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Cars & Culture: Movies that murder the car

These silver screen scenes show no mercy to classic automobiles.

Published August 3, 2012

It’s the middle of July and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are selling Christmas trees from door to door.

A particularly unreceptive homeowner gets under their skin. One thing leads to another and all out war ensues. The homeowner in a towering rage attacks Laurel and Hardy’s car, somehow managing to disconnect a headlight which he then smashes through the car’s front window.

Laurel and Hardy in return attack his house. The homeowner with more maniacal energy dismembers the car’s steering wheel, while Laurel with his customary air of stupefaction looks on. By the end of the film their car lies in ruins.

This scenario, from Laurel and Hardy’s 1929 Big Business, is an early instance in movie history of what I call “autocide” — the deliberate wrecking of a car in anger or malice. Since then autocide has been shown in movies a number of times.

In the general category of autocide I do not include car chases or smash-ups or anything involving police vehicles or race cars. The four-wheeled victims I have in mind do not perish in spectacular explosions, and they don’t die a noble death in the line of duty.

They’re not warrior cars, like the Aston Martins in the James Bond movies with their pop-out gun barrels and bullet shields over the rear window. Or the lethal and mysterious cars in such horror films as The Car (1977), Christine (1983), The Hearse (1980) and so on, or the supercar in the 1980s television series, Knight Rider.

But the movie cars I’m thinking of are minding their own business when the really bad stuff happens.

Some fine discrimination is called for. In the 1955 Bad Day at Black Rock, Ernest Borgnine tries to drive Spencer Tracy and his Jeep off the road.

At first sight, this is simply a car chase, but Borgnine is not trying to catch up with the Jeep but to scare and torment Tracy, viciously bumping his Jeep from the rear — a process that increasingly looks like an attack on the Jeep itself.

Borgnine seems to have personified the Jeep as an extension of its driver, so that the Jeep itself invites abuse.

The 1957 Ford driven by Janet Leigh in Hitchcock’s 1960 suspense classic Psycho would also seem to lie outside the notion of autocide since the demise of the Ford — Tony Perkins pushes it into a swamp — is simply a way of disposing of evidence, including Leigh’s corpse.

The Ford is purely instrumental. Yet the scene where Perkins sinks the car is so powerful in its portrayal of that Ford sliding into the mud and the water, the car seems to be the focus of Tony Perkins’ malice, and a symbol of Leigh’s victimhood.

The Ford returns like a vengeful ghost. In the last scene of the movie the ill-starred vehicle is slowly resurrected from the swamp.

The last ride of the heroines in the 1991 Thelma and Louise, as they embrace in their suicide pact and then rocket off the cliff in Louise’s beloved 1966 Ford Thunderbird, would seem to be autocide. But it is not.

The Thunderbird is eclipsed by the emotions of the protagonists. It just happens to be the vehicle available for their purposes.

The real instance of autocide is the two stolen cars driven over the cliff in the 1955 Rebel Without a Cause as part of a “chickie run.”

In this run, the first driver to jump from the car before it goes over the cliff is a chicken. The cars themselves are a deliberate sacrifice to teenaged male bravado, justified because the owners of the car presumably are not worthy to engage in chickie runs like the hero James Dean.

Dean finds himself part of this ritual when a rival teenaged thug slashes the tire of his customized and hopped-up 1949 Mercury. This is serious. You can mess with the hero all you want, but leave his car alone. Such a symbolic challenge to his manhood, via his Merc, forces Dean’s hand.

The theme of a car destroyed because its owner is unworthy is continued in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Pal Cameron Frye (played by Alan Ruck) shows Ferris his father’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California. His father has spent three years restoring the car. Cameron explains, “It is his life. It is his passion. My father loves this car more than life itself.”

Ferris (Matthew Broderick) replies, “A man with priorities so out of whack doesn’t deserve such a fine automobile.”

True, Ferris has no deliberate intention to destroy the car but his reckless use of it, including foolishly trusting it to the hands of two garage attendants, is tantamount to autocide. The destruction of the car — a high speed, tire-screaming, backward plunge into a ravine — is the logical outcome of Ferris’ disdain.

Perhaps the most characteristic form of autocide occurs when a car takes the fall for a loathed individual. This is why, in 1974’s The Longest Yard (set in Palm Beach, Fla.), the hero Burt Lancaster, after a drunken quarrel with his girlfriend, takes her prized Bentley Continental GT for a joyride and then drives it into the bay.

This destruction is meant to be a grim jest, but there is no humour in the fate of musician Coalhouse Walker’s Model T Ford in 1981’s Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. In that novel, and movie, Walker’s car is vandalized by the racist volunteer firemen of the Emerald Isle Engine, who tear its top to shreds and express their contempt for the car and its owner. The consequences are fatal.

Not all such acts of autocide are tragic, but for the car lover the wanton destruction of a car, even an un-glamourous 1957 Ford, is always sad.

“What did I do?” asks Ferris’s stunned companion after inadvertently demolishing his father’s prized possession.

“You killed the car,” Ferris replies, and there is no consolation for the desolation of those words.

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