Los Angeles. A mysterious driver kills young, pretty women by crashing into their cars with his van while playing some mean fiddle music via outside speakers. The police, as represented by one Lieutenant Haller (Peter Graves), has no clue how to stop what’s going on, seeing as they are stumped by incredibly fiendish tricks from the perp – like the killer repainting his van and using new licence plates. Victim blaming seems the best solution to Haller.
Fortunately, up and coming TV reporter – and at this time the “reporter” part
of TV reporter was actually still relevant – Jan (Shelley Hack) gets in on the
case even before the police does. While she doesn’t have the resources of the
authorities, she actually owns a functioning brain. Alas, Jan also has to cope
with The Patriarchy as well as The Man. Not only is Haller an idiot, her bosses
don’t really appreciate her public criticism of car culture, and last but not
least, she herself still has doubts if anything she has achieved until now is
only because her separated husband Ray (George Hamilton) once gave her her first
break. Then there are Ray’s 70s macho attempts at getting her back…
I came to Death Car on the Freeway for Hal Needham directed death
car on the freeway action on a TV movie budget but I stayed for some rather good
mainstream late 70s feminism (as written by a guy). Which is to say, if you’re
expecting this to be much of an action film, or a thriller, you might end up
disappointed, for while the killer’s modus operandi is pleasantly silly, and
what there is of the car action and suspense scenes is directed by Needham with
the vigour and competence you’d expect of the guy who directed Smokey and
the Bandit, about eighty percent of the film really concern Jan’s personal
struggles against crusted society structures trying to hold her down.
To my surprise – I’m not much of a guy for films mostly interested in talking
through issues even when I agree with their politics - I found myself
rather engrossed in the proceedings. It certainly helps that William Wood’s
script is as pointed as a US 70s TV movie script needs to be but still presents
its case without too much melodrama. It’s not exactly kitchen sink realism
(praise be to the Old Gods), but outside its sometime thriller plot, this is not
a film of grand melodrama but one sympathetically portraying the sort of crap a
young, talented and engaged woman has to fight through for no good reason
whatsoever. Obviously, there’s also a rape metaphor sitting practically in the
open, which again the film treats with dignity. Needham is a much keener
director of this sort of thing than I had him pegged as, too, keeping things
moving even when there are no cars on screen and visually centring on Jan in
quite a few subtle ways.
All the while the film also provides a very nice feel of its time and place,
subtly hinting at the weirdness of living in LA (at least people living in LA
tell me it’s weird) and doing one of the things popular culture can do so well:
explaining the world or a place at a specific moment in time through slight (or
large) exaggeration. There’s a feeling of veracity to much going on in the film
that again surprised me.
On the acting side Hack presents herself as sympathetic, never overplaying or
underplaying Jan’s frustrations and keeping us rooting for her in the drama as
well as the thriller parts. Hamilton’s performance as that most unmanly kind of
guy, a man who can’t cope with his supposedly beloved wife being a muck-raking
truth-seeking reporter who cares, is hilariously on point, going from the smug,
to the sleazy, though mostly ending up with a facial expression of vacant
arrogance whenever Jan tells him what she wants and feels in opposition to what
he tells her she should want so perfect it’s as funny as it is infuriating.
Whoever cast these two actors is at least half responsible for Death
Car’s success as a film.
So Death Car on the Freeway ends up not just being a rather
different film from the one I expected but also better in ways I’d never
expected of it.