Monday, July 9, 2012

Movie – Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point is pretty much the definition of a 1970s cult movie.  It features counter-culture and racial subplots in dealing with the people in power (i.e. the cops and the media).  It also features a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T with a 440 cubic inch V-8 engine that becomes the true star of the film as the driver of it evades the police across multiple states.  (For those folks who don’t speak “car” that’s a really fast and powerful machine.)  The result is an interesting movie that is as much about the times as it is the car.

Director Richard Sarafian says on the DVD that he wanted Gene Hackman to play the lead in the film.  The studio didn’t want Hackman and made Sarafian use Barry Newman instead – showing once again that studio drones usually don’t know much of anything in regards to casting.  Because he didn’t want Newman, Sarafian decided to actually make the car the star of the movie instead of the lead actor.  He shot the film with wider shots of the car on the roads, instead of close up shots of Newman driving it.  The result is that one of the all time cult car chase movies was born.  By the way, the man actually doing the shots was Director of Photography John Alonzo, who a few years later would shoot Chinatown.

In the film Kowalski (Barry Newman) arrives in Denver, Colorado.  He’s delivering a car he has driven there from San Francisco.  The people there want him to rest, but he insists on getting right back in another car that needs to be delivered to San Francisco – the one I described above.  He has several days to get there, but insists he needs to get back as soon as possible.  A bet is soon made on whether he can get there (over 1,200 miles) in less than 15 hours.  After popping some Benzedrine to wake himself up, he takes off for home.

It’s not long before two cops try to pull him over for speeding.  He evades them, but not before stopping to ensure one cop who crashed is okay.  Through flashbacks we are given hints that Kowalski used to be a cop and that he lost his job when he prevented another cop from assaulting a woman.

As he drives across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and into California he encounters a number of different people.  Most of them are used to make a point about the counter-culture that was going on at the time.  The most memorable are a man and his hippie chick in Nevada.  The woman just spends her time riding around on a motorcycle naked in the sun.  Sarafian says that this actress – Gilda Texter – was the girlfriend of someone on the crew and that she pretty much was that character.  She had zero issues with nudity; her only problem came from the fact that during filming the seat of the motorcycle got very hot in the sun and she ended up getting some burns from it.  The ironic thing about all of this is that she would end up getting into costume design/supervision for the movies and TV, including such productions as Romancing the Stone and The Green Mile.

At a certain point, Kowalski’s continual evasion of the police starts to make the news.  This is picked up on by a blind, black DJ in Nevada named Super Soul.  He is played by Cleavon Little, who a few years later would star in Blazing Saddles.  Also take a look at his engineer.  That’s John Amos, who would go on to do the landmark miniseries Roots and the TV show Good Times.

Super Soul starts talking to Kowalski through the radio, and in a bit of artistic license, appears to understand what Kowalski’s reactions to this are.  Super Soul becomes the voice of the movie, talking about how people are pulling for Kowalski to stay one step ahead of the police – that’s he’s one of the last American heroes.  I would bet a lot of money that Super Soul inspired the female radio DJ that keeps talking to the Warriors in another 70s cult classic film – 1979’s The Warriors.  Supporters of Kowalski start to gather at Super Soul’s radio station.  Eventually the station is illegally raided by the cops and they try to use it to lure Kowalski into one of their traps.

Another familiar face shows up if you watch the U.K. version of this film.  An extra scene is inserted where Kowalski meets a female hitchhiker played by a young Charlotte Rampling.

Twenty years later director Ridley Scott would lift most of the concepts of Vanishing Point to make the film Thelma and Louise.  In fact, I consider Thelma and Louise to be an unofficial remake of Vanishing Point.  Both feature people evading the cops, and at a certain point they start to become media darlings.  The films then make points about life and the Larger Meaning of things.  The scenes of evading the cops start to take on a metaphorical meaning about life and death.  By the way, there was a credited remake of Vanishing Point done for a 1997 TV movie which starred none other than Viggo Mortensen.  I haven’t seen it, but it’s not rated anywhere near as high as the original on IMDB.

I actually saw the original Vanishing Point when I was a kid (minus the naked motorcycle rider because it was on broadcast TV.)  Many years later I could only remember two scenes – Kowalski in the desert encountering his own tire tracks, and the final scene, which I won’t spoil, but which I will say made zero sense to me.  IMDB added message boards in the late 90s and this allowed people to directly ask for help in finding movies.  Via this I was able to find out that the film I remembered was Vanishing Point.  I watched it again, and while the ending does make more sense in a metaphorical way, it still doesn’t make much sense in a practical way.

If you are not into cult movies at all, then you may want to skip this one.  The reason to see Vanishing Point is to watch a time capsule film that could never be made today.  It’s also to see a really hot car in a number of high speed scenes.  For anyone who saw Death Proof (2007) the girls in that film want the white car because it’s the same one featured in Vanishing Point.  They also discuss the movie quite a bit.  If you want to see what all the fuss is about, I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Just as you stated, this is a cult movie and I know many car enthusiasts who relate to this movie a lot.
    Tarantino also gave it a nice hommage by giving many lines to his female stars in Death Proof worshipping the car and riding it to get their satsifaction... Very good review Chip.

    1. Thanks. I actually liked this film more than Death Proof, which was an attempt to make a film like the 70s cult films.

  2. BTW, which cut of the film did you see? I've only seen the U.S. cut because the U.K. extended cut features a scene where Charlotte Rampling takes a ride on the car and smokes a big fat joint.

    1. I've got the Region 1 DVD, which has both versions of the film on it.

  3. Good review, Chip. This one has been stuck in my queue for some time now -- Sounds like a good title to become unstuck. I've watched Death Proof, but I guess I should see the real deal.

    Interesting comparison to Thelma and Louise. I'll be looking for the similarities now.

    1. If you get a chance, once you've seen it please let me know what you thought of the movie.