Used Cars (Blu-ray)
(Twilight Time, 4.8.2014)
If you’ve enjoyed Used Cars once, chances are you’ve enjoyed it several times. The film has an addictive quality that stems from its intricate plotting, colorful characters, and the riotous excess of its comic set pieces. While co-writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were still several years away from their career-defining classic (Back to the Future) and its sequels, they were already on their third collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg. Prior to Used Cars, Spielberg produced the duo’s debut (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) and directed their script for 1941. Zemeckis had yet to prove himself as a mainstream force, but Spielberg could sense that there was something commercial just waiting to get out. Once Zemeckis stripped away most of the cynicism, his raw filmmaking talent made him one of his generation’s most successful directors, but his comic gifts were never more apparent than they are in Used Cars.
While this film had little impact at the box office, it became famous for attracting praise from the likes of Pauline Kael (she called it “a classic screwball fantasy”) and Quentin Tarantino. Its influence can also be felt in the comedies of the Coen Brothers, who praised it in interviews around the time of The Man Who Wasn’t There. While many of the film’s admirers respond most strongly to its cynical outlook, Kurt Russell’s Rudy Russo has a determination that Zemeckis compares to the films of Frank Capra. The only difference is that Russo substitutes deceit and corruption for noble idealism. If the film has a real heart, it’s Toby, one of the great movie dogs of all time, though he is no less corrupt than any of Russo’s other co-workers. (According to Zemeckis, he was also a bit of a diva on the set.)
As always with Twilight Time, this Blu-ray is limited to 3,000 copies, available exclusively through Screen Archives and the TCM store. The transfer isn’t wildly impressive, but it nicely captures the film’s naturalistic aesthetic. Most of the extras have been ported over from the 2002 DVD, including the theatrical trailer, TV spots, radio spots, image galleries, outtakes, a car commercial featuring Russell, a radio interview with Russell, and an audio commentary featuring Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell. Filled with laughter, the latter is the obvious standout. The commentary also shows why Kurt Russell was the obvious choice for Rudy Russo, as he radiates a chilly, cynical charisma, sprinkling his banter with mean-spirited wisecracks. While not always likeable, this trio’s reminiscences are suitably irreverent.
This edition also includes a few new extras: Julie Kirgo’s liner notes and a pair of isolated score tracks. The first is for the theatrical score by Patrick Williams and the second is a rejected score by Ernest Gold. Jumping back and forth between these tracks proves to be an illuminating exercise. Williams’ score is a far better match for the visuals, delivering an appropriately sleazy undercurrent, whereas Gold goes for a more traditional approach that offers gentle irony where something more bluntly corrupt is needed. Fortunately, Zemeckis and company made the right choice. -- Jonathan Doyle