 (which is probably why it flopped). A vodka-saturated Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the brutal, misogynistic central character in a vaguely absurd, cartoon cockney manner. Dakin and his crew plan a classic five vehicle heist (Jag Mk2, two Zephyr Zodiacs, and a couple of Triumphs). It all, predictably, goes horribly wrong. There’s a hilarious payoff at the end when Burton’s character ends up collecting a bundle of cash from the mattress where his beloved muvva lays and drinks endless cups of tea brought to her by her devoted but pyschopathic prodigy.
On the other side of the pond, meanwhile, French filmmakers of a more overtly philosophical bent had been referencing Hollywood gangster movies of old, whilst setting the action in a European setting with quintessentially European characters. In one of the better known films of this era, Francois Truffaut’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) dinky little Renaults perform the walk-on parts whilst the starring roles are reserved for Thunderbirds and Chevrolets. Stripped down monochromatic fun.
In Jean-Pierre Melville’s beautiful and highly influential Le Samourai, however, the lone assassin (played by French movie heart throb Alain Delon) scores a set of skeleton keys which can open any DS ever built. The main protagonist goes on to use a succession of the iconic Citroens to ferry him about from hit-to-hit. The plot device in which the car becomes a universal conduit of murderous intent has been copied by directors as diverse as Hong Kong director John Woo (The Killer) and Jim Jarmusch (Ghostdog).
In complete contrast to Melville’s sparse symbolism, Martin Scorcese uses the cacophony of a full fleet of exploding Cadillacs to signify the inevitable fall-from-grace of a big time crook .
For gangsters in the movies, flash motors and nefarious intent are fatally intertwined. Feel free to send us suggestions for your favourite automotive dispatches from the cinematic underworld.
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