Stars: Shelley Hack, Frank Gorshin, Peter Graves, Harriet Nelson, Barbara Rush, Dinah Shore, Abe Vigoda, Alfie Wise and George Hamilton
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.