We love it when one of our Outposters takes time out to write about something from the world of movies that they love, and sends it in. Here Outposter Wrenage continues his hot streak of Retro Reviews with Used Cars.
The Forgotten Movie
Used Cars does not get talked about a lot. I don’t know why a movie starring Kurt Russell, directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and produced by Steven Spielberg and John Milius does not get mentioned more often, but I never see Used Cars (1980) brought up.
Here are other 1980 movies mentioned more often: Airplane, Alligator, Altered States, American Gigolo, Any Which Way You Can, The Big Red One, The Blue Lagoon, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, The Changeling, The Elephant Man, The Empire Strikes Back, The Final Countdown, Flash Gordon, The Fog, Friday the 13th, The Gods Must be Crazy, Heaven’s Gate, Humanoids From The Deep, The Hunter, The Long Riders, Motel Hell, The Ninth Configuration, Popeye, Private Benjamin, Prom Night, Raging Bull, Saturn 3, The Shining, Smokey and the Bandit II, Somewhere in Time, Stir Crazy, Superman II, Terror Train, Urban Cowboy, and Xanadu.
Surely, Used Cars should get mentioned as often as Xanadu? Then again, Xanadu does have Olivia Newton-John in it…and Magic is a pretty great song. Okay, let’s not be rash and disparage art like Xanadu. Let’s merely even things out with a retro-review of Used Cars.
That Price Is Too High!
My first experience with Used Cars is awesome sauce. I had a cousin whose family had disposable income, and they splurged on a CED Video Disc Player. I sat on the floor of their living room, basking in the blissful ignorance of being six years old, and my cousin pulls out this crazy plastic cartridge-looking thing about the size of an LP and maybe half-an-inch thick. It had what I recognized as movie artwork on it announcing Used Cars.
My cousin shoved the giant cartridge into a big square stereo-looking thing on top of his TV. The device crunched and whirred, and hey presto! A movie appeared on the TV screen. A movie with no commercials. A movie one could play whenever they wanted to watch it.
I sat there with my brains leaking out of my ears. Never did I dream such an amazing gadget could exist. Later on, I would see a Video Disc Player in a furniture store, along with a rack of movies, and I stood before the display mesmerized. I particularly remember staring at the Jaws disc. I had not yet seen it at that point. I was dreaming that maybe someday I could possess such riches. I honestly could not think of anything better to own than a personal collection of movies to watch whenever the mood struck.
I’m still not sure I can think of anything better to own than a personal collection of movies to watch whenever the mood strikes…
$50 Never Killed Anybody
In Used Cars, Russell plays a Machiavellian used car salesman. His dream is to buy a seat in the U.S. Senate. Comedy ensues after Russell’s boss kicks the bucket, and the man’s unscrupulous brother, who owns a car dealership across the street, schemes to take over the business. Complications arise as the dead man’s daughter shows up to rebuild their relationship.
Used Cars had its genesis with Milius and Spielberg. The duo wanted to do a movie about a used car salesman outside of Las Vegas. Zemeckis and Gale then asked Milius if they could use the idea because they knew Spielberg and Milius would never get around to it. Speilberg was too busy becoming King of Movies, and Milius was probably too busy hiding books about Napoleon inside Playboy magazine covers, so people wouldn’t think he was weird when reading them in public.
Then again, Milius probably likes people thinking he is weird, and I like him for that.
Used Cars cost $8 million to make. It was a box office flop because it only brought in $12 million (although, the robust Video Disc Market perhaps helped it to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $12,000,075, after the fact). This performance was doubly discouraging because Used Cars received the highest test-audience ratings of any movie in Columbia Pictures’ history at that time.
What happened? Columbia released Used Cars early, to a limited number of theaters and without marketing. Plus, Airplane happened. Airplane came out at the same time and absolutely ate Used Car’s lunch and then buried Used Cars in the backyard by making $171 million on a $3.5 million budget.
Despite its box office failure, Used Cars ended up being the hinge on which Russell’s career swung. Prior to Used Cars, Russell was a Disney actor, starring in family-friendly films like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). Used Cars spun Russell into Escape From New York a year later and The Thing a year after that.
Thank you, Used Cars!
Jack Warden plays a dual role in Used Cars: the grandfatherly owner of the dealership where Russell works and the man’s evil twin brother, who owns the dealership across the road. Warden does a bang-up job playing one brother with a congenial (and congenital) heart and the other brother with screen-chewing villainy that relishes being a practitioner of Bastard-Fu. With his bushy sideburns and pastel suits, Evil Jack Warden is borderline frightening and on the verge of apoplexy. Seriously, the character looks like someone shoved an air compressor hose in the base of his skull and turned it on.
Warden did a ton of stuff in his career. I knew him mainly from Crazy Like A Fox, which ran on TV from 1984-1986. There, Warden played a wacky private detective who was joined by his son, a straight-laced attorney, on his cases. I also knew Warden from my favorite Agathe Christie movie, Death on the Nile (1978). Warden got around, starring with everyone from John Wayne and Lee Marvin (Donovan’s Reef in 1963) to Keanu Reeves (The Replacements in 2000).
Next up is Garrit Graham, whom I’m certain is a lost child of Marty Feldman. Graham is one of those guys that should have been bigger. He has a palpable dork charisma about him. He’s been in Demon Seed (1977), Chopping Mall (1986) and Child’s Play 2 (1990). He’s done work with Brian De Palma, playing the glam rocker, Beef, in Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Most genre fans probably know Graham as Bud the C.H.U.D. in C.H.U.D. II (1989), but when I hear the name Garrit Graham, the first thing I think of is Naked Space (1983), a Leslie Neilsen spoof of Alien.
I only saw it once, but the “I Want To Eat Your Face” musical number got burned into my brain as a kid.
Deborah Harmon plays the girl role in Used Cars. My theory is that maybe she and Zemekis were an item. Harmon seems his type, especially since he was married to Mary Ellen Trainor (RIP), who looks very similar to Harmon. Harmon does solid work in Used Cars as a genuine woman, not a glammed-up vamp. I mostly know Harmon from Just The Ten Of Us (1988-1990), but she also showed up in a cameo role as the newscaster reporting the stolen plutonium in Back To The Future (1985).
Speaking of which, Marty McFly’s siblings, Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber are also in Used Cars in bit parts. I guess that makes them part of the Zemeckis Acting Troupe. As DeNiro and Pesci are to Scorsese, McClure and Sperber are to Zemeckis.
Used Cars actually has a ton of character actors in it: Frank McRae (who yells “SLATER” in Last Action Hero). Lenny and Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley show up (Michael McKean and David Lander). Also in small parts are Al Lewis (Grampa Munster), Dub Taylor (who has possibly been in every movie ever made), Alfonso Arau (who owns the Little Mule in Romancing the Stone), and even Dick Miller.
What I like best about Used Cars is that it is made by talented people who did not have a lot of experience at the time. I find that combination often offers something interesting. Creative people in that stage of their life are not yet operating mechanically. They are operating organically.
Back to the Future is perhaps the best example of this point. Who in their right mind would think to make a movie about a time machine built into a DeLorean? And it not only works, but Zemeckis and Gale make it work amazingly well, incorporating the great 88-miles-per-hour concept.
A creative person in their mechanical phase would not do that.
Zemeckis may very well have been my favorite filmmaker at one point. I am pretty happy with his director run from Used Cars to Castaway. He also produced fun stuff like Tales From The Crypt and The Frighteners in-between time. Zemeckis was hitting on everything during that phase.
Alas, that time is past. Now I feel like Zemeckis no longer makes movies. He follows recipes in a wholly mechanical fashion. Oh well, everyone loses their fastball eventually.
But back to Used Cars — as a story, it has the right beats. Setups and payoffs complement each other. One could argue that contrivances exist in all that, but I can live with them. Meanwhile, the characters have goals. Obstacles arise, and the characters try to figure out ways to overcome them. Since they are all somewhat shady characters, their solutions are shady, which can be fun to watch.
I especially liked Good-Twin Jack Warden’s “return” from Florida. In addition, the “$50 never killed anyone” gag is a textbook example of perfect comedic timing.
Oh, I Don’t Want My Children To See This…
The end of Used Cars is a low-key epic. It’s basically a cattle drive but with cars. Two hundred extras were recruited with the pitch:
“Fifteen dollars a day, bring your own car and be in a movie.”
Within this cattle drive of cars are also some low-key hairy stunts. Kurt Russell is genuinely jumping around on the roof of a car driving through the desert. Likewise, Gerrit Graham is put in a near-miss scenario that makes me cringe every time I watch it. Talk about trusting your life to a stunt driver. They’d just CGI that stuff today.
Speaking of which, you know how this era of high-end production and CGI makes movies look impossibly clean even when they are depicting a dirty environment? You don’t get that in Used Cars. No scenes are polished to the point of hyper-reality. Cars look like junk. The car lot looks third-world. The town looks rundown. The terrain looks dusty and muddy. Clothes look shoddy. The wood paneling on the interiors looks splintering. The people look like regular Joes. Their hair isn’t even neatly messy. It’s just messy.
One scene takes place in a bar, and you can smell the images onscreen. A cloud of cigarette smoke hangs over the place. Empty beer bottles are everywhere, along with empty peanut shells. All of the extras look like they just finished their shift at the local ACME plant while they watch a football game on a cruddy, square TV — one TV for the whole bar.
Despite how analog Used Cars looks, you can still see Zemeckis’s interest in tech onscreen. Part of the plot involves pirated TV signals and using technology to alter reality by manipulating audio. One of the commercials in the movie filmed with pirated TV signals feels very The Simpsons to me in its absurdity (from the good era of The Simpsons, roughly season three to season six). In the commercial, Garrit Graham dresses up as a cowboy and gives his thoughts on high prices.
The other commercial involves a wardrobe malfunction. In all honestly, Used Cars feels a bit sleazy in spots. In that regard, it reminds me a bit of The Howling (1981). I love The Howling, but it didn’t need that porn movie within the movie. You know the one — with the plunger. (Side note: no, I didn’t see these parts of Used Cars as a six-year-old; my cousin was merely demoing his Video Disc Player.)
The disguises worn in the wardrobe-malfunction commercial were supposed to be adult in nature, and you can see the original models in Russell’s hand while they set up. Columbia executives nixed them, however, the same way the producer of The Howling nixed a scene where a bunch of topless women was standing around. Dee Wallace thought it was stupid and called the producer up. He showed up late at night, looked the scene over, and said:
“She’s right. It is stupid.”
Want to know something else wacky about Used Cars? It made a disparaging remark about a Democrat president! Do you think Hollywood would make a movie disparaging a Democrat today?
That notion is as funny as Kurt Russell doing a disco dance on the roof of a car with a stripper played by Betty Thomas of Hills Street Blues fame…which also happens in Used Cars.
Take Used Cars for a spin. Its poster advertised an:
“…estimated laugh count of 287 (city) and 410 (highway).”
That’s a bit optimistic, but four out of five stars are not unreasonable.