Yes, Virginia, there was another movie titled "The Fast and the Furious."
It came nearly a half-century prior to the 2001 film starring Vin Diesel, a then-unknown free-weights fanatic with a shaved head. The '01 "F&F" inaugurated the most successful franchise in Universal's 104-year history, of which the eighth film now roars in multiplexes. (The new film's title, "The Fate of the Furious," has a disingenuous ring of finality. But you can count on after-fate. "F&F" Nos. 9 and 10 are now being assembled.)
The original "Fast and the Furious," an on-the-cheap quickie produced by "King of the B's" Roger Corman and released in 1955, features fast cars and racing, but that's about all it has in common with its 2001 descendant. Some credible professionals worked on the film, though its low budget and tight shooting schedule make their presence felt.
Plot: Police are searching for escaped suspect Frank Webster (John Ireland), who they believe ran a truck off a mountain road, killing the driver. Meanwhile, race car driver Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone) pulls her spiffy white Jaguar into an iffy-looking eatery to grab an egg salad sandwich.
Talk turns to the escapee who, it happens, is also at this eatery, trying to be inconspicuous. Then a sweaty vigilante (Bruno VeSota) grows suspicious of Frank and pulls a gun on him. Frank belts the vigilante, grabs Connie as a hostage, commandeers her Jaguar, and screeches out of Dodge.
Frank learns that Connie is on her way to the International, a big-deal cross-country race that straddles California and Mexico. The race, Frank concludes, might provide the perfect cover. ("I've driven everything from hot rods to tanks," he boasts.) Frank figures he can hide in plain sight as a race car driver -- as long as Connie cooperates by pretending to be his co-driver and, in some precarious instances, his girlfriend.
Thrills ensue, or they try to.
Connie initially despises Frank for kidnapping her and stealing her expensive car. But little by little, she starts to buy Frank's claim of innocence in the trucker's death ... and even begins to flirt with him.
"The Fast and the Furious" has the look of those independent horror and juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, which is no surprise, as it was produced by the man who brought us "The Beast With a Million Eyes" and "Teenage Doll." This was Corman's third of more than 400 films, but he merely produced it; co-credit for directing went to Ireland and editor Edward Sampson. On Corman's next film, "Five Guns West" (also 1955), he began directing as well, less out of artistic ambition than economic expediency.
Ireland and Malone were, of course, players from Hollywood's old studio system who were slumming here. Who can forget Ireland as a gunman opposite John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks' "Red River" (1948)? Who can forget Malone as the bespectacled book store clerk who offers Humphrey Bogart shelter from a rainstorm, with benefits, in "The Big Sleep" (1946)? Luckily for both actors, viewers can forget them in "The Fast and the Furious" -- except for we schlock aficionados, natch.
Iris Adrian, who specialized in brassy blondes during the big studio heyday, plays the gabby waitress at the restaurant with rat-a-tat delivery in a comical nasal twang.
Which brings us to Bruno VeSota. The balding, rotund, baby-faced actor is revered by exploitation fans as the man who would take any role, no matter how small or badly written, and do something interesting with it. VeSota's filmography is legion, and includes "The Undead" and "Attack of the Giant Leeches." The guy even directed "The Brain Eaters." To see this 300-pound-ish man hit on Dorothy Malone with such clueless confidence, such indifference to his paltry chances, is to bask in yet another priceless Bruno VeSota moment.
"The Fast and the Furious" was shot by no less a talent than Oscar winner Floyd Crosby, the cinematographer of "High Noon." Here, Crosby is not so much demonstrating his artistry as his hustle. This was obviously a grueling shoot, with very few interiors. Crosby's work on "F&F" is clean, competent and workaday, but he still manages to sneak in a thoughtful setup every now and then.
Jazzy background music was provided by revered jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, adding to the "Why did these great people work on this crappy movie?" vibe.
Corman, the so-called "King of the B's," was obsessed with using real locations and events to make his from-hunger films seem "bigger" (his word). In snowy mountains, he shot the World War II drama "Ski Troop Attack." At Mardi Gras, he shot the crime thriller "Swamp Women." For "The Fast and the Furious," Corman shot at the Pebble Beach International, gleaning instant production values. (Though Corman was infamous for "stealing" shots -- that is, shooting on location without permit -- we can assume he worked something out with the folks behind the Pebble Beach race, since it was trumpeted in movie posters.)
Whippersnappers who stumble upon the 1955 "Fast and the Furious" will likely laugh at its ineptitude. But for cult aficionados, the film somehow entertains with no special effects, no deep-pocket Hollywood investment ... and no Vin Diesel.