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Friday Noir: The Fast and the Furious

Written by Roger Corman, Jean Howell, Jerome Odlum Directed by John Ireland and Edward Sampson U.S.A. 1955

Written by Roger Corman, Jean Howell, Jerome Odlum
Directed by John Ireland and Edward Sampson
U.S.A. 1955

American International Pictures is a studio name that resonates strongly with many an aficionado of B-movies. Operating prominently through the 1960s and 1970s, AIP was, in effect, a machine that produced an impressive number of very low budgeted pictures that could be easily sold to a movie going public searching for simple, uncomplicated thrills in a variety of genres. Their efforts were oftentimes part of the long forgotten ‘double bills’. Two names synonymous with AIP are Roger Corman, a producer with a knack for making cheap films that attracted decent audiences, and Vincent Price, who starred in a number of adaptations from Edgar Allan Poe stories directed by Corman himself. Like every studio, both major and minor, they all earned their beginnings somewhere, usually in modest fashion. Such was the case with AIP, who released the very first movie under their banner in 1955. It’s title? The Fast and the Furious.

Wasting no time to grab the audience by the b-, arm, The Fast and the Furious, co-directed by Edward Sampson and star John Ireland, opens with the calamitous tumbling of a large transport truck on the side of highway as another, smaller car races off, seemingly uninterested in the victim’s fate. Cut to a trio of race cars putting the peddle to the meddle. Whether the competition is friendly or not remains a mystery, with the film eventually staying with one of the marvellous drivers as they stop at a diner. She is Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone), and as a women racecar driver, something of a rare breed (how things never change). As she and a couple of other customers listen to the hostess blabber on, the conversation turns to a recent penitentiary escapee, one Frank Webster. It is only too late when Connie comes to understand that Frank (John Ireland) is with them in the restaurant. He escapes, taking her prisoner and commandeering her ride. It’s off to Mexico, by way of a cross-border race that’s scheduled over the next few days, one that Connie, no pushover herself, fully intends to partake in. Yes, things are going to get fast and furious.

While preliminary research suggests that this 1995 Roger Corman produced quickie shares no immediate relationship to the 2001 Vin Diesel vehicle of the same name (the 8th instalment of which hits theatres this spring), the various similarities are compelling. Both feature criminals on the run. What’s more, both feature criminals accused of crimes they may or may not have actually committed (Frank landed in the slammer for the film’s opening highway tragedy, although he claims many more factors were operating behind the scenes). Both feature some remarkably inept police work. Most appropriately, actual racing features heavily in each film, albeit the conditions under which said competitions transpire differ considerably. Still, apart from the fact that Corman had licensed the film’s title to Universal Studios, the same that would produce the popular, blockbuster franchise, no other official ties exist.

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Filmed in 10 days, Sampson and Ireland’s FF is, for all intents and purposes, exactly what it purports to be: a fun, easy-breezy action film surrounding the racing community that was developing at the time in the United States. The dialogue is cheep, as are some of the performances. Decisions made by certain characters defy logic in that brilliant way befitting of a low budget quickie for which probably little to no time was afforded to script re-writes. No one will attempt to argue that this Fast and Furious is a lost gem, an undervalued cinematic jewel practically lost in the sands time. On the other hand, it is fair to argue that what it lacks in some departments, it does its best to make up in others.

First and foremost is the fact that the heroine, Connie, is a deliciously colourful personality. While is she wary, to a degree, of what Frank might do were she to peeve him off too much, there is nary a moment when she quivers or quakes in his presence. Yes, she is the victim of a kidnapping, and yes, Frank is the one wielding the pistol, yet Connie obstinately refuses to embrace the role of the damsel in distress. Witty, a quick thinker, sarcastic but not in an overbearing way, Connie is a genuinely fun character to follow on her misadventure, with much of the credit going to star Dorothy Malone. Her role has what some would describe as gumption. It results in the tête-à-tête between Connie and Frank finding a comfortable, sufficiently believable balance between tension and light-hearted fair.

Furthermore, the role of Connie is made all the more interesting for her passionate devotion towards racecar driving. While that in of itself cannot and should not define a character, things being as they were in 1955 and still are today, putting a female spin on a traditionally male-dominated culture awards the picture with a breath of fresh air. Does it make the film wholly original and bold? No, but at the very least its flavour ends up a little different than what it might otherwise have been. Unfortunately, about two thirds of the way through, when Connie and Frank finally make it to the coveted location and sign up as participants, one of its organizers informs them that, due to the track’s precarious, perilous qualities, women have been disqualified from participation. Connie’s role is kept pertinent all the way through via other plot devices, but the decision to cut her out of the race disappoints.

Finally, a few words should be written about the climactic race. With the understanding that the entire picture was shot in only 10 days, one wonders how many of those days were dedicated to the shooting of the eventual contest, as well as the time spent in the editing bay afterwards. In a nutshell, the racing looks fantastic, with terrific camerawork courtesy of someone that shot many of the vehicles from the back of their own to capture the speed and ferociousness on display. Without special effects to work with and, presumably, limited post-production capabilities, the filmmakers successfully communicate the danger and alluring thrill of being involved in a maddening test of nerves and driving such as this. One, quick cut in particular is enough to cause a shriek: a car totally wipes out off the official track and heads straight towards a large crowd standing nearby at an alarming speed. The shot only lasts a few seconds, making it difficult to tell if there is any back projection work at play. The fact that it’s an overhead shot and not from the street-level angle that typically benefits from back projection is enough for one to pause and wonder!

The Fast and the Furious comes and goes in the blink of an eye. A masterpiece is most certainly is not. Nobody utters inspiring dialogue and its general plot is, at best, archetypical for the genre. On the flip side, the aforementioned qualities make it a worthwhile investment of one’s 72 minutes. Strap up, put the safety helmet on, and give it a spin.

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