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Should I Watch..? Vanishing Point
What's the big deal?
Vanishing Point is a road movie released in 1971 and was written by Cuban novelist and émigré Guillermo Cabrera under the alias Guillermo Cain. The film follows a mysterious man named Kowalski who engages in a high-speed police chase across the southern states of America. The film is widely seen as being indicative of the post-Woodstock mood in the US although debate continues about the film's actual message. The movie stars Barry Newman, Cleavon Little and Dean Jagger and features cameos from music group Delaney, Bonnie & Friends. The film has proved influential to other film makers including Edgar Wright who was inspired to make Baby Driver (1) and Steven Spielberg, who cites the film as one of his all-time favourites.
What's it about?
On a late Friday night in Denver, car delivery driver Kowalski drops off his latest vehicle and is eager for his next assignment. Ignoring the pleas of his colleague to take it easy, Kowalski signs on to deliver a white Dodge Challenger to a client in San Francisco by Monday. In order to help him on the long drive, Kowalski picks up some Benzedrine pills and bets his dealer that he can get the car delivered by 3:00 pm tomorrow. Leaving Denver there and then, Kowalski begins his 1200 mile journey to the California coast.
In his desperate quest, Kowalski quickly runs foul of the law and is pursued by the police as well as other drivers eager to race him. But Kowalski, a former racing driver, stops for nothing and no-one and finds an unusual ally in the voice of blind radio DJ Super Soul, who encourages Kowalski in the midst of his reckless pursuit of speed...
Richard C. Sarafian
Guillermo C. Infante *
Release Date (UK)
13th March, 1971
Action, Drama, Thriller
What's to like?
Vanishing Point has almost become synonymous with the 'road movie' concept and it's not hard to see why. The start of the movie sees the car become the star, its V8 rumble shaking the jowls of petrol-heads in the audience. But it's not just about filming a speeding car - the stunt work seen in the film belies the movie's age and it still stands up today as a visually exciting picture. It also benefits from a lack of digital trickery - no Fast And Furious (2) nonsense here - while the quiet coolness of Newman evokes memories of Steve McQueen in Bullitt (3).
There is no point in denying that the movie does kinda lose its way, if one assumes that the viewer is as sober as I am. This is a movie that encapsulates a very specific period in time, the cold reality of the Seventies looming over the Love Generation as Vietnam dragged ever on. Today, the subtleties of the film's threadbare plot are lost in a foggy haze, much like the film's message. The ending, which comes completely out of the blue, shocks the viewer as though waking them and leaves many more questions than the film answers.
- The UK version has one scene cut from the US version - a hitch-hiker played by Charlotte Rampling offers Kowalski marijuana who then pulls over when he starts feeling stoned. Rampling's character was supposed to represent Death but the studio felt that audiences wouldn't understand.
- Among the performers making a cameo in the film are Bread frontman David Gates and Rita Coolidge, who would later record the theme to 1983's Octopussy (4).
- The film inspired the group Primal Scream to record an alternative soundtrack to the film. Their song Kowalski even features samples of Super Soul's "last American hero" speech.
What's not to like?
There will be some who will watch Vanishing Point and wonder what the point of it was. Certainly, the existential vibe of the film is largely lost these days - the summer of love is now all but forgotten and the only drugs I regularly taken are antidepressants. In the midst of all the action, there is remarkably little story-telling and the film leaves you with more questions than answers. Who exactly was Kowalski and what compelled him to engage in such a futile quest? Alas, we never find out.
The uncomfortable feeling isn't helped by the ending which I obviously won't discuss in too much detail but like the rest of the film, it did leave me unsatisfied and my questions unanswered. While you're watching the film, you just go along with it as you're swept up in the blend of motoring action, trippy characters and hippy soundtrack. But when it's finished, your brain re-engages and demands to know what exactly you've just seen. Whatever interpretation you reach watching Vanishing Point, it only comes long after the film itself has ended. Newman, for the record, thought the whole film was about existentialism while the director Sarafian though Kowalski was an otherworldly character shifting between planes of existence. Maybe I need more pills...
Should I watch it?
Vanishing Point feels more like an event than an actual movie, one that has become famed for its driving sequences as much as its ambiguous narrative. Like other road movies at the time, the film exists as an important milestone within its genre but its message has long been eroded by time and sobriety. Having said that, the film is certainly interesting and worthy of attention for anyone with an interest in cinematic history.
Great For: pot-heads, hippies, philosophers
Not So Great For: critics, traffic officers, unexpanded minds
What else should I watch?
At the time Vanishing Point was released, a number of significant movies were also being produced that would become what we now call road movies. The likes of Easy Rider (5) and Steven Spielberg's debut picture Duel (6), together with this movie, would establish several stereotypes of the road movie. But the film which arguably stands out as having the greatest driving sequence of all time has to be the Steve McQueen detective flick, Bullitt. The iconic chase through the steep streets of San Francisco has become the stuff of legend and remains gripping cinema, even today.
These days, driving movies tend to evoke thoughts of the still-running Fast And Furious saga which almost totally leave characterisation behind and instead focus on noise, speed and spectacle. Assuming that you've had your fill of this franchise, might I suggest Baby Driver with its great soundtrack or even Drive (7), the Ryan Gosling vehicle (pun intended) with equal amounts of stunt work, mystery, violence and Eighties nostalgia. It also isn't as straight-forward as you'd might expect, much like Vanishing Point itself.
© 2017 Benjamin Cox