Several weeks ago, the words “Shelter in Place” would have sounded like the name of an up-and-coming rock band’s first album. Now it’s a term on the tip of everyone’s tongue as we all do our best to stay at home to expedite getting the Covid-19 virus in the rearview mirror. To pass the time, many people are watching their favorite Netflix series and television shows, or discovering something like “Tiger King” (which I hadn’t heard of either until the last couple of weeks).
Here, most references to the word "Tiger" are going to have the marque Sunbeam associated with it. So if you want to binge watch the four-wheeled version, try the neo-noir movie “Bunny Lake Is Missing” (1966), science fiction’s “The Projected Man” (1967), and the comedy “Get Charlie Tully” (1972, also known as “Ooh…You Are Awful”). While I can’t personally recommend any of these for the simple reason I haven’t seen them, here are a number I have seen where cars have featured roles. Best of all, this list is filled with titles not normally found on most car movie compilations.
Rather than listing the movies by title, recommendations are done by car type. To view tasty machinery actually seen or properly portrayed in period, I would recommend:
- For Mercedes 300SL lovers, “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958) is a fantastic noir flick I’d never heard of until seeing it a couple of weeks ago on TCM’s fabulous “Noir Alley” that’s hosted by the always informative Eddie Muller. It’s exquisitely filmed in Paris and its outskirts, and the tight plot follows three disparate couples over a 24-hour period where their paths cross in appropriately fatalistic fashions. Nighttime Paris and the surrounding countryside are absolutely luscious in conveying that ominous noir mood, and for us car lovers nighttime is when we first meet the starring Mercedes 300SL Gullwing. The car is on the screen a fair amount of time in several different settings, and seeing it compared to everything else on the road, you get a real period-correct perspective on how utterly revolutionary this Mercedes was. Think Lambo Miura and Countach degree of impact, and you start to get the idea.
- For Shelby Cobra fans, I was very tempted to go with one of my favorite car movies, “The Gumball Rally.” Since it’s on a lot of lists, we will go for 1980’s “The Hollywood Knights” instead. This flick is set in Beverly Hills in 1965, and was filmed in the Los Angeles area so there are numerous locations that nicely convey the era. The plot centers around the Hollywood Knights car club on Halloween night, and it's filled with the typical “teenagers versus inept cops” antics. But what the filmmakers really got right was the tasty period machinery: Porsche 356s, Pontiac GTOs, ’55-57 Chevys, Ford Mustangs, hot rods galore and a whole bunch more. What I distinctly remember (and it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie) is a couple of nighttime drag racing scenes with either or silver or silver-blue 427 Cobra. There is the typical jockeying/showing off as cars cruise down Main Street, and then they light them up to the thunderous bellow of high horsepower V8s. Interestingly, several of the cast members (Michele Pfeiffer, Fran Drescher, Robert Wuhl and Tony Danza) went on to have varying degrees of fame.
- For late 1960/early 1970s exotica, and some American muscle/ponycars, a visual feast is “Lady Ice” from 1973. Donald Sutherland, Jennifer O’Neill and Robert Duvall are on the masthead of this insurance and jewelry crime caper, but the real stars are the cars. Shot in what looks to be Florida, there are so many machines to pick from it’s difficult to know where to start. There are a number of Mustangs, what looks to be a 1967 Camaro and more good Americana, but it’s the sports cars and exotics that steal the show. Take your choice: Pantera, Citroen SM, Porsche 911S, Ferrari Daytona Coupe and Rolls Silver Shadow, but for my money the headliner is the Maserati Ghibli Spyder. Thankfully, it's in a good number of scenes, and its metallic blue/tan colors look utterly resplendent in that Florida sunshine.
- For a Split Window Corvette and all sorts of sports cars and exotics from the 1950s and early 1960s, “Viva Las Vegas” is guaranteed to keep your attention. Found in numerous scenes is this particular Corvette that’s known as the “7-11 car," and it’s no movie special but a real racer. Gary Pickens was the sales manager at Harry Mann Chevrolet in southern California, and a talented driver and gambler. The dealership tried to get an early Z06 but had no luck, so they ordered a Fuelie upon which the Z06 was based, and had the shop modify it to Z06 specs. Pickens raced it through much of 1963 wearing its “7-11” livery, and when not competing it was used in “Viva Las Vegas” starring Elvis and Ann Margaret. The movie is not the best, but thankfully the cars are. In addition to the Vette, there are several Ferraris including a 250 TdF and 750 Monza, smallblock Shelby Cobra, what looks to be a mid-engine Maser, Mercedes 300SL Roadster, Jag XKEs and 120s, Max Balchowsky’s Ol’ Yallers and a whole bunch more.
- There are at least three movies starring Iso Grifos. Probably the hardest to watch is 1975’s “Mahogany” with Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams; a beautiful red GL coupe is featured towards the end of the movie in a fairly long driving sequence but it ends up shooting off an elevated freeway and getting pretty tweaked. A silver Grifo has a great roll in 1973's crime drama “The Violent Professionals” that’s shot in Milan, Italy; our undercover detective hero shows his mettle as a getaway driver in a nice extended sequence that features (to get geeky) Grifo chassis number 134. For even more screen time, check out “OSS 177—Double Agent” from 1968. It’s based on a series of French spy/espionage novels that predated James Bond by several years, was shot in Europe, and has our protagonist zipping around the continent in a glorious looking white Grifo.
- Since we started this list with noir, that’s where we will conclude with 1954’s “Drive A Crooked Road.” Set in southern California, this flick is a fabulous period study where an ace garage mechanic (Mickey Rooney) dreams of running in Italy's grueling Mille Miglia race. He gets caught up with a blond femme fatale (Dianne Foster) and some schemers who need a driver and fast getaway car to pull off a bank job. They dangle Foster and the money carrot in front of Rooney, promising the dame and enough dough to fulfill his racing dreams. There are a number of customs (De Soto, Fords, etc.) and sports cars (Jag XK120, MGTD, Ferrari 250 MM and more) but the real star of this crime caper is the dialogue. This was the early years of America’s sports car movement and the explanations of the cars, racing and the terminology used is completely accurate and not given the typical Hollywood embellishment. A nice little gem to watch, this entry is illustrated with an original poster since I don’t yet have my 250 MM and XK120 images in digital form—plus how can you not like the “Adult Entertainment” sticker slapped across the center of the poster! Needless to say, those words have quite a different meaning today…
Have fun binge watching, and stay safe and healthy out there. Be sure to let me know if you have seen any of these, and what your favorite “undiscovered” car flick is; I may need something to watch, too!