Conceived as a sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines [M] (1965), writers Ken Annakin and Jack Davies basically transposed the mega-chase of early planes to automobiles, but the concept was hardly new by 1969 – star Tony Curtis had already appeared in Blake Edwards' farcical (and much longer) The Great Race (1965), which similarly dealt with an international patchwork of racers driving through international borders; and John Frankenheimer delivered what remains the best car racing film on record, Grand Prix [M] (1966). (That film’s assistant director, Sam Itzkovitch, was hired to direct the French racing sequences in Jalopies.)
Instead of Fox handling the production, Paramount jumped onto the trend, and Annakin once again directed and co-wrote the film, augmented by another international cast, and bringing back a trio of actors from Flying: Terry-Thomas plays the son of arrogant flyer Ware-Armitage from the first film, reluctantly assisted by the son of his father’s loyal yet perpetually unhappy aide (Eric Sykes again); and Gert Frobe was recast as a German driver, freshly sprung from jail by a Russian jewel thief.
Unlike Flying, though, Annakin had a combination of less money and an underdeveloped script, and more severely, the broader scope – several groups of drivers from around Europe converge in Monte Carlo for one final race – meant more time was given for tiresome vignettes to keep the caricatures fresh. There's no character development beyond a protracted romance between U.S. driver Chester Schofield (Curtis, mugging his scenes with plenty of extreme face gestures, and sporting very sixties mutton chops), and a British hottie (Dr. Jekyll and Hyde’s [M] Susan Hampshire), secretly hired by Ware-Armitage to send the Yankee in the wrong direction.
Not only does their first genuine moment of attraction occur at the film’s midpoint, but Annakin’s character intros are hastily conceived to get everyone fast into a car within the film's first few minutes. More irritating, unlike Flying, no attention is given to the vintage vehicles – a grievous blunder for car enthusiasts – and many of the skits run beyond their natural lifespans. Annakin also under-cranked several scenes to give the film a retro-feel, but the process backfires and dilutes any drama into a crayon cartoon.
Perhaps the film’s biggest failing lies in the extremely obvious use of stand-ins for all second unit location work (we rarely see star faces anywhere except in warm & sunny locations), and most stars are clearly standing in front of rear projection screens in a studio setting. (The Monte Carlo material, however, is mostly authentic.) Rarely are the actors shown in moving vehicles, and any care for elaborate camera movements and beautifully choreographed stunts is largely absent – the lone exceptions are a frozen lake sequence, and the snaking Monte Carlo roads in the finale.
Jalopies isn’t a lazily made film, but a truncated version of a broader vision which may have been scaled back after Paramount realized their international co-production needed to maintain strict fiduciary fidelity. Annakin’s interest in letting scenes unfurl with inspired improvisational material from his cast feels curtailed, and perhaps the only material that retains some mirth are the stark send-ups of British Colonials from Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and short scenes with whiny race emcee Monsieur Dupont (played by French comedic icon Bouvril).
Few of the international actors get much screen time (a trio of leggy French actresses playing medical students barely register, even as eye candy), and Jack Hawkins as the corrupt Russian jewel thief is almost unrecognizable in make-up and voice – the latter due to his voice being dubbed by Robert Rietty, who uses the same vocal stylings as his dub work for Adolfo Celi in Thunderball).
Ronald Searle’s animated titles are nice, and returning composer Ron Goodwin contributes a serviceable animated score (with a title tune sung by It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s [M] Jimmy Durante), but the sound mix is weirdly processed – instead of the broad stereo pattern in Flying, the credited stereo consultant settled for a delayed channel that creates a banal echo effect for the music tracks.
Legend’s DVD contains a trailer that’s surprisingly mediocre, and the Jalopies transfer is adequate, given its taken from a rather harsh, high contrast film print with poor colour saturation (which makes the extensive rear projection and optical transitions grainy). A Blu-ray combo marries Jalopies with another Curtis film, Houdini (1953).
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan