Saturday, 29 December 2012

Vanishing Point (1971)

Dir. Richard C. Sarafian
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin

“And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin' closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape the last beautiful free soul on this planet…” 

A white supercharged Dodge Challenger speeds across the Nevada desert, clouds of dust being kicked up in its wake. Its engine screams as it slaloms the brush. Behind the police pursue. Ahead there is an unknown fate. At the wheel is Kowalski (Barry Newman). High on speed he is engaged in a desperate race against time to deliver the car he drives from Denver to San Francisco in only fifteen hours. And over the radio comes the voice of blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), urging him to keep going, warning him of the cops on his tail, and mythologizing him to his listeners as “the last American hero… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.” 

A great car chase can make a great movie. Think of Bullitt racing through the streets of San Francisco, the carnage strewn across Paris in Ronin or the loop-the-loop bridge jump in The Man with the Golden Gun. Vanishing Point is one big car chase, 90 minutes of it. There is no danger of getting bored by the leisurely pace as there was with Easy Rider. Like Kowalski the viewer is taken on a speed-fuelled adrenaline-boosted turbo-charged race across the American West. Many questions are left unanswered. What is Kowalski’s first name? Why did he refuse to stop for the first policeman? Why does he have just fifteen hours to reach ‘Frisco? We never know. When Kowalski’s dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) accuses him of joking about his deadline Kowalski merely replies “I wish to God I was.” The deadline seems arbitrary and unreal – and I was left suspecting that it was invented by Kowalski himself. Kowalski speeds and races not because of an external force compelling him, but because he wants to. Deep-down he needs to. A former racecar and speedway driver – as well as a former Marine and cop – he is drawn to the danger and the thrill of the pursuit. Super Soul posits that to him “speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when he’s gonna stop, but who’s gonna stop him.” 

Kowalski is trying to outrace not just the police but the past. Through flashbacks we glimpse his life-story. We see his romance with Vera (Victoria Medlin) and we see her fail to return from surfing. It is the painful memories which he is trying to outpace. Finally he succeeds. It might not be true to say that he has a deathwish – actor Barry Newman is on record as saying that Kowalski smiles as he races towards the final roadblock because he thinks he can make it. I disagree. I think Kowalski finally makes peace with himself. With his actions being followed by the police, by the media, by the many listeners to Super Soul’s show, he has nowhere left to run. He decides to take the chase where they cannot follow him and where the answers about his behaviour will go forever unanswered. 

He is helped along the way by those that see him as the ultimate expression of American freedom, escaping the tyranny of an oppressive state. It is not just Super Soul, who seems to have an intimate connection to Kowalski, who helps, but also dealers, hippies and old-time prospectors. All people who have no love for modern American society. Being mobile is freedom: this is literally the freedom of the road. Kowalski becomes a folk hero overnight, a modern-day take on the old outlaws of the West. Both he and his car are resolutely and stoically American – they burn off a cocky (European) Jaguar driver. Super Soul refers to the police as “Nazis”. Speed, independence, freedom – these are the American virtues Kowalski represents. 

The film has wonderful sights and sounds to accompany Kowalski’s drive. The rural silence is shattered by the throaty roar of the Challenger’s engine. Wheel-tracks criss-cross the barren salt flats of Nevada. Super Soul lays down a funky soundtrack. Richard Sarafian manages to entertain with a film that has the energy and urgency of a car chase, but with more depth to it than that description would seem to merit. Vanishing Point is a redemptive quest as a man finds that no matter how fast you go,you can never outrun your demons. 
No matter what his GPS told him, he was sure this wasn't Bristol

What have I learnt about The Road?
As in Easy Rider The Road means freedom. And that is maybe not surprising when one considers the limitations on the police forces along the route – they are restricted to their own state and cannot cross the boundary lines. This means that the pursuit of Kowalski has to be handed over from the police in Colorado to those in Nevada, and from Nevada to California. California’s state police seem to have a lot more resources than Nevada’s. 

Can we go there?
Kowalski’s route is to take him from Denver to San Francisco. He takes possession of the Challenger in the Denargo Markets area (20th Street and Fox). He is first spotted by the police near Glenwood Springs in Colorado. When he refuses to stop a chase ensues. The route has been recreated as far as possible. The climactic end of the movie (and also its beginning) occurs in Cisco, California. There is no real life Cisco in California however – these scenes were shot in Cisco, Utah (off Interstate 70 about 30 miles from the Colorado border). 

Off this route Super Soul broadcasts from the Goldfield Hotel in Goldfield, Nevada. 

Overall Rating: 4/5


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