There is no mistaking the falseness of interior car scenes in Hollywood crime thrillers of the 1930s through 1950s when rear-projection, or process screen photography, was conceived to convince audiences that actors were actually seated in moving automobiles. In reality, these actors were placed in front of screens displaying rear-projected motion pictures of traffic/street scenes, the results of which almost always looked phony (as the accompanying frame from the 1954 film noir Crime Wave demonstrates), although hardly more phony than most CGI images in commercial releases of this digital age.
When Jean-Luc Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard took portable Éclair 35mm cameras into actual autos for their 1960 French “New Wave” collaborations Breathless (À bout de souffle) and Le Petit Soldat (left and right frames below), they were hailed for having “liberated” the cinema from its cumbersome industrial roots.
In actuality, others had made inroads into freeing the commercial cinema from cost-effective yet unconvincing uses of rear-projection, most notably in the crime genre. While filming in moving vehicles was not unusual during the silent era, sound technology had made it all but impossible due to bulky microphones, wiring, and larger film cameras requiring soundproof “blimps.” Still, there were successes many years before the New Wave helped to modernize film production.
At RKO Radio Pictures in 1947, experimentation was taking place. Legendary film noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca installed a camera in a real moving car during the opening credits of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Out of the Past (below frame). Others on the lot, however, were taking the technique even further.
For his début feature at RKO, They Live by Night (filmed in 1947 and released in 1949) Nicholas Ray arranged for cinematographer George E. Diskant to place the camera in an actual car for a bank robbery scene where Farley Granger is driving the getaway car (top left and right frames below). The accompanying hand-held camerawork of Granger behind the wheel (bottom left frame below) gives the film noir a look of movies made many years later. Anthony Mann also collaborated with Diskant that year at RKO on the low-budget noir Desperate, which also uses a real car interior for a scene where gangsters attempt to shoot protagonist Steve Brodie outside a pharmacy (bottom right frame below).
Mann and cinematographer John Alton took this technique to the next level for the 1948 Eagle-Lion noir Raw Deal, in which a real car picks up Dennis O’Keefe during a nighttime prison break (below frame).
The most celebrated “real” car scene of film noir, of course, is Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (UA 1949), in which criminal lovers John Dall and Peggy Cummins drive to a bank heist wearing rodeo attire. In a 3-minute, eleven-second take which cinematographer Russell Harlan records from the back seat of the couple’s car, the transgressors engage in ad-libbed small talk as they look for a parking space (left frame below), at which point Dall exits the car to carry out the robbery while Cummins keeps tense watch. The camera pans with her as she subdues a nosey policeman just as Dall is exiting the bank (right frame below). He gets behind the wheel of the car to drive as she watches behind with excitement (bottom left frame). This impressive sequence, according to Lewis, captured the curiosity of Billy Wilder, who later mounted a camera to a moving vehicle during the early sections of his 1951 Paramount film noir Ace in the Hole (bottom right frame).
Curiously, Gun Crazy did not open the floodgates for more authentic uses of automobiles in crime cinema. During the 1950s in fact there are only a handful of such cinematic applications, each memorable in its own way. While director André de Toth may have resorted to conventional rear-projection car scenes during portions of his 1954 Warner Bros. noir Crime Wave, the film boasts numerous authentic car shots from cameraman Bert Glennon, including night locations (left frame below) and a daylight bank robbery sequence (right frame below). These, coupled with handheld location photography, must certainly have influenced such New Wave filmmakers as Godard in subsequent years.
Two brilliant powerhouse film noir productions from the 1950s also make electrifying uses of real cars: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (UA 1955, left frame below), photographed by Ernest Laszlo, and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (Universal-International 1958, right frame below), photographed by Russell Metty.
Although not in the same artistic class as the Aldrich and Welles pictures, Andrew L. Stone’s Cry Terror! (M-G-M 1958) also features some impressive pre-Godard backseat views of a panicked woman driving through New York City’s Lincoln Tunnel (below frames).
These historic works demonstrate that others had slaved to “liberate” the cinema years before it became fashionable to do so.