Image Credit: Everett CollectionBritish director Peter Yates, who died on January 9 at the age of 81, created one of Hollywood’s best car chase scenes in the 1968 thriller Bullitt, tracking a showdown on the hilly streets of San Francisco between Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang GT and two bad guys in a Dodge Charger. But for a chase with just as much excitement and even more emotional tug, there’s nothing to match what Yates did in Breaking Away (1979), pitting a teen on a racing bike against a big rig on the roads around Bloomington, Ind. Come to think of it, there’s nothing to match Breaking Away, period. The movie — guaranteed to make you cheer in your seat — is a perfectly calibrated blend of sports thrills, you-can-do-it inspiration, coming-of-age sensitivity, Mid-Western authenticity, tender young romance, and smart, cusp-of-the-’80s humor. The four buddies at the heart of the story, high school grads who are working-class townies surrounded by the gownies who go to the big university in town, don’t know what to do next with their lives. As “cutters” — the local class-warfare slur, inspired by workers in the nearby stone quarries — their options feel stunted. But one, at least, has a dream. Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher, so young and blond), with his sweetly home-made love of all things Italian (his cat is named Fellini) wants to be a champion Italian bicycle racer. Or at least he wants to complete in the area’s prestigious local bike race. And as Dave’s passion begins to rally his friends (a piquant ensemble of Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, and Daniel Stern in his screen debut), so these unformed fellows begin to have more faith in their own worth. Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie are outstanding as Dave’s parents, learning to make sense of their kid. The underdog-vs.-topdog final race is a classic of its kind. With a (rightly) Oscar-winning screenplay by the late Steve Tesich and Yates’ clean, understated direction, the movie is a model of harmonious pacing, transitioning seamlessly from humor to seriousness to pure sports adrenaline and then back again to a gracious affection for home and friends and family and … the excitement of growing up and breaking away.

Here, see what I mean. Full props, by the way, go to Felix Mendelssohn, without whose Italian Symphony (Italian!) as the musical motor, none of it would be possible. And honors go to Peter Yates for winning this race.

Breaking Away
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