Classic cars and high-speed shenanigans have always been well represented on celluloid but there are certain stand out tracks, particular highlights throughout the years, that really make us down tools, sit up and take notice. Steve McQueen tearing up the streets of San Francisco in his Ford Mustang GT Fastback, or Gene Hackman chasing down an elevated train through Chicago in a Pontiac Le Mans are just two such examples that immediately spring to mind. Car & Classic’s editor, Chris Pollitt, has also levelled the spotlight on various movie-featured cars recently with his “The Car’s The Star” series, but what about a film in which you don’t actually get to see the vehicle in question at all? And even then, things might not be quite as they seem…
In 1976, with 1000 feet of spare film, French director and cinematographer Claude Lelouch set out to create a short film depicting a high-speed drive through his home-town of Paris. What he subsequently produced is an eight-minute, car fanatic’s dream of high-revving, tyre-screeching bliss. The film was simply titled C’était Un Rendez Vous, which means ‘It was a meeting’. A simple title for what has to be one of the most exciting bits of film out there.
As the film begins, a looming, ominous heartbeat can be heard shortly before the viewer is thrust unceremoniously from the gloomy obscurity of a nondescript tunnel into the early dawn light, accompanied by the cacophonous roar of a Ferrari 275 GTB at full chat, whilst assuming the bumper-mounted point-of-view camera angle that remains de rigueur for the duration. What follows is an astonishing, nail-biting thrill ride through the streets of Paris at the break of day, culminating in a loving embrace on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, as the bells of the famous basilica ring out, neatly mirroring that inaugural pulse that marked the beginning of the adventure.
At a little over eight minutes, it’s a relatively short jaunt but we’re definitely talking quality over quantity here. The film plays out part ultimate Parisian sight-seeing tour, part crazy street rally with most major landmarks appearing at some point, from the Champs Élysées and Arc de Triomphe, via the Place de la Concorde, to Montmartre and everything in between. The car is piloted by Lelouch himself with a seemingly flagrant disregard for any and all traffic laws as he runs through red lights, drives on the wrong side of the road and at one point even mounts the curb to avoid a truck, narrowly missing an unsuspecting pedestrian in the process. And it’s not just humans that are in jeopardy either – at various points flocks of dumbfounded pigeons are scattered to dramatic effect as the car careens around corners. This is John Woo before John Woo. But as deeply irresponsible as all of this is, it certainly heightens the sense of urgency and excitement that the film aims to achieve, and altogether succeeds in conveying.
Having said that, the director chose not only to film in August, when practically the entire population of Paris flees the confines of the city to ensconce themselves at the country’s many beaches, he also elected to perform the stunt in the early hours of a Sunday morning so as to ensure the least amount of traffic possible. LeLouch also later claimed that he was always ready to cease production altogether if there was ever any unforeseen danger and that he would never put the film ahead of anyone’s life, stating that “a film is just a film”. Additionally, the specific route was chosen for its high visibility and Lelouch even employed a colleague to alert him to any potential hazards at the only blind junction on the journey as he exited the gardens of the Louvre, but the assistant’s radio malfunctioned and so consequently made no real difference to the director’s decision to keep his toe in. Madness.
Upon its initial release the film garnered much myth and conjecture, from speculation as to the true identity of the driver and what kind of car was actually used, to the ultimate fate of the people involved, but the eagle-eyed among you will notice that something doesn’t quite add up. And therein lies the rub, as they say, because the vehicle in question is not an exotic, V12-equipped Ferrari as that sonorously relentless engine noise would have you believe, but instead was Claude’s somewhat more modest, yet still respectable, Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. All of the Ferrari sounds are present, over-dubbed in post-production, and they do match up closely with the visuals – there’s correct rev-matching on the downshifts along with tyres squealing for grip in mostly the right places and the editing is well done, but the reality does take a little shine away from the whole spectacle. That’s not to say it still isn’t an incredibly brilliant piece of film-making with some truly accomplished (and arguably fortuitous) driving, it’s just that the wool has been ever so slightly pulled. Lelouch affirms that the Mercedes was chosen mainly for its hydropneumatic suspension which allowed for a smooth, steady image to be captured. It also helps that the big V8 delivered 286 bhp and 405 lb ft of torque. Impressive figures for the time.
Above: The only known picture of the W116 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL used to make the film
Whilst not quite as truthful as it was made out to be, the legacy of C’était Un Rendez-Vous continues to this day and its influence is obviously apparent in modern day car scenes. It’s clear that John Frankenheimer took inspiration when filming the legendary Paris chase sequence from Ronin for instance, and it has also been embraced by popular culture on the whole with rock band Snow Patrol featuring footage from the film in their 2007 music video for Open Your Eyes.
A little bit of smoke and mirrors perhaps, but isn’t that the case with all movie car chases? At the end of the day, it all boils down to how it makes you feel, and if you can revel in the spectacle and enjoy the Rendez-Vous for what it is then it will perpetually put both a smile on your face and a fire in your belly. It remains arguably one of the best car films of all time and one that any self-confessed petrolhead should have on regular rotation. In fact, I’m off to watch it again now, armed with the romantic notion that it really is an exotic Italian sports car tearing up the streets of the French capital.