Under the opening credits you got these beautiful shots of small town life. Some tractors moving around. Some people working. Interesting looking old dudes watching suspiciously out screen doors.
I figured it was just a regular day in farm country until the end of the sequence when the two huge bulldozers lowered their shovels right next to each other, making a giant, shallow v-shape right in the middle of the highway. A roadblock.
I guess that explains all these media people and cops showing up right in the middle of nowhere. The natives stand around and watch. This might be the end of a long journey, at the beginning of the movie.
Suddenly Barry Newman comes down the road, hauling ass in a badass white Dodge Charger. And there’s a shitload of cop cars not too far behind him. He skids out in time to avoid the road block and takes off through a field. The cops follow, and he leads them through an offroad obstacle course.
This is a classic opening to a movie. Here is this guy in a car, getting chased by cops. We don’t know who this guy is. We don’t know what his name is or what he’s about. It could be anything. Maybe he’s a cool guy, maybe he’s got a trunk full of dead kids. We don’t know. All we know is, he’s at the end of the line and he’s still making a run for it. And we’re rooting for him. You wouldn’t think it would work, you wouldn’t think we’d give a shit about some guy we know nothing about in a situation we don’t know the context of. But the simplicity and the mystery of it pulls you in. It’s perfect.
Of course, soon we flash back to the beginning of this whole mess. And the pieces slowly go together. In a nutshell, this guy’s name is Kowalski, and his job is delivering cars. He made his boss a bet that he could get this car from Colorado to San Francisco in 15 hours. So when motorcycle cops try to pull him over for speeding, he decides he’d rather not bother. This sort of starts things off on a bad foot between Kowalski and the policing community. And although he really hasn’t done anything, the tension escalates across hours and state lines. And you slowly start to find out about other things in his life that may be contributing to his decision to say “fuck all y’all” through the medium of speeding.
Along the way he becomes a folk hero, and a blind DJ with a police scanner (Cleavon Little as Super Soul) gives him thinly veiled tips over the airwaves. It’s not a continuous drive – he stops for various encounters with friends and enemies, old and new (including a crazy old hermit who catches snakes in the desert) – but it’s still got five times your recommended daily allowance of awesome car chase.
In the movie THE WOMAN CHASER (and maybe in the Charles Willeford book it’s based on, but I’m not sure because I haven’t read it yet) the anti-hero is trying to make a low budget movie about a trucker who runs over a little girl and then gets chased, and refuses to stop until the citizens of America build a huge road block out of junk, and he crashes through, burns up and then gets beat down afterwards. This is like the non-evil version of that movie, where the driver actually didn’t do anything and the people are all behind him. Only the man is against him. But it does end up with a finish that could be interpreted to be real existential or mystical or something that ends with an al.
This one was before TWO LANE BLACKTOP and some other car driving movies like that. It definitely seems to have influenced the tone of those movies. And it’s still the best of this type of picture.
One thing though, I’d be pretty bummed if I was the guy waiting for the car to be delivered.