This essay, on Robert Zemeckis' Used Cars, was written by Ryan Waal, UW Madison class of 2015. Zemeckis' I Wanna Hold Your Hand screens as part of the Cinematheque and WUD Film Committee's 'Marquee Monday' series on Monday, February 10, 7 p.m., in the Marquee Theater at Union South, 1308 W. Dayton Street.
Before Robert Zemeckis’ breakthrough as an A-list director in the eighties with Back to the Future, he was just a USC graduate struggling to forge a foothold (and a voice) in the film industry. Zemeckis’ early projects, many of which were collaborations with writing partner Bob Gale, didn’t sell many tickets, but they developed cult followings for their energy, ingenuity and wholeheartedness. Used Cars, released in 1980 to disappointing box office, is among both Zemeckis’ earliest and most unusual films; this black comedy/satire/action film is simultaneously vicious and sweet, macabre and playful, with a full, black heart affectionate towards characters who may not deserve any sympathy. In short, there’s no other film quite like it, which may be exactly what Zemeckis and Gale were going for.
The film exists in a reality as cartoonish as Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s. Kurt Russell stars as Rudy Russo, an unapologetically sleazy used car salesman. The film’s opening sequence, in which Rudy attaches a ten-dollar bill to a fishing line and literally reels in a customer, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Looney Tunes short—Rudy has the same sly, anarchic charm as Bugs Bunny. The “New Deal” lot where Rudy works is filled with all sorts of peculiar characters: the superstitious and technologically savvy Jeff (Gerrit Graham), a lackadaisical mechanic named Jim (Frank McCrae), and even a comic relief dog named Toby. The sole voice of reason on the lot (and in this film, perhaps) is its owner, Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), who agrees to help Rudy fund his state senate campaign on the condition that he keep his business alive after his death.
Rudy’s promise to Luke is tested early on; Roy L. Fuchs (also Jack Warden), Luke’s more successful brother whose lot neighbors New Deal, puts a hit out on Luke in order to collect on his life insurance policy. Rudy, realizing that Roy arranged the murder, decides to hide Luke’s body (preventing Roy from collecting inheritance) and avenge his death by wreaking havoc upon Roy’s business.
Rudy and the New Deal crew use every base tactic to attract customers away from Roy. They perform signal intrusion on a football game to get advertising without paying for it. They hire topless dancers to perform on their lot. Jeff tricks customers into thinking they have run over Toby (a very convincing actor), and tells them he can only be consoled by selling the car. They even fire shotguns on Roy’s cars and set off bombs on his lot. There’s an uncomfortable satisfaction in watching the chaos unfold—that this was directed by the same man who made the family-friendly The Polar Express is astonishing.
But the war between New Deal and Roy is more than just a silly food fight; it represents a conflict of business ethos and ideology. Rudy and Roy are both bad people in their own ways; each lies to their customers and goes past moral boundaries in order to make a buck. But Roy’s lies are bigger; the family friendly, self-righteous image he cultivates for his business is so drastically disingenuous that Rudy seems like a petty thief by comparison. Rudy eschews ethics, but like a taxi cab covered in a thin sheen of blue paint, something real exists behind his all his huckster artifice.
This clash of values speaks to the rich political subtext of this film, which was released at the dawn of the eighties and produced during the Carter administration. As a film about America, Used Cars shows a nation in disarray, filled with doubt about the ethics and efficacy of their leaders and consumed by materialism and debauchery. It may be no coincidence that the New Deal crew perform a second signal intrusion on a speech by Jimmy Carter, whose “malaise” speech challenged the indulgence of this period directly, and whose struggle with the Iran hostage crisis compromised people’s faith in government. Luke Fuchs, whose lot is named after Franklin Roosevelt’s major policy achievement and owned by a member of the Greatest Generation, is a relic of a very different epoch: a time of stability, progress and decency which seems light years away from the world of this film.
It may be a stretch to call Used Cars a conservative film—Zemeckis himself is a Democrat. Really, the film serves as a broad critique of antiquated notions of politics and of “what your country can do for you.” No political intervention will stop Roy from taking control of Luke’s lot, and New Deal has to take matters into their own hands to keep the business alive. In Roy’s case, political leaders have failed him outright—his lot is on the verge of being seized by eminent domain throughout the film. Politicians are just as crooked and sleazy as these used car salesmen (why else would Rudy run for senate?), so Roy and Rudy are essentially left to fend for themselves.
The characters live in a harsh world of bad people, where everyone is consumed by self-interest, and all the bad things the characters do to survive are, ultimately, somewhat justifiable. The disturbing final message of this movie is that everyone lies and cheats and rips people off, and that all this deception is necessary when everyone’s looking out for themselves. If this idea upsets you, you’d be right to be upset, though you may also not be living in the real world.
The film is a time capsule of period fashion and technology, and also shows future comedy heavyweights (Michael McKean, Joe Flaherty, director Betty Thomas) at the start of their careers. But above all else, Used Cars is an exhilaratingly fun example of early filmmaking. The young Zemeckis throws everything at the screen and experiments with genre, tone and subject matter in ways that only people truly excited about making movies do. This film may disgust or even scare you, but you will not be bored.