Sunday, October 27, 2013

40 years before Vin Diesel

Last Friday, TCM had a whimsical lineup of movies that have famous titles, but are completely different from the movies we usually think of when we see those titles. I'd blogged about Million Dollar Baby before, but not about another of the day's selections, the 1955 movie The Fast and the Furious. It's availalbe on bargain-basement DVDs, and while I can't say anything about the quality of those DVDs, it can't be that much worse than the print that showed on TCM. Although, to be fair to TCM, that may have something to do with the movie itself.

The movie starts off at a roadside service station/diner somewhere in California. Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone, a year before winning the Oscar for Written on the Wind) shows up driving one of those wonderful 1950s vintage sports cars, a Jaguar with no top, only two seats, and incredibly low to the ground. It's the sort of car that looks like it would be fun to drive in an open road race, but inconvenient to have as a car for any other purpose. Outside the service station is Bob, a creepy-looking trucker played by Bruno VeSota although he looks more like William Conrad if you ask me. Inside, she meets Mr. Myers (John Ireland), a man looking for a ride. But Bob recognizes Myers, or thinks he does: the guy looks like Frank Webster, a wanted criminal whokiled a man when he drove the man's truck off the road, and then escaped from the police! It turns out that Bob is right, and it is Webster. So Webster conks Bob over the head and absconds with Connie in her Jaguar.

Connie, understandably, doesn't want to be carjacked, but if the choice is between that and getting shot up, perhaps carjacking isn't so bad. Besides, Webster has a plan that makes it sound like Connie will be able to survive if only she doesn't try to stop it: Webster wants to drive to Mexico, since extradition from there was apparently a difficult thing back in the day, considering how any movies have bad guys trying to make it to Mexico (or already being there) as a major plot point. There's a wrinkle, though, that may or may not help Webster: Connie was driving down to a car race called the International, in which she was planning to drive. (I hope not in the outfit she's wearing, however.) All those other sports cars would give Webster a chance to blend in, and a chance to cross the border without being noticed, since the race course ends in Mexico. But it also involves a significant delay, during which he could be found out.

The police, of course, are investigating the incident back at the service station. Bob isn't much help, since he spends the rest of the movie in a hospital bed on an incredibly cheap set, regaining consciousness long enough to say a syllable every now and then. One of those syllables is "Jag", however, which gives the police the idea that perhaps one of the sports cars is being used by Webster. Of course, we know that's the truth, but the police don't. They've been given conflicting testimony by the diner's owner Wilma (Iris Adrian, tying to put on a smartalecky Eve Arden act, only much more downmarket). So it's going to be up to the folks in the International. One of Connie's fellow drivers Faber (Bruce Carlisle), realizes that there' ssomething not quite right with "Myers" and Connie, and he's going to take matters into his own hands if he has to.

The Fast and the Furious has a lot of flaws, since it was made on an incredibly low budget. Many of the car scenes, at least the ones in which we can see John Ireland behind the wheel, are done on a soundstage with rear-projection photography, which in this case in incredibly obvoius. Ireland himself doesn't do much acting here, other than constantly yelling at Malone. There are continuity issues galore in the racing scenes. And the movie has serious plot holes. Connie's motivations defy logic, since halfway through the film she tries to convince Webster that he'll have no problem clearing his name (Webster claims to have been framed) if only he'll go back and stand trial. And she sincerely seems to believe such nonsense!

All that said, however, The Fast and the Furious is surprisingly entertaining. Fans of vintage racing will probably like the old cars, as well as the footage from old road races that has been inserted at various points to make the film look like it's got more action than it really does. Ultimately, The Fast and the Furious stands as nn example of how you can entertain people even on a low-budget, if you have a little creativity. You don't need a nine-figure budget, CGI effects and explosions, and umpteen sequels.

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