GRANT THEFT AUTO, 1977
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring: Ron Howard, Nancy Morgan, Elizabeth Rogers, Marion Ross, Clint Howard
Review by James Aston
Teenage lovers Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) and Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) want to get married in Las Vegas. When Paula introduces Sam to her wealthy parents they take a disliking to him, believing that Sam wants to marry Paula for money. Paula’s parents think their daughter would be better suited to local rich kid and busybody Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke). They throw Sam out of their house and send Paula to her room but Paula escapes and steals her parents priceless Rolls Royce before picking up Sam and hitting the road. Paula’s father, Bigby (Barry Cahill), deploys his helicopter to chase the couple as they race towards Vegas, Collins Hedgeworth joins the chase shortly after, stealing a car as he goes. Collins calls a local radio station and offers listeners a reward of $25,000 for anyone that can stop the fleeing couple. What ensues is an ever-growing chase full of crashes and explosions as everyone tries to claim the reward. As media coverage of the chase escalates Bigby makes a plea to his daughter over the telephone, but she refuses to listen. Sam wonders whether Paula’s motivation is love for him or a desire to spite her father, but Paula persuades Sam that she loves him. An epic pile-up occurs and the priceless Rolls Royce is destroyed. Sam and Paula manage to escape, eventually getting married in Las Vegas.
They say the simplest stories are told the best, and Grand Theft Auto succeeds where many exploitation movies failed. Few exploitation flicks made for particularly challenging viewing, but often the plot was so badly paced or paper-thin that it was in no way compelling or believable. Frequently the story was only a background device on which the supposed shocks, thrills and spills were hung. Considering the fact that exploitation movies were made in a matter of weeks to save money there was little time for writers to work on a script anyway. Not that the script mattered to the studios. Their motive was to attract an audience by making big promises about ‘dangerous’ subject matter in order to exploit the curiosity of the paying public. Quite often it turned out that the studio was over-hyping or downright lying about the content of those movies. Yet Grand Theft Auto manages to adhere to its promotional promise of seeing “the greatest cars in the world DESTROYED!” while telling a simple but well paced story that grows from a private affair between a teenage couple and the girls family into an all-out battle that involves the entire town. This is a breathless little comedy chase movie, although in 2009 you’ll probably laughing at delivery of the comedy rather than the jokes themselves. Grand Theft Auto delivers entertainment between the crashes and explosions thanks to a well paced story that is simple and nicely paced. However Grand Theft Auto is not a great movie by any means.
It might come as a surprise that Grand Theft Auto was directed by Academy Award-winner Ron Howard. Anyone that has seen Howard’s newly-released abomination Angels and Demons (2009) will tell you that the film is ridiculously convoluted and makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it is very well directed. Young Ron was never going to win an Academy Award for his direction on Grand Theft Auto, it’s clear that he was just finding his feet here. Admittedly Howard’s direction is on par with most other B-Movie directors of the time, excluding the occasionally brilliant Roger Corman, in that their mantra seemed to be “point, shoot and never retake a scene.” That’s understandable really considering the studios demanded a quick production. The fast turnaround of these movies meant that directors had no choice but to work quickly if they wanted to get paid, so it’s not entirely Howard’s fault that he doesn’t excel as director here. Perhaps it was also the added pressure of taking a starring role in the movie that stunted Howard’s work in both areas because Nancy Morgan shines the brightest out of the two leads. As those well versed in this genre might expect the dialogue is frequently corny and the acting is only a notch above diabolical across the board, but it really doesn’t matter. Every character is played for laughs apart from the lead characters, which makes Howard and Morgan stand out as ‘wooden’. Howard and Morgan are good choices as leads though with his youthful good looks, and while the chemistry between Sam and Paula doesn’t exactly crackle, they are well matched in terms of looks which is what is most important in a movie like this.
Teenagers in the late 1950’s were not visiting movie theaters because there absolutely nothing being produced by the main studios that appealed to them. Small exploitation studios such as New World Pictures made movies cheaply, quickly and frequently with the sole intention of getting those teenagers to spend their disposable income at the theater or drive-in every week, and in doing so made huge profits for decades until the major studios caught up. With Grand Theft Auto New World Pictures skilfully did everything they could to achieve that goal. The fact that this love story is based around a cars is a stroke of genius because of the huge audience that would go with their lover to the drive-in every Saturday. The teenage audience loved the extremely rebellious storyline because their own parents would disapprove, and they loved the promise of illegal activity from the title alone. They were thrilled by the coarse language and the destruction. NWP pitched the movie perfectly for their audience and it shows. NWP spent $602,000 making Grand Theft Auto and grossed a spectacular $15 million. They did have twenty years of refining the formula though, take a look at Teenage Caveman (1958) for a laughably bad early attempt at attracting this audience.
The acting is bad. The direction is sub-par. This could be repeated for many of the mass produced exploitation films that were released during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Grand Theft Auto is by no means a five star movie but when viewed alongside its peers it stands out. Other movies from this genre often gave a whole lot of sizzle without any smoke. They didn’t deliver the incredible, shocking or lurid content that they promised in their trailers and on their posters and those were the things the audience came to see. In fact they were utterly shameless when it came to exploiting their audience, and to add pain to injury these movies didn’t even provide much entertainment as part of the deal, because nobody took the time to pace the story correctly. Grand Theft Auto scores against its rivals by not insulting its audience. Watch this movie for what it is: a 1970’s exploitation movie that for once actually tries hard to deliver what it promises.