Rob’s Car Movie Review: Stingray (1978)

As I’ve noted quite a few times in past editions of this column, the 1970s were truly the golden age for the car movie.

Films like Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Smokey and the Bandit took the genre to new heights, generally affording us more engaging storylines, increasingly intricate character development, and most notably, shots and sequences that were previously impossible owing to new advancements in camera and mounting technologies.

There was also a marked expansion in the number of subgenres during the period. Amongst them, there was the bootlegger movie, exemplified by last month’s subject of this column, Moonshine County Express, the racing film, typified by such classics as LeMans and The Last American Hero, and the cross-country chase flick.

The latter subgenre was characterized by a narrative that was almost wholly centered around an extended, continuous pursuit. One such movie of this ilk that I learned of recently is typical of the 1970s low-budget chase film and struck me as a prime example to explore the hallmarks of the subgenre with you.

The picture is 1978’s Stingray, and it’s this month’s subject of Rob’s Car Movie Review.

The theatrical one-sheet movie poster for Stingray. (Image courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

First, some background production info.

Stingray was produced by an outfit unsurprisingly called Stingray Productions, which suggests it was set up solely for the making of the film, and then likely disbanded after. Distributing the movie in the United States was AVCO Embassy Pictures, which had considerable success in prior years, releasing such box office classics as Carnal Knowledge, The Night Porter, and Watership Down.

The movie was written and directed by Richard Taylor, a first-time helmer, who apparently believed in the auteur theory of filmmaking, as he also took on the roles of producer and picture editor.

Christopher Mitchum as Stingray’s main protagonist, Al. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Entertainment.)

Starring in the film is Christopher Mitchum, son of the late, great Robert Mitchum, accompanied by Les Lannom, William Watson, Sherry Jackson, Bert Hinchman, Richard Cosentino, and Harry Gorsuch.

As is the case with many cross-country chase films, the plot of Stingray is neither complicated nor layered.

At the beginning of the movie, a pair of career lowlifes, Lonigan (Watson) and Tony (Hinchman) are involved in a deal for a large amount of heroin that goes bad. The two get away with the money and the drugs after shooting the dealer and his men, and for some reason, decide to stash their ill-gotten gains in a Corvette sitting out on a used car lot.

Les Lannom as Al’s buddy, Elmo. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

After hooking up with the mastermind of their gang, the sociopathic Abigail Bratowski (Jackson), the crooks go to the car lot to retrieve their spoils, only to see two young men, Al (Mitchum) and Elmo (Lannom) close the deal on the ‘vette and drive off in it.

A chase between the crooks and the clueless Al and Elmo commences, and ultimately involves a pair of detectives, Lieutenant Herschel (Cosentino) and Sergeant Murphy (Gorsuch), after Abigail murders a pair of pursuing patrolmen.

And that’s pretty much your narrative.

Abigail Bratowski, a cold, ruthless criminal, played by Sherry Jackson. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

The lack of complexity in this regard didn’t bother me in the slightest, as one of my favorite car films, the aforementioned Vanishing Point, is just as stripped down, but several other facets of Stingray did.

First and foremost, the movie struggles to find a consistent tone.

On the one hand, there are copious amounts of bloody and starkly depicted violence in the film, such as the moment when one of the patrolmen takes a bullet straight to the forehead, but then this is juxtaposed with nearly slapstick humor elements, where the gang is portrayed as inept and bumbling, and Herschel and Murphy as Keystone Cops.

The cops: Richard Cosentino as Lieutenant Herschel and Harry Gorsuch as Sergeant Murphy. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

The two tones seriously don’t mesh, and leave you wondering whether you are watching an over-the-top comedy or a grim, crime thriller. It’s an awful balance chosen by director Taylor, who should have opted for one or the other.

Beyond that, the performances in the movie are universally wooden and bereft of any authentic emotion, save for that of William Watson, who is absolutely terrific. His spin on Lonigan as a hardened and eccentric criminal is pretty much flawless.

Technically, the film is mediocre, with competent but less than captivating cinematography and lighting, average editing, and a few clearly dubbed dialogue scenes, where it was obvious the original live recording had been substandard, necessitating a fix in post-production.

The excellent William Watson plays Lonigan, a lowlife criminal and drug dealer. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

Thankfully, the one area where the film does make the grade is in terms of its cars and automotive action. Two cars occupy the four-wheeled starring roles in the movie and belong to Al and the bad guys respectively.

Al’s 1964 Corvette Sting Ray convertible C2 that gives the film its name gets the lion’s share of screentime, and that’s a good thing. Draped in 923 Riverside Red over a black interior, the car looks absolutely fantastic.

Al’s 1964 Corvette convertible. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

As best as I can tell, the ‘vette is largely stock, with the exception of two elements: a black aftermarket roll bar that pokes up from behind the rear seats, and a set of five-spoke, chromed mag wheels wrapped in oversized, high-profile Bonneville steel radial rubber. Other than that, the car appears to be untouched.

While numerous interior shots enable us to see that the car is equipped with a four-speed Synchro-Mesh manual transmission, we unfortunately never get a look under the hood to see what’s powering it.

A nice dusk shot of Al in his ’64 ‘vette. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

In 1964, Corvette engine options included four distinct versions of Chevy’s 327 cubic-inch V8 with various induction, piston, and cam equipment that could vary the output from 250 horsepower all the way up to 375 ponies for the fuel injected version. Even judging by the live location audio recordings, it’s impossible to tell which iteration the film’s Corvette packed, so it’s likely that this info has been lost to history.

The bad guys’ ride is a good one too: a 1971 Chevy Malibu Sport Coupe in 2328 Mediterranean Blue with a Sandalwood interior. Featuring a white top and black steelies without wheel covers, the Malibu looks like it has covered a mile or two, and is seemingly in bone stock condition, at least in terms of aesthetics.

The bad guys’ 1971 Chevy Malibu. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

The car features a column-mounted automatic shifter, but once again we don’t get a glimpse underhood. Quite humorously during one chase scene, Lonigan mutters that he is impressed with himself keeping up with the Corvette while driving a “four-cylinder car.”

Of course, Malibu’s weren’t sold in 1971 with four-bangers, but instead could have the 250 Turbo-Thrift straight-6, the 307 Turbo-Fire V8, the 350 Turbo-Fire V8 in a variety of configurations, and the 400 Turbo-Jet. Again, I have no clue as to what the movie car had.

Both the Malibu and the Corvette are put through their paces in numerous chase sequences. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

Being a chase film, both cars are put through their paces extensively, with multiple high-speed pursuits, including ones through a gravel quarry, fields of tall grass, dirt roads, paved roads, and just about everything in between. There are multiple jumps, drifts, and spinouts too. All are competently shot and coordinated.

This is not in the least bit surprising, given that the film’s stunt coordinator and stunt driver was none other than the legendary Carey Loftin of Bullitt, Vanishing Point, The French Connection, and The Getaway fame, amongst literally hundreds of other films.

The Corvette being driven hard by stunt coordinator/driver Carey Loftin. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

A bunch of other nice cars play smaller roles in the movie, including a superlative, red 1962 Austin Healy 3000, a red ’69 Camaro, and a pale yellow 1968 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE.

Although Stingray has its moments, especially in the copious automotive action scenes, and serves as a good example of what the cross-country chase subgenre looked like at the time, it unfortunately fails overall as a movie.

Al and Elmo driving the Vette in the beginning of the film, unaware what trouble their new toy will bring them. (Photo courtesy of AVCO Embassy Pictures.)

Sure, there’s adequate tension and a coherent narrative in the film, but the uneven tone, tenor, and largely poor performances do not make for a wholly enjoyable or entertaining movie watching experience. As such, I can only give Stingray five out of ten pistons, and suggest you look elsewhere for your next car movie fix.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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