Sadly, Used Cars has fallen into obscurity since its release in 1980, but it’s always had its cult of fans, including Quentin Tarantino. It was Robert Zemeckis’s second film after his fun comedy about Beatlesmania, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The germ of the idea for Used Cars came from the film’s executive producers, Steven Spielberg and John Milius while Zemeckis and his screenwriting partner Bob Gale were working on the script for 1941. Zemeckis and Gale ran with the idea, and came up with this deeply satirical screwball comedy, although at times some of the humour annoyed a certain executive called Spielberg.
Kurt Russell is here in arguably the first performance where he became the Kurt Russell we all know and love today. He plays Rudy Russo, a slimy but weirdly lovable used car salesman who has political ambitions. Along with Jeff (Gerrit Graham), Rudy uses any trick to sell cars, whether it’s Rudy pretending to be half-Mexican, Italian, Black etc., depending on what ethnicity the person is who he is selling to, or Jeff making it look like the customer killed his pet dog. The boss of the used car lot Rudy works at is Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden). Luke agrees to front him the $10,000 he needs to run for office, but through an “accident,” Luke dies, and Luke’s used car salesman rival and brother Roy Fuchs (Warden again!) may be behind the “accident.” Rudy and Jeff have to scheme their way through to make sure that doesn’t stop him. Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon) also shows up, which helps their cause.
It’s a wildly fun screwball-esque comedy that is probably more akin to Preston Sturges than Howard Hawks or George Cukor with its pitch-black satirical look at capitalism, politicians and the American Dream gone astray. It’s from that great period in the late ’70s where you had films like Slap Shot, Animal House and The Blues Brothers, which were unapologetically crass but had something to say about the State of America at the end the ’70s (Slap Shot being the best of these.) Zemeckis and Gale throw everything and the kitchen sink into the dialogue and sight gags, and it’s very rare that they do not stick. The film’s climax even ends up becoming the best Mad Max chase sequence not directed by George Miller.
Russell gives one of his greatest performances, and really showed the world that he was much more than that kid from those Disney films. Warden only agreed to appear in the film if he was offered both roles, and he is perfect. Graham is probably best-remembered as the Gary Glitter-inspired Beef in Phantom of the Paradise, but he was always an interesting character actor. He has one of his best roles here as the superstitious Jeff, as well as one of the film’s most memorable moments when he blows up a car screaming “That’s too fucking high!” It’s littered with small roles featuring some of the greats in character acting, like Woodrow Parfrey, Harry Northup and Dick Miller—even Spinal Tap‘s Michael McKean has one of his earliest film roles in Used Cars.
Used Cars deserves to be rediscovered, because it’s the best comedy from 1980 (yes, it’s better than The Blues Brothers.) Spielberg was pissed off about a line about President Jimmy Carter, given that he was a massive Carter supporter and firmly believed that politicians have our best interests at heart. He was offended, but relented after Zemeckis and Gale refused to remove the line because they are midwestern guys who believe all politicians are corrupt. You could do much worst then spending two hours watching this forgotten gem, it’s just a shame Zemeckis lost all of his satirical bite when the ’90s came along.
The disc that Eureka has compiled includes a commentary track with Zemeckis, Gale and Russell; and two isolated score tracks, including the used score by Ernest Gold. The main special feature besides the commentary is a solid interview Bob Gale, who goes into plenty of detail about the making of the film in just 27 minutes. A gag reel/outtakes, a short Kurt Russell radio interview, radio spots, a Chrysler ad with Kurt Russell, and the theatrical trailer finish off the package.