September 22, 2008

Only in the Movies: Free Cabs

The great responses to my first installment of Only in the Movies totally caught me off guard. I expected nods of agreement on my theory that answering machines are anachronistic movie props, but quite a few of you put me in place. Thank you.

As it is, however, I stand by observations (and was quite proud, as you can see in the comments, that Elegy featured three answering machine scenes). I also have an interesting update to report from the conversation Fox and I had in the comments about the difficulties of filming a "voicemail" scene, and how if you're not going to use an answering machine, you also couldn't really show a character with a cell phone up to their ear. Well, two movies I've seen since writing that post - Boy A and In Search of a Midnight Kiss - quite prominently use voice messages without featuring beeping answering machines! In both films the messages are used as narration in the form of a voiceover, and in Boy A we even get a couple shots of characters physically holding cell phones up to their ears and listening to the messages as we hear them at the same time. So it's not so hard after all, is it? An interesting phenomenon to keep your eye on - that is, if you keep your eye on minute, mostly meaningless details while you're watching movies.
Anyway, this time around I'm targeting cab culture in film.

Why don't movie characters ever pay their cab fares?

If I believed that everybody in movies was like me, then it would make some sense. For the most of the cab rides I've had, it's taken a minute or so to disembark, and I would add about another minute or so per passenger, up to a max of three minutes. The variables that affect this formula include, but are not limited to: clarifying the exact drop-off location ("Yeah, up on the left is fine"; "Just across the street past the light here", etc.); triple-checking the seats to make sure you're not leaving anything; waiting for passing traffic or curb access so you can open the door; and, of course, the actual financial transaction, which is complicated exponentially if you have more than three people: Who has cash? Who has change? How much do you owe?

Maybe it's just me, but my experience has proven that there are few instances in life involving as much concentration as the last 30 seconds of a cab ride. I've got one eye on the destination, one eye on the fare meter, and a third eye on the cash in my hand. Inevitably, even if you hold your breath and use the Force, the meter jumps $0.65 at the last second and totally throws off your tip calculation, causing you to either stiff the cabbie or shrug your shoulders and hand over a $20, which of course means you have to overtip because he or she won't have correct change.

None of this ever happens in the movies because the characters simply don't pay their fares.

Typically, the character simply raises their hand for a second (or even just whistles!) and has no problem hailing a cab. This is generally followed by instructions to "Follow that car!", or simply no instruction at all as the cab drives away and the character either gazes introspectively out the window or maintains eye contact with another character until out of sight. They don't need to tell the cabbie where to go; he or she just takes off driving.

After arriving at their destination - again, with no complications - our character will a.) simply get out and get going without paying, b.) walk away after giving the driver the exact amount including tip, or c.) take off running. Actually, I only remember that happening in The Pursuit of Happyness, but the fact is that it's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie because the actual reality of paying a cab fare is addressed.

What do you think? Are filmmakers getting out of this easy because they know cab fares are a minefield, or am I just crazy and everyone's real-life cab rides happen exactly like they do in the movies?


  1. Dan, I assure you the real-life situation with cabbies and fares DOES NOT mirror what you have rightly observed in the movies. It's all money, tacked on charges for gridlock waits, and an immediate "Where to?" when one steps in. I just took one myself over the weekend with Lucille and Broadway Bob, and the cab didn't move until we made our destination known. But you are right to point out this glaring contradiction.

    Incidentally, getting off just a bit, the greatest "cab" scene of all time occurs in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) with Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger and the famed "I Could Have Been A Contender" monologue.

  2. "Follow that car..."

    GOD, I miss that phrase.

    They used it to the point in older films that it became a real cliche. Now you NEVER hear anyone in the movies say that. (Not even in a balls out comedy). Largely because it's assumed that the laughter that it would inspire would be derisive rather than raucous.

    There must be some inspired, highly creative writers or directors that could work that line into a good film and not have it be ridiculously negative.

    I wish there was a way of ascertaining THE LAST movie that used that line. Must have been before the 80s.

    Someone will use it to their advantage. Some time. Hopefully.

    I'm waiting....

  3. Daniel, I guess you can safely assume those sequences are simply not being shown to us, that our guy actually pays the fare but it's not necessary for us to see that scene, just like we don't need to see the characters taking a dump every now and then

    But sometimes, people are not careful in editing and the whole thing doesn't make sense and this happens fairly often. So I guess you are right.

    I am more bothered though, like Amelie herself, by the films where our guy drives a car without watching the road, especially in 1950s. He instead chooses to look to his mistress in the face while talking to her. Pay attention, and you'll realize this happens fairly often also (e.g. in nearly all Hitchcock films with a car driving scene)

    I hope I haven't stolen an idea from you :P (hey, you can still write about it!)

    Miranda, I somehow feel that Tarantino is your guy. Have patience.

  4. anil, what you said is pure unadulterated genius.

    There's an EXCELLENT chance that you may be right about that...

  5. Thanks for the anecdotal evidence, Sam! I forgot about the "tacked on charges for gridlock waits". To add on to your example, another old scene came to mind from my recent viewing of The Big Sleep, when Bogie (who else?) heavily flirts with his female cabbie not once, but twice.

    I know, Miranda! It's a relic. For that matter, we don't really see people using cabs in chases anymore anyway. One of my favorites, by the way, has to be in What's Up Doc?, but that's from the early 70's. I would love to know, along with you, the last movie to use it.

    Haha, good points, Anil. I concede that nifty editing can account for not seeing some payments happening, but usually we do see the character's complete exit from the cab.

    The blind driving is something I ALWAYS notice, but you're not stealing anything as I hadn't even considered that one yet. I think in modern movies, directors have gone for a more realistic take on it and had the actors actually drive for at least some of the scenes as opposed to just being towed along like has been the standard for decades.

  6. Are you serious, Danny?

    You like WHAT'S UP, DOC? I never would've thought that that would be a movie that you'd dig.

    But if you're going to have a movie where people chase each other all over the bloody city - in cars, cabs etc. - it had better be SAN FRANCISCO. Couldn't be a better place for that, considering all the hills and the narrow, curving streets.

    You know, I own that. But I haven't taken a look at it in ages. It is one of the most hysterically and wildly funny films EVER.

    There's something irresistible to me about a BARBRA STREISAND/RYAN O'NEAL pairing (they were involved in real life, too) and they were exceptionally well matched. She was the perfect kook and he was a wonderful straight person.

    With the brilliant MADELINE KAHN along for the ride, there is nothing more to aspire to.

    Just thinking of some of those scenes now KILLS me. Just like that long drawn out courtroom thing at the end. It just builds and builds and BUILDS.

    Just when you think it couldn't possibly be topped, the judge calls out, "You - underneath the blanket. You seem to be the cause of all this. What do you have to say for yourself?"

    BARBRA (peeking out): Hello, Daddy.

    GOD, that is TOO MUCH. A friend's parents went to see that back in the day. It was tough because WUD was selling out everywhere. They told her years later that they had to go back and watch it again because they literally couldn't hear much of the dialogue.

    Everyone was laughing too loudly.

    Now that I can believe....

  7. Oh, easily one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time. Easily. Easily one of the first I would mention. One of the locks that remains in that list (which I actually haven't fully defined) year after year.

    I've seen it maybe as much as any other movie in my life (in fact I watched part of it again just a couple of weeks ago), but I did not know that is was that popular upon its release. I think the first time I saw it was probably late 80's, early 90's. Our neighbor would record movies from cable and my brother and sister and I would borrow a few tapes at a time. It was like a video rental next door - brilliant. What's Up Doc? was one that we somehow ended up watching multiple times with my whole family over years and years. I kind of thought no one else had ever seen or heard of it and that it existed as a comedic masterpiece only my head, but there you go accurately quoting dialogue! Can't believe it...

  8. I just re-watched The Thomas Crown Affair (the remake, of course), and there are a couple scenes with Rene Russo riding in a cab. I believe in the first, they show her paying at the end (undoubtedly with a large tip), while the second just shows her giving more money during the trip in one of those movie-ish requests to "Go faster!" Though I may have these mixed up, and they may be only one scene - they're running together in my head for some reason. Either way, I'm fairly sure she pays at the end of a cab trip.

    Your post reminded me, however, of a strategy that TV/movies showed me that I might use more if I lived in a city with more than 4 cabs: the "piss off the driver to get a free ride" routine, executed so brilliantly by both the Dude ("Dude, I hate the f#$#ing Eagles, can you just change it?") and by Jerry, George and Elaine on Seinfeld (the famous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan-inspired episode in which the cabbie recognizes them and boots them out after Bette Midler was injured at a softball game).

    Does that really happen in real life?

  9. Well, the deal about you digging WHAT'S UP DOC? is a BIG SURPRISE.

    I really had no idea.

    Although you and I are in the same age bracket, Danny, I grew up adoring BARBRA. So I know a great deal about her career and its history.

    Everyone that either knows me well or comes to CP on a regular basis is well aware of my love of fashion and old Hollywood glamour. But one of the reasons I was a huge BARBRA aficiando from such an early age was because she broke that mold. She became one of the biggest stars in the history of film ...and she did it entirely with her passion and talent.

    She is an excellent actor, a fine director and one of the most extraordinary singers EVER.

    From a straight girl's perspective, I think she is extremely attractive and sexy IN HER OWN WAY. But, to be charitable, she always was an unusual looking woman. Certainly fsr from the norm when you're talking about wildly successful female actors.

    But she bent that town to her own will in the 60s. She didn't even have conventional beauty at her disposal - and it's always been a boy's club. TO THIS DAY.

    It's really unbelievable when you think about it.

    I own WHAT'S UP DOC?, FUNNY GIRL, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, THE WAY WE WERE and that other completely hysterical comedy, THE OWL & THE PUSSYCAT - which has the distinction of being given an X rating when it was initially released in 1970.

    As you can imagine, it's pretty tame stuff today. But, at that particular point in time, it was groundbreaking for its mature situations, the drug use, the language and the sexual content. It likely would've gotten an R right through the 90s simply because BARBRA tells a gang of harassing creeps to "fuck off".

    But (I'm serious) if it were released in theatres now it would probably be PG-13, if that.

    (Well, American society and film were going to hell in a handbasket - or I think that was likely the prevailing attitude among conservatives at that time - and the newly created MPAA was fairly reactionary. MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the 1969 BEST PICTURE winner, also received an X rating initially too. Why it received either - the X or the Oscar - is a complete mystery to me.)

    BUT WHAT'S UP DOC? was AN ENORMOUS HIT, Danny. In 1972, BARBRA had just won the Oscar four years earlier and she was at the peak of her incredible popularity. RYAN was hot off of LOVE STORY which had also been a huge deal.

    Audiences were dying to see either of these two in a movie. But together they were, as they say, a box office bonanza. The reviews were decidedly mixed, I heard. But people REALLY wanted to see this and they turned up in droves.

    Of all the great car chases I've ever seen, WHAT'S UP DOC? will never drop out of my Top 5. It's right up there with THE GREAT RACE (which, by necessity, is a series of fantastic car chases).

    The logistics and the editing must've been incredibly difficult. But Bogdanovich makes it work seamlessly.

    There's so much about that film that just slays me.

    Like the party scene where BARBRA wants to get RYAN'S attention ("Whoops, there goes my napkin") and they start talking under the table - and then everyone else does too. BARBRA'S Bogart imitation when she's laying sprawled on the piano.


    And if you're discussing quotable lines, howzabout MADELINE KAHN: Don't touch those rocks, you philistine!!!

    Shame I was WAY too young to have ever seen WUD in a theatre.

    But still...

    Memories light the corners of my mind....


  10. My memory fails me on the Crown remake, Fletch, but I appreciate your comment as always. If she did pay, it sounds like she paid too much.

    Regarding the free rides (and your excellent examples, hehe), well I can't say it's ever happened for me, but then I guess I haven't really tried since I don't usually initiate a conversation with the cabbie.

    Wow, Miranda - I didn't know you were such a champion of Streisand! Of course I can't say that you're in any kind of minority since I'm pretty sure she's still selling out stadiums with regularity. I definitely haven't seen any of her earlier films in your library, but I have to say I'm glad that her performance is WUD is celebrated by her biggest fans. You're right about the ratings, too. Even though I haven't seen it, I'm sure it would be downgraded. In fact, I would say any movie released before 1990 (or whenever the MPAA overhauled the ratings) can be downgraded one level for comparison to today's ratings.

    Anyway, WUD is an example, obviously, of the kind of movie that can only work with very specific actors: Streisand and O'Neal, along with Kahn, Pendleton, and especially Kenneth Mars. Excellent framing of the Oscar/box-office situation, by the way.

    The car chase? Definitely top 5! It must hold the distinction as being one of the longest, too. Here it is. I've always loved the absolutely destroyed van (2:32), the guy who breaks his back on the table after he jumps over the fence (4:57), Lombard St. (6:05), and, of course, the dives into the bay (6:25). I should just post the clip. The crazy thing is that it's not even the funniest part of the movie. Like you say, the dinner scene, or the hotel fire, or party before the chase (classic fight scene, too) - and all of the dialogue! Unbelievable movie. I have to stop.

  11. Thanks SO MUCH for all of that, Danny. I'm just heading out the door. Now that I've seen that clip I'll be in a good mood.


    That is just UNBELIEVABLE.

    I love that thing with the pane of glass. Also the ice cream bike that BARBRA pedals around with RYAN sitting on it. It kills me. She keeps calling him Steve and he keeps telling her his name is Howard.

    I was holding back. But I really have to say this now. I totally adored RYAN O'NEAL growing up and it was largely because of WUD and LOVE STORY on TV.

    GOD, he was just beautiful. When he was walking around with nothing on but his shorts during that hotel fire...

    Lordy, lordy. No wonder BARBRA got the jump on him. So to speak.

    But that insane car chase...

    "We can make it."
    "We can make it."
    "I don't think we can make it."

    And then they ALL drive straight into the bloody bay. Hah hah hah...


    SAN FRANCISCO'S quite the town, I hear...

    Thanks a bunch, Danny. You are, as always, the absolute awesomest...

  12. Hehe, glad to make your evening with that. Unfortunate timing what with O'Neal's recent arrest or whatever happened. Yeah I guess he was a hunk at the time, though, huh?

    Classic lines throughout, definitely agreed. And I love that glass swing as well!

  13. As someone who just spent the last 2 days out of town on business and relying on cabs to maneuver around downtown instead of my normal car rental, I can tell you my trips were nothing like the ones you described.

    Here's how mine played out:

    (me giving address)

    (20 minutes later in traffic)

    Me (to myself): jeez if I'd known how far this was, I would have just rented a car.

    (20 minutes later)

    Me (to myself): god I hope they accept credit cards in this taxi. Does the meter read a 6 or an 8?

    (waiting 4 minutes at my destination as the driver does his credit thing)

    So yea, no romantic money tosses here.

  14. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Joseph. Haha, I know about the credit card thing. Of course I never think to check until it's too late. Actually, that makes me wonder: what actually happens if you can't cover the fare. Do they drive you to an ATM? Take your license as collateral? Call the cops? Good thing I haven't had to find out.

    I love the receipts you get for cab rides, too. I could just as easily write it up myself on a Post-It note.

  15. I'm not going to do this an ongoing basis from now on, but I do have to report here that Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist features, wouldn't you know it, an implied free cab ride!


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