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Monday, 29 February 2016

Death Car on the Freeway (1979)

Director: Hal Needham
Stars: Shelley Hack, Frank Gorshin, Peter Graves, Harriet Nelson, Barbara Rush, Dinah Shore, Abe Vigoda, Alfie Wise and George Hamilton
The fourth centennial for me to celebrate in 2016 is that of Dinah Shore, who was a leap year baby, born in Tennessee on 29th February, 1916. She died at 77 in 1994, but technically she only saw 19 birthdays, so she was forever young. Like Jackie Gleason, her name was a major one across multiple media and it’s arguable whether she was better known for music, radio or television. As a vocalist, she was the highest charting female in the 1940s; one of her songs, Buttons and Bows, sat at number one for ten weeks; and Blues in the Night was only her first of nine million sellers. On radio, she starred in seven different series of her own and guested on many others. She had appeared on television as far back as 1937 but gained her own show in 1951 and racked up a string of successes that led to eight Emmies and a Golden Globe. Her film career never took off, ending with Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick in 1952, but she did make more for television, including this odd melding of genres from CBS in 1979.

Its reputation, surely emphasised by its title, is as a thriller, a late TV movie rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s masterful Duel, which was almost eight years old when this was first broadcast. While there are certainly moments of tension on the California freeways, the most suspenseful scene takes place off the road and the film plays out more as a journalist drama than a thriller, albeit one set in television news rather than newspapers. There are points where the picture seems to be attempting serious dramatic points, a long way beyond what might be expected for a TV movie, but none of them are really explored, so it ends up far less substantial than it clearly thinks it is. Shelley Hack’s performance doesn’t help, as this was early in her career and, while she looks cute and lights up well when she smiles, she’s understated and rather careful with her dialogue. She does have her moments, but the new Charlie’s Angel was unable to give Janette Claussen the gravitas she needed to really make the difference that she so aches to make.
When the story begins, she’s an up and coming news anchor at KXLA, but she’s still new to the business and very green. In fact, she seems a little too green for someone hired out of college by an experienced newsman, Ray Jeffries, who mentored her and married her. They’ve been divorced for a few months, but he’s still after her, both romantically and professionally. She’s polite and plays along, but she needed out from under his reputation, wanting to establish herself on air rather than just as his writer. She manages it too, discovering a possible link between two separate cases of apparent road rage, investigating them and building the story as it grows. Jeffries brings her flowers on the night that her ratings exceed his for the first time, but he’s too much of a male chauvinist pig to mean it. While Hack isn’t emotional enough, her character does get plenty of emotion out of her ex, played unsympathetically by a suitably smarmy George Hamilton. I may not have been entirely on her side, but I certainly wasn’t on his!

The news story is the thriller angle and we’re thrown into it immediately after the opening credits. Becky Lyons is driving to Van Nuys to be the first victim on an episode of Barnaby Jones. Instead she becomes the second victim of a driver with apparent anger issues. After cutting in front of a blue van to make her exit, its driver wipes down his steering wheel, pulls on gloves and puts on a bluegrass eight track tape to accompany his quest to run her off the road. He blocks her exit, attempts to bounce her into a collision and, eventually, shoves her little yellow Honda hard enough to leave it hanging over the guard rail of a bridge. Jan’s co-workers are cynical, one highlighting that the girl was in showbiz and probably wouldn’t ever get a better chance at fame than her on air interview at the scene, but Jan connects the incident to an earlier news report her ex had covered of a tennis pro, Dinah Shore’s character, who had experienced almost exactly the same thing. The cops don’t buy it yet but we’re now chasing the Freeway Fiddler.
If this was trying to be Duel, it fails pretty miserably. Spielberg had Dennis Weaver terrorised for over an hour, unable to get away from a mysterious truck that’s set on killing him, but Death Car on the Freeway replaces this tight approach with a set of much looser ones. That grimy and characterful Peterbilt 281, a model chosen by Spielberg because its needlenose front resembled a face, was replaced by an everyday Dodge van. The hellish suggestion that perhaps it was the truck rather than its driver that wanted to kill is ignored entirely here. The suspense of one driver being pursued along an increasingly claustrophobic freeway is defused here by having the killer rack up a collection of victims in separate vignettes. Shelley Hack isn’t even one of them, not getting to duel with the Dodge until the finalĂ©. And, of course, we keep on cutting away from the freeway action to watch her cover the case, which is more important to the film because of what it means to her than for what it actually is.

It’s surprising to discover that Death Car on the Freeway hasn’t been released on DVD yet, given that its impressive cast list alone would endear it to many fans. For now, we have to settle for VHS rips or a YouTube upload. I had to try a few copies, the best of which was still far from pristine, the blue van being more like black and the ‘one car on green’ light being more blue. The opening credits list a set of ‘cameo stars’, some of whom get a lot more screen time than a cameo would ever provide. George Hamilton is the ‘and’ at the end of that list, suggesting that he’s really playing support for Hack, whose show this clearly is, but there are seven others in the list and only two really count as cameo appearances. Those are Abe Vigoda, who gets one ephemeral scene in a hospital bed to establish his cute nurse before she becomes a victim, and Harriet Hilliard, the Harriet of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, who plays a blind landlady in a late but important scene as Jan closes in on the Freeway Fiddler. Those are cameos.
Jan’s co-workers at KXLA are all parts. She anchors with Alfie Wise, a regular in Hal Needham movies who bolsters her capably as Ace Durham, a name which sounds a lot more dynamic than he is; the older and more established female anchor is Rosemary, played with knowing cynicism by the underrated Barbara Rush; and her boss is Ralph Chandler, in the form of Frank Gorshin, who gets a little more to do here as a supportive authority figure than he did in my last centennial review, Skidoo. Peter Graves, right before he would return to fame in Airplane!, plays the only cop we really see in what could easily be described as a serial killer story, Lt Haller. Sure, there are a couple of cars giving chase with sirens blaring late in the film but he’s the only cop who has a face and the chance to speak. It’s hardly a challenging role and he could do this in his sleep but he does his job and doesn’t phone it in. That leaves Dinah Shore, who was clearly enjoying her time actually acting again outside the variety format she was known for.

Before the victims start to become mere statistics, we get to know three of them just a little. As tennis pro Lynn Bernheimer, Shore was the first victim of the Freeway Fiddler, back when he hadn’t quite mastered a suitable killing technique, so she’s also the first survivor. Jan interviews her, of course, but she gets other scenes later when the reporter has further questions or, in one instance, quite possibly because she was still on set looking chipper and Needham just shot some more footage. The other two early victims were up and comers, but they became names later. Becky Lyons, whose near death experience opens the film, is Morgan Brittany, a Hollywood moniker so glitzy that it’s hardly surprising that she ended up on Dallas. Jane Guston, the nurse whose cuteness pleasantly tormented Abe Vigoda, is Tara Buckman, who got her most memorable role in another Hal Needham film, as Adrienne Barbeau’s navigator in The Cannonball Run. Well, either that or for her murder at the hands of Santa Claus in Silent Night, Deadly Night.
As much fun as it is to watch all these famous names and faces, the story can’t get by on star power but it tried and failed to do that throughout. Part of it is the fact that nobody except Hack and Hamilton get a real chance to endow their characters with depth. Part of it is the unimaginative cinematography which is restricted to in car, next to car and helicopter. Outside terror on the freeway scenes, it’s simple back and forth stuff that hardly inspires. Much of it is the fact that it keeps setting up more powerful directions, but refuses to commit to them: the angle where Jan’s take on macho car advertising prompts pressure on her network from Detroit, the feminist angle that sees her phrase these crimes as being anti-women and the angle that plays up the psychological profile of the killer as being dominated by his mother and having a strong need to be hurt or killed for being a bad boy. Instead we get seventies clichĂ©s like freeway ramps under construction and cars that explode at the slightest touch.

The best scenes to my mind come late in the film, when Jan finally discovers the confidence that her ex-husband is set on chipping away from her and decides to follow up on what might be the most ill-advised lead that I’ve seen in a thriller. Sure, the Freeway Fiddler is targetting attractive women and she’s set him up to hate her with a passion, but when she receives an evasive phone call from a car club on the wrong side of the sticks, why wouldn’t she just head on down to see the Street Phantoms without taking anyone along or even letting anyone know that she’s going? What, as they say, could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out that the folk at the car club and the collection of bikers next door are very good at making her uncomfortable while still helping her out in a neatly abstract way. Both Robert F Lyons and Sid Haig shine here, in small parts dwarfed by those star cameos. Roger Aaron Brown is decent too, even hindered by a very poor make-up job, his horrific scar looking like someone just threw a ball of plasticine at him.
The worst are more uninspired than they are actually bad. For a film that advertises in its title a death car on the freeway, the scenes which place the death van into action could have been improved in a hundred ways. The stunts are well handled, but I’ve seen California drivers and don’t remotely buy their utter lack of response to attempted vehicular homicide here. It would also have been good to not recognise certain cars across multiple scenes. I liked the idea of Jan taking a defensive driving class, from former stuntman and director of this film, Hal Needham himself, but it makes no sense. Cars weren’t that cheap in 1979! I don’t buy that a little money down will cover the damage they cause and I doubt that dangerous driving can extend past the school to involve an 80mph chase down rural roads with Needham’s hot pursuit in a suspiciously recognisable Dodge van. There’s no way any insurance company would cover this school! But hey, this was the seventies. A better script and a better villain and this could have been something.

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