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Used Cars (1980)

January 25th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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At the dusty “New Deal Used Cars” lot, Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) sets out to steal some business from his competition, insufferable prick Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden). Rudy ties a $20 bill onto fishing line and lures one of Fuchs’ customers across the street, almost running him down in traffic. Rudy’s boss, the lovable Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden in a dual role) doesn’t endorse such tactics, but Rudy needs $10,000 to buy his way into office as a state senator. Luke offers to give him the money.

Rudy’s co-workers include a car salesman with a litany of superstitions (Gerrit Graham) and a narcoleptic mechanic (Frank McRae). Luke suffers from a heart ailment and becomes a target of his twin brother, who believes he’ll inherit the lot if Luke dies. After going on a wild test ride with a demolition derby driver that Roy sends over, Luke indeed drops dead. Still in need of his $10,000, Rudy convinces his buddies to help him bury their boss on the lot – in his favorite old car – so they can hold onto their jobs.

Implementing a variety of schemes to drum up business – hacking into a football game with an amateur TV ad – Rudy’s dream is threatened by the appearance of Luke’s daughter Barbara Jane (Deborah Harmon). Attempting to distract her, Rudy instead falls in love. The ruse doesn’t last, and Barbara Jane fires the delinquents once she inherits the lot. Rudy obtains the cash he needs to become a senator, but comes to Barbara Jane’s rescue when her false claim of having “a mile of cars” threatens to shut down her business.


Production history 
While Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale worked on the script for what became 1941, producer John Milius pitched them an idea. All he had was the title Used Cars and that there would be nothing but despicable characters in it. “The Bobs” – who bonded at USC Film School over Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood and the soundtrack to The Great Escape – thought this was terrific. They’d known a guy whose father owned a Ford dealership. Hanging out with the used car salesmen, they’d heard all kinds of stories, mostly X-rated ones.

In the interim, Zemeckis directed his first feature film, “a nice, sweet little movie” he wrote with Gale called I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Even though Steven Spielberg served as executive producer, it was ignored at the box office in 1978. The Bobs decided to switch tracks and make something as raunchy and socially irredeemable as possible. Zemeckis saw Used Cars as a classic American screwball comedy – Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – except, with characters that possessed no moral compass whatsoever.

Originally set up at Universal, the studio passed once they got a look at the script. Spielberg was shooting 1941 for Columbia at the time, and along with Milius, secured backing for Used Cars as executive producers. Zemeckis shot the film in 28 days in Mesa, Arizona, in an empty lot across the street from a Daimler Chrysler Plymouth dealership. When the film screened for a test audience, the scores went through the roof.


Columbia bumped the film’s release date from August to July 1980. In their haste, the studio not only marketed the picture poorly, but scheduled it to open a week after Airplane! Not many people saw Used Cars in a theater, but many of those who did became instant fans. Even the esteemed film critic Pauline Kael called it, “A classic screwball fantasy – a neglected modern comedy that’s like a more restless and visually high-spirited version of the W.C. Fields pictures.”

Before Robert Zemeckis devoted his career to advancing the art of digital effects in movies like Forrest Gump and The Polar Express, he made a movie whose only special effect was its spirit. Used Cars is a lot of things – sloppy, juvenile, cynical – but Zemeckis & Gale absolutely refuse to soften or second guess the insidiously wicked spirit of the idea originated by John Milius. While the movie is hilarious, its running theme of the American dream as a con job is what endears it on repeated viewings.

This is the only R-rated film Zemeckis ever directed, and it features an intense level of audience appreciation throughout, from nonstop profanity (Kurt Russell and Jack Warden relish their first career opportunity to curse on camera), to nudity (courtesy the lovely Cheryl Rixon), to the audacity of its gags. My favorite is a lemon that throws two children into the street as it bounces off the lot. The movie is physically reckless too, with stunts so brazen it’s amazing no one was killed. A great comedy, Used Cars may also be one of the last great movies of the 1970s.


digitally Obsessed says, “As a kid I found the picture to be funny, although I don’t think I got many of the jokes; I just laughed when my older brother and father did. But now, some fifteen years later, I get the jokes and believe Used Cars is one of the funnier films I have ever seen.”

“If you list Animal House, Caddyshack and Stripes among your favorite comedies, the 1980 Robert Zemeckis flick Used Cars will certainly tickle your immature sensibilities,” writes Scott Weinberg at DVD Clinic.

Scott Tobias at The Onion A.V. Club writes, “Loud, vulgar, and unrepentantly raunchy, Used Cars occasionally careens into the strident mugging and lowbrow gratuity made popular by Animal House two years earlier. But taken as a rancid, festering slice of Americana, it seems more potent than ever.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Black comedy

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cjKennedy // Jan 27, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    Wow, I was just talking with someone the other day about great Kurt Russell performances and I only thought of Used Cars several days later. I actually did see this in a theater, the drive-in of all things. I was way too young for it I’m sure, but my dad never seemed to mind.

    Good memories, but I haven’t seen it for a long time. I need to correct that, it sounds like it holds up pretty good all these years later.

  • 2 Chuck // Jan 29, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Kurt Russell is a treasure. I still have this fantasy/hope that Alexander Payne is/will one day make an urban malaise comedy that’s actually a wry comment on the inability of actors a certain age to get work that becomes them. Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid would have to be two of those actors.

    I caught Used Cars for the first time a few months ago, and I wholeheartedly support everything you’ve said here. Any film that can make me laugh as hard as I did at the sight of a dog pissing in a sleeping man’s face certainly has something going for it.

    Please come back to the realm of the human, Mr. Zemeckis.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jan 29, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    Craig: Kurt Russell has made a career out of starring in movies that were either ignored or dismissed in theaters – Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble In Little China – that hold up incredibly well going on 25 years later. In fact, it’s safe to say that they’re all classics. As is the case with the rest of those movies, the DVD of Used Cars features Russell on the audio commentary, laughing at himself and the other performers. It really adds to the overall enjoyment of the movie and I recommend checking it out.

    Chuck: I think your story idea might work better if it were about out-of-work actresses. I think Russell will always be in demand. As for Zemeckis, listening to him make comments on the DVD, he seemed a little bewildered by Used Cars and Romancing the Stone, as if he’d forgotten people make movies without the assistance of computer effects.

  • 4 cjKennedy // Jan 31, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Escape, Thing and China were precisely what I was thinking of when I mentioned Great Kurt Russell performances. I’m still shocked I overlooked Cars.

    I think it’s time for a little Kurt Russell mini-retrospective during this January/February movie malaise.

    Seeing Kurt in Death Proof was a pleasure in 2007. He’s always best when his toungue is planted in cheek.

  • 5 Hedwig // Feb 4, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Ah! It’s too bad I didn’t read this earlier: used cars was on television yesterday or the day before that and I didn’t watch it because I had no idea what it was. Seems I missed something.

  • 6 cjKennedy // Feb 5, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    You have to see this one unedited Hedwig.

    Though I have to say, I saw a TV version of it once in college and the things they did to cover up the foul language were pretty funny in their own right.

  • 7 Hedwig // Feb 7, 2008 at 5:27 am

    Ah, but Craig, that’s the advantage of living in the Netherlands (yes, there are some). Movies are interrupted by commercials every half our, sure, but the cursing is not tampered with 😀

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