Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Mile Of Cars

It's hard to believe Robert Zemeckis, who later directed the crowd-pleasing yet airheaded FORREST GUMP and CONTACT, had this dark, subversive, and truly hilarious comedy inside of him. Co-written and produced by Bob Gale, USED CARS (the Bobs' follow-up to 1941) was not a hit back in the summer of 1980. The fact that it was released by Columbia one week after AIRPLANE! was no help, nor was the marketing, as is obvious from the dismal one-sheet you see posted here. However, today USED CARS stands up as a solid smash and one of the funniest comedies ever made, as well as one of the most quotable.

The wonderful Kurt Russell, known only at the time for his Disney features and playing Elvis Presley in John Carpenter’s highly rated TV-movie, raises a few eyebrows as Rudy Russo, a shady Arizona used-car dealer with dreams of becoming a corrupt politician. He needs $60,000 to buy his way onto the ballot, so every penny he makes lying, cheating, and screwing his customers goes right into his safe, which is hidden behind the celery in the refrigerator of his trailer home.

Rudy's boss is Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a kindly gent who would disapprove of Rudy's sales technique, if he were alert enough to notice them. The lot isn't doing well, but Luke refuses to sell it to his venal twin brother Roy (also Warden), who owns the much more successful dealership across the street.

When Luke dies of a heart attack (intentionally induced by one of Roy's employees), Rudy and his co-workers, salesman Jeff (Gerrit Graham) and mechanic Jim (Frank McRae), hide the body and cover up the death, so Roy won't gain control of the lot. Another monkey wrench in Rudy's senatorial plans is Luke's estranged daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon), who arrives to patch things up with Dear Ol' Dad.

While Zemeckis and Gale's script does a nice job imbuing its plot with enough interesting touches to keep it believable from beginning to end, USED CARS is mainly remembered for its choice dialogue and outrageous setpieces. A pair of illegal television commercials; a knockdown, dragout fight between Roy and Jeff; Jeff's using his pet dog Toby's skill in "playing dead" to win another sale; and the climactic race across the desert involving hundreds of junkers driven by teenagers are just a few of the memorable scenes that have made USED CARS the unsung classic it is. It's also one of the period's most quote-worthy comedies: "You think we like being associated with the President of the United States? We run an honest lot here." "Fifty bucks never killed anybody." "It's runnin' real hot, old man!" "Come on over, let's do a little disco!" "Hey, Rudy Washington, what's happenin', brother?" “What’re you, a fuckin’ parrot?” “That’s the most blatant case of false advertising I’ve ever seen.”

The razor-sharp screenplay suffers a little bit from dated references to the Iran hostage scandal, Jimmy Carter, etc., but the joy of watching it work is realizing that, with the exception of Barbara, all the characters are lying, scheming crooks. However, we're easily manipulated into rooting for the "good guys," even though their methods are just as extreme, if not more so, than those of Roy, the “bad guy.”

Much of the goodwill is due to the actors. Russell, who had never made a R-rated film before this, is outstanding in a role that may have been a warmup for the antisocial Snake Plissken character in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, which he made next. Graham and McRae deliver rollicking support, and you'll have fun spotting other familiar faces in the cast, including TV's Lenny & Squiggy, Michael McKean and David L. Lander, as electronics experts, Joe Flaherty of SCTV, Al Lewis of THE MUNSTERS, Michael Talbott of MIAMI VICE, Woodrow Parfrey, Wendie Jo Sperber, Marc McClure, Dub Taylor, PENTHOUSE Pet of the Year Cheryl Rixon, Dick Miller, Betty Thomas as a stripper, Claude Earl Jones, Terence Knox, and Alfonso Arau.

Patrick Williams' rousing score was put together in just three weeks after the original composer, Ernest Gold, was fired. Williams and Norman Gimbel also composed a nice country & western tune for the end credits (sung by Bobby Bare). Steven Spielberg and John Milius were executive producers.

Considering USED CARS was not a hit in theaters, Columbia TriStar released it in a very nice DVD several years ago, presented in its 1.85:1 anamorphic ratio for the first time on home video. Considering the film's age and budget, it looks good visually, especially the desert scenes, which were meant by Zemeckis and Gale as an homage of sorts to John Ford. The stereo soundtrack is fine and doesn't distract with unnecessary surround sound effects.

The extras include a series of funny radio commercials for USED CARS, as well as a radio interview done by Russell at the time of its release. There are trailers for three other Columbia comedies, but not one for USED CARS, oddly and disappointingly enough. A short outtake reel is interesting, mostly because it contains some scenes cut and reshot in which Graham, Russell, and Rixon interrupt a televised football game wearing phallic-shaped glasses (Columbia was appalled by the “dicknose” specs and made Zemeckis reshoot the scene using different gag glasses). The strangest extra is probably an actual local TV commercial Russell made for the Mesa, Arizona car dealership where USED CARS was shot.

The best extra, though, is a feature-length commentary track containing Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell. You know it's going to be fun when Russell laughing hysterically is the first thing you hear. You'll have a good time watching USED CARS with these three, who are justly proud of the film they made and enjoy seeing it again. They're also surprisingly candid about its mistakes (the film's very first shot reveals a reflection of the boom mike), the rampant drug use on the set, and the foolish risks they took with people’s lives.

For instance, I had always wondered how in the world Zemeckis got the shot of Gerrit Graham stumbling backwards into traffic and narrowly avoiding being splattered by a car roaring at him at high speed. Well, now I know it was no trick--Graham actually walked backwards into the path of a speeding car!

It’s a brilliant film.


@whut said...

My uncle who is a used car salesman used to watch this movie over and over.

Bruce said...

Such a great film that always makes me laugh.

Max Allan Collins said...

A great movie.

But then so was 1941, despite what anybody else thinks, as well as the criminally forgotten I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND.

elgringo said...

I guess I never thought to check out if there was a commentary track for this one. Now I'm going to have to go Netflix it. That sounds great.

John said...

I think this is the BEST commentary track I've ever listened to. Highly recommended!

Booksteve said...

My first date (age 23. Don't go there)was to an advance screening of USED CARS. I described it at the time as one of Kurt's Disney comedies gone bad. Remember, this was still only a few years after THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD. All it was really missing was Cesar Romero!

Jeff Allard said...

One of my favorite movies! I watched this again recently with my wife, who had never seen it before, and it played just as well as I remembered it. Kurt Russell kills in this movie.