Grand Theft Auto (1977)


Grand Theft Auto
Dir. Ron Howard
Premiered June 16, 1977

With Grand Theft Auto, we see the debut of another great Hollywood filmmaker, Ron Howard. But unlike the year’s other alums Lynch, Gilliam, or Ridley Scott, Ron Howard is not a stylistically recognizable filmmaker, despite being a very famous one. His films have ranged from frathouse comedy to awe-inspiring historical drama to literary pulp. And his debut is no different, as Grand Theft Auto is a genuine Roger Corman grindhouse picture.

The trouble begins when Los Angeles heiress Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan) announces to her parents (Barry Cahill and Elizabeth Rogers) that she’s going to marry working-class Sam Freeman (Ron Howard) rather than well-born horse enthusiast Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke). Her car keys taken by her father, a candidate for Governor of California, Paula steals his beloved Rolls Royce and tears off with Sam to elope in Las Vegas.

When Collins finds out what’s happened, he’s convinced that Paula has been brainwashed Patty Hearst-style, steals a succession of vehicles to chase after them, and calls into a popular radio station offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch them before they reach Vegas. In turn, Collins’ mother (Marion Ross) goes on a spree of her own, offering her own $25,000 reward to anyone who can catch her son. What follows is a nonstop car chase involving private detectives (led by Rance Howard), the mafia (led by Garry Marshall), a profusion of fortune-seekers, and the radio DJ himself (Don Steele).

Grand Theft Auto starts promisingly; you really get a sense of the main characters and root for them, as well as laughing at their pursuers. But it quickly becomes too much. With every new character and scenario brought into the chase– and I lost count fairly early– the film transforms from a goofy chase movie into a headache. To add insult to injury, the film also becomes progressively shoddier, and what had begun as a series of impressive car stunts turns into a mess of cheap editing tricks. If you’re that interested in Ron Howard’s origins as a director, I’d say check it out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Los Angeles has some five skyscrapers. Las Vegas has none, and is still a pretty small town. Paula has rich parents but lives at home.

Additional Notes
Amusing how the above poster has Howard behind the wheel. He never drives in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Grand Theft Auto grossed $15 million worldwide against an astonishingly tiny $600,000 budget. Most of that gross came from overseas, and US critics were none too thrilled with the movie, earning it a 25% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Howard returned to television, directing a series of made-for-TV-movies before breaking out with 1982’s Night Shift, and the rest is history.

But the real question you’re probably all wondering: does this have anything to do with the famous series of videogames? Honestly, the scenarios in the movie bear a striking resemblance to GTA’s gameplay, but as far as can be told, there’s no relation. There was a big lawsuit between Roger Corman and Rockstar Games, and that’s about it.

Next Time: The Deep


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