In anticipation of director Ron Howard’s new film, Angels & Demons, to be released this Friday, his 20th feature film in the director’s chair, we take you all the way back to 1977 to revisit his first, Grand Theft Auto.
The title will undoubtedly sound familiar to you, but not for the film, but rather the multi-million copy selling video game produced by Rockstar Games. Although the text on the newly released DVD of the film may look similar, the only things the film and the video game have in common are their titles and stolen cars. There are no guns in Grand Theft Auto. No gangs. No prostitutes get picked up (even though the film centers on a trip to Las Vegas). Nobody gets ripped out of the driver’s seat and beaten down to have their car stolen. You know, all the fun stuff the video game contains.
Howard’s Grand Theft Auto stars himself as Sam Freeman, alongside Nancy Morgan, who plays Sam’s love interest, Paula Powers. Sam and Paula are a bit like Romeo and Juliet. Paula comes from a rich family. Her father is on the verge of making a run for California’s governorship (Arnie would have beat him down). Her family has essentially promised away her hand in marriage to the son of another high society California family, Collins Hedgeworth. Sam doesn’t come from a wealthy background and is therefore frowned upon when Paula announces she wants to marry him. He is kicked out of the house and Paula is sent to her room (presumably, these are characters just out of high school). Paula sneaks out of a house through her bedroom window, steals her father’s Rolls-Royce, picks Sam up and they head out to Las Vegas for a quick ceremony. You’ll notice she stole her father’s vehicle. That’s stolen car number one in the movie and the number of boosted vehicles snowball from there.
Bigby Powers (Paula’s rich father) hires a line of bounty hunters equipped with a helicopter to stop Sam and Paula from driving into Vegas and marrying. Collins Hedgeworth (Paula’s presumed fiance) is a nerdy twit, who hears the news of Paula’s flight with Sam while stepping off his horse. He hops in his Porsche, flying down the road, still in his equestrian helmet, trying to ward off the imminent wedding. He even calls local radio station TenQ to flood the airwaves of the news of his predicament and offers a $25,000 reward to the person who brings Paula back to him.
This sets off a wave of interest as Collins’ mother, Vivian, sets after him and puts out a $25,000 reward on his head. Two wrench-monkeys join the chase, as well as a preacher and anybody else who happens to encounter the young lovers on their trip to Sin City. The film is essentially It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (released 14 years earlier) with characters chasing after a mobile object and a less recognizable cast. Paula and Sam’s search for freedom doesn’t come easily when TenQ’s radio DJ, Curly Q. Brown, hunts the couple down in a traffic copter, advertising their precise location and giving a play-by-play commentary of the ensuing events. He’s not interested in the reward money, but only in delivering sleazy entertainment to his listeners.
There are a lot of stolen vehicles in the film, as Howard and his father, Rance (co-writers of the script), work to maintain the integrity of the film’s title. Again, none of the cars are ever taken by force, so the overall tone of the film is a fairly jovial one. Nothing dark or violent here, just an old-fashioned chase movie. There really isn’t much plot or characterization, either. The film barely stretches out to 84 minutes, and it only reaches that number because they throw so many characters into the pursuit of the purse that they all need a little screentime. Sam and Paula only have one scene of significance and it’s when Sam feels conflicted about wedding the daughter of a wealthy man who doesn’t agree with the nuptials.
The film was exec produced by the master of the low-budget film, Roger Corman. He’s granted directorial initiation rights to a number of big-name directors, some of which we’re bound to cover down the road in this column. He allows for a hint of exploitation as one of the film’s climactic scenes involves the main characters unwittingly involved in a demolition derby with Bigby’s Rolls-Royce. The script deficiencies aside, Ron Howard the director does a great job for his first time behind the camera and even succeeds in the task of directing himself. He was only 23 at the time. Howard isn’t known for visual trickery or flair as his latter films attest, but in terms of conveying a story, he does it with a minimalist approach that saves time for key moments and scenes. He jumps immediately into the story in Grand Theft Auto and the film never really stops. I think his experience working on this film and with Corman have helped shape the director he’s become.
Grand Theft Auto certainly won’t ever be one of Howard’s popular works, simply because it’s not as good as the others. However, for anybody that enjoyed It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cannonball Run, Rat Race or any other chase film, it’s something worth checking out, even if only for the fact you can then say, “I saw Ron Howard’s first feature.”
Buy this First Feature here.