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Death Car On The Freeway
(1979)

Director: Hal Needham  
Cast:
Shelley Hack, George Hamilton, Peter Graves


When I was very young, I used to think of driving quite a bit. I watched countless television shows and motion pictures that involved driving - often quite above the posted speed limit and having a lot of tension and suspense attached. It sure seemed like it was an exciting thing to do. Of course, when I looked at driving in real life, it sure seemed a lot less spectacular. But all the same, it seemed that real life driving had a lot of appeal. You could get to far away locations in much less time than it would take to walk or bike the route. And all the adults around me seemed to be driving a lot, seeming that it was the "in" thing to do. It sure didn't seem fair to me that us kids could not do it until we reached the age of sixteen. But as I got older, the prospect of driving started to lose its appeal. In fact, when I turned the magical age of sixteen, I didn't immediately drop what I was doing at that moment and head to a driving school in order to take the lessons that would hopefully help me get my license. In fact, it took a few more years for me to finally break down and go through the circus that eventually landed me my license. And after I got my license, I didn't immediately hop into a car and cruise the pathetic strip in my home town that would be considered a main street. In fact, I never drove again, and it's been so long since I have driven a car that I believe that I have forgotten how to drive. The only reason I keep my driver's license is for occasions when I need to identity myself. And even the countless B movies that I watch today that feature high octane and exciting driving does not make me get the itch to get behind the wheel of a car.

Since I am sure that the vast majority of people drive, there's a pretty good chance that you want to know why I go against the norm and do not drive. There are several reasons for this. One of the most obvious is the expense you have to invest to be a driver - you have to buy a car, as well pay for regular maintenance such as gasoline, insurance, and repairs. Another reason is that I live in a very convenient spot - I live downtown in my city, and most things I need are just walking distance away. And when I have to travel a longer distance for something, my city boasts a very good and affordable public transportation system. But one big reason that I do not drive is that I don't trust the other drivers out there. There are some real wackos behind the wheel, and one might be careless enough to accidentally plow into my car. But even worse are those individuals who can be peeved by even the most casual of driving gestures and decide to inflict some serious hurt on the unsuspecting driver. You can call it road rage of sorts. Now, I admit that the topic of road rage doesn't totally freak me out. In the 1932 movie If I Had A Million, there was a hilarious story concerning a character played by W. C. Fields who is given a million dollars, and uses the money to buy a number of used cars so he can smash into the road hogs that have made his life miserable. I laughed at that, because to a degree I could identify with Fields' character. I myself have encountered many rude and thoughtless people that I would like to get revenge against.

Though I can see potential humor when it comes to people who get road rage, the idea of meeting one of these people out on the open road doesn't exactly get me into the mood of getting behind the wheel. Especially since there are real life reports that claim that the incidents of road Death Car On The Freewayrage are increasing with every subsequent year. So it's kind of surprising that there haven't been that many movies made about psychotic drivers. Off the top of my head, I can recall just a few such movies - Duel, the three Joy Ride movies, and the 1988 Freeway movie. I know there has to be more, but I also know it can't be that much more. The reason for this is probably that repeated choreography of speeding vehicles is an expensive and complex task - something that would scare away movie producers with lower than average budgets. But sometimes even under those circumstances such an effort is made, and one example is the made for television movie Death Car On The Freeway. It probably got made because the producers somehow got action director Hal Needham to helm it, while he was still hot from theatrical hits like Smokey And The Bandit and Hooper. But this effort is more serious-minded than those movies. In the first scene, a woman (Morgan Brittany, Dallas) is driving on a Los Angeles freeway when she cuts in front of a van with one-way glass. The unseen driver of the van then proceeds to ram her off the road. She survives the crash, but when she is subsequently interviewed by the press, all except one reporter believe that she was making the whole thing up. The reporter that believes the woman is television reporter Jan Clausen (Hack, Charlie's Angels). Jan, with the help of her ex-husband Ray (George Hamilton, Evel Knievel) digs into news reports of the past and finds that six months earlier another woman (played by Dinah Shore) was forced off the road by a van with one-way glass. But when Jan reports her find to the police, one Lieutenant Halloran (Graves, The Five Man Army) dismisses it as a coincidence. But not long afterwards, a third woman is forced off the road and into a crash by a van with one-way glass. Just before the woman subsequently dies in the hospital, she tells Jan that she heard fiddle music coming from the van. The police are now convinced that there is a serial killer motorist, who they dub as "The Freeway Fiddler", and they start working to track this killer down. But the killer proves to be hard to track down, changing the color of his van and his license plates with every subsequent kill. As the body count starts rising, Jan decides to investigate on her own. But could her poking around make The Freeway Fiddler set his sights on her?

Death Car On The Freeway managed to round up a pretty notable cast, not just settling for Brittany, Hack, Hamilton, Shore, and Graves. There are also appearances by Abe Vigoda (Keaton's Cop), Sid Haig (Beyond Atlantis), Frank Gorshin (Hot Resort), Barbara Rush (Peyton Place), Harriet Nelson (The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet), as well as the movie's director himself, former stuntman Hal Needham, who appropriately plays a professional stunt driver who gives the character of Jan some driving tips. With such a notable cast, you might understandably think that the movie exploits these stars to their fullest. Actually, that's not what happens. Virtually all the cast members that I mentioned in this paragraph, as well as the previous paragraph, get very little screen time. Vigoda, for instance, gets less than thirty seconds in his role as an anonymous hospital patient. As it turns out, most of the burden of the movie falls on the shoulders of Shelley Hack as the reporter on the case, and George Hamilton takes pretty much of the remaining portion. Much of the movie depends on these two stars making things work, and while they have shown talent in other works, here they both seem kind of helpless. Hack's character is written to be a kind of independent woman, one who struggles to do things her way in her career as well as in her private life. But the performance lacks conviction. We never really feel her struggle or feel any kind of spark coming from her. The character ends up being kind of bland, and it's hard to be on her side. As for her co-star Hamilton, he too comes across as kind of one-note as well. Part of this is due to a screenplay that constantly has his character trying again and again to woo his former wife to team up with him again both at home and at his workplace. We never really get to see another side of this character. With such little to work with, even the talented Hamilton is helpless with the material, and at times you can sense his discomfort and bewilderment with the limitations thrust upon him.

The inadequate material given to Hamilton happens to be part of another big problem with Death Car On The Freeway, and that happens to be the script written by television veteran William Wood. Wood was a writer not without talent (he earlier wrote the very good made-for-TV movies Savages and Haunts Of The Very Rich), but with this movie I got the sense that he was rushed into writing this script and was unable to review and rewrite it several times so it was suitably polished. There are some details that are clearly missing, like how not long after it's been established that there were three accidents caused by The Freeway Fiddler, all of a sudden we get told that nine women have been killed. Then there is the big subplot about the relationship between the characters that Hamilton and Hack play. With the movie spending so much time on this subplot, one would understandably think that it would eventually involve itself with The Freeway Fiddler. But that's not what happens. To make matters worse, the last scene that Hamilton and Hack play together leaves this whole relationship business unfinished - it's unclear what the future lies for these two characters' relationship. The only reason why this relationship seems to be focused on so much is a way to stretch out the movie for ninety-one minutes. In fact, that also seems to be what most of the rest of the movie not taking place on the freeway is for. The investigation that the Hack character takes upon to track down The Freeway Fiddler is so slow that there are great chunks of the movie where it is non-existent. In fact, near the end her investigating has made so little progress that Hack's character has to get a tip from a concerned citizen in order to zero in on the killer.

In case you are wondering about how the character of The Freeway Fiddler is depicted, well, the screenplay gives us very little insight. We learn his name, but that's about it - we never learn what his motivations or his past were like. And director Needham never gives us a look at this character's face. Maybe this last detail was an attempt to emulate the classic Steven Spielberg movie Duel, but it ends up being just another frustrating aspect of the entire enterprise. As I've suggested earlier, Needham doesn't seem able to handle the parts of the movie that involve story and characters. However, there's one aspect of the movie that I have to admit that Needham does very well, and that is the vehicular sequences. No doubt due to his past experience as a stuntman, Needham knows how to give these sequences the maximum impact. He was fortunate enough to be able to stage the various speeding and crashing vehicles on the actual Los Angeles freeway network, which gives these scenes a sense of authenticity. Aided by a seemingly free reign to film however he wanted (including a number of helicopter shots), Needham has various shots placed together that manage to generate some genuine excitement and tension. And there are several hair-raising stunts that will make you wonder not only how they were done, but how no one got hurt during the sequences. It goes without saying that these action sequences are the highlights of Death Car On The Freeway. In fact, had there been a few more of these sequences, I might have given the movie a cautionary recommendation to action movie junkies. But as it is, the bulk of the movie is simply too slow-moving and talky to recommend as a whole, unless maybe you want to see all those previously mentioned actors all together in a once in a lifetime cast.

(Posted September 27, 2015)

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See also: Dr. Cook's Garden, Night Terror, Rabid Dogs

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