Your Lying Eyes

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05 December 2007

Chinatown and Car Horns

I finally got digital cable recently, and so I've been a tad obsessed catching up with movies (which helps explain my indolent blogging-ethic of late) which I've either never seen or haven't seen in ages. In the latter category is Chinatown, the 1974 Polanski film noir set in 1930's L.A. As you'll recall, Faye Dunaway is killed at the end by the police shooting after her as she races away in her car (which we are led to believe from not just this film but from contemporaneous films as well was standard police procedure back in those days). We know she is dead because the car crashes and we hear the horn blaring away. Polanski set this up neatly in an earlier scene.

Dunaway and Nicholson are seated in a parked car. As Nicholson badgers her, Dunaway (sitting in the driver's seat) slumps forward out of weariness and distress, then jumps back as her head hits the horn. So we're set up for the ending as we are now conscious that if Dunaway slumps forward the horn will sound. 48 Lincoln Dash with touch-sensitive chrome horn ringNow back in the 30's car horns were easily sounded by a concentric chrome ring set inside the steering wheel - one little tap and the horn went off, which made sense back then as warning people that a car was coming was still often necessary. By the 60's horns were basically oversized buttons in the middle of the wheel, but by the 80's we have the more familiar set up where to blow the horn you have to hit a sweet-spot on the wheel's hub to sound it. Tootin' you horn is no longer convenient as horn blowing has become more of a nuisance than a necessity.

But ever since Chinatown, it has become de rigeur in the movies that a dead man in the driver seat is inevitably signalled by a blaring car horn.BMW Dash - what do you push for the horn? Which is really annoying because it's tough enough to honk your horn when some cell-phone chatterer comes gliding into your lane on the turnpike, I can't imagine it's very easy to set it off when you're dead. Try it sometime - when parked preferably - try to slump forward in a way that would set off your horn and keep it blaring - not gonna happen. It's also annoying because Polanski jumped thru hoops to prepare his audience for the horn-blaring denouement in a context where it made sense, but now it is a commonplace for even modern settings when it makes no sense at all. Of course, if the driver is killed and then the car crashes, the car must then explode like it's packed with ten sticks of dynamite.


Blogger Black Sea said...

I happened to be watching "Goodfellas" for about the 50th time the other night. The teenage Henry Hill, doing the Mob's dirty work, douses a bunch of cars in a parking lot with gasoline (it looks like at most one liter of gas per car), tosses a match, and runs like hell.

The cars simultaneously explode in an IED-like fireball.

I'm no physicist, but I don't think this would happen in real life. Shame on Scorsese (did I spell that right?). Anyway, forget it Jake, it's Hollywood.

December 06, 2007 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Lester said...

I can't seeing an action film where a car crashes and the airbags inflate.

December 06, 2007 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Lester2 said...


December 06, 2007 2:12 PM  
Anonymous jth said...

My son was in a car accident & upon seeing leaking fluid, ran off screaming " get away, it's gonna blow-up". All his science knowledge has come from action movies. Still cheaper than college.

December 06, 2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

I wonder how these scenes actually are done. Does the director really get involved? Or does he just chart it out - "Car goes off road, turns over, lands on rock" and the tech boys do it the way it's "supposed" to be done - big ass explosion. I can see a newbie director commenting that cars don't really explode when they crash, and being told "No, it has to explode. Otherwise, you'll just confuse people."

December 06, 2007 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Ricky Hatton's mouthguard said...

Last year, I sat through five whole series of repeats of The A-Team. One defining motif was that nobody ever died during the on-screen action despite a proliferation of gunfire and assorted explosions. Whenever a car crashed, you'd always see a shot of the occupants crawling out.

December 06, 2007 7:18 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

The sound editing on "Chinatown" is superb, maybe the best ever.

"Chinatown" is an oddity in the sense that usually director gets 99% of the hype and the screenwriter 1%, but with "Chinatown" it's reversed, with everybody going on and on about what a great screenplay it is by Robert Towne. But it's really the stuff under Polanski's direction, sound, cinematography, and editing that make the movie, while the screenplay, while good, isn't as good as Towne's "The Last Detail."

December 13, 2007 7:19 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

The other thing about why people liked Chinatown so much was that it showed how beautiful LA had been before smog.

December 13, 2007 7:20 PM  

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