Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Vanishing Point 1971.

The freedom of the road.

The smile on the face of Kowalski in the final seconds confirms the longing for death as the only possible liberation, a notion that was prominent in the work of the German New Wave film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and that’s not a spoiler, freedom is the crux of Richard Sarafian’s 1971 movie Vanishing Point.


Heroism, in its purest definition is an appetite for freedom, a desire to live more intensely. Kowalski possesses both these traits. But the realisation of heroism “depends upon the liveliness of the potential hero’s imagination, upon how far he can understand his own latent needs, and devise an outlet for them”.  And Kowalski seems to be one of those romantics who cannot translate his “bird’s-eye views” back into everyday life - hence his penchant for fast driving on the public highway and his use of amphetamines. [1]

1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a car delivery driver who drops off a black Chrysler Imperial in Denver Colorado late one Friday night, doing a quick turn around he insists on delivering a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum that has to be in San Francisco by Monday. Calling in to a parking lot frequented by bikers he score’s some Benzedrine to keep him awake for the long journey, betting his dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) he can get the car to San Francisco by 3pm Saturday, a trip of nearly 1000 miles! High on bennies and determined to win his bet he leads the Highway Patrol on a chase across four western states. Catching Kowalski turns into a massive police operation that attracts the gaze of the national media and particularly a local blind DJ called Super Soul (Cleavon Little). Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that Kowalski is a Vietnam War veteran with a Medal of Honor for bravery, his girlfriend drowned in a swimming accident, and that his career as a twice-promoted police officer ended when he was dishonorably discharged in retaliation for preventing his partner from raping a young girl in the back of their patrol car. A stint as a motorcycle speedway rider and a stock car driver also ended in failure. After that, he was reduced to being a demolition derby driver.

Super Soul.

This classic American road movie is based on two actual events, the first about a disgraced San Diego police officer and the second a high-speed pursuit of a man who refused to stop and was killed when he crashed into a police roadblock. The film was directed by Richard C Sarafian probable best known for his TV work on series such as Maverick, Dr Kildare, 77 Sunset Strip and Gunsmoke. Like another of 1971’s road movies Two-Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point was not a commercial success on its initial release but since has become a cult classic. The Quentin Tarantino half of grindhouse Death Proof  (2007) features a Dodge Challenger with the same license plate (OA 5599) as the one on Kowalski car and references Sarafian film by name repeatedly calling it ‘one of the best American films ever made’

Delaney and Bonnie.

The film includes a great period soundtrack that features one of my own favorite band’s Delaney and Bonnie who can also be seen in the film along with Rita Coolidge and David Gates as the Rev. J. Jessie Hovah’s Christian band.

Great period poster.

Similar to the two bikers in the 1969 road movie Easy Rider it’s a film of its time highlighting the romantic outsider hero figure and the wide-open vistas, a fast car on a dusty highway, a minimalist master class but a beautiful film to look at. Kim Carnes sings in the end credits, “Nobody knows, nobody sees, till the light of life is ended and another soul goes free.”  Which I think would have made a great tag line?

[1] Existential Criticism and the Movie ‘Vanishing Point’ by Geoff Ward    

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