Vanishing Point (1971) *****

There always was an existential element to speed. Destination was another symbolic aspect. A “vanishing point” has an artistic meaning; relating to perspective it’s the place where parallel lines cross. But it also means something so diminished as to be unimportant, and you could argue this movie is a place where the figurative and metaphorical collide. Throw in a couldn’t-care-less driver and you have all you need for a cult film, a cross between the thoughtful paeon to speed of Easy Rider (1969), Sugarland Express (1974) and the camped-up chase characteristics of the later Smokey and the Bandit (1977).

It has less in common with the city-bound Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971), whose protagonists had the excuse of being on the right side of the law. And where Easy Rider is majestically scenic, the route here is through Backwater U.S.A.

With a little bit more planning, Kowalski (Barry Newman), tasked with delivering a car from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco, could easily have driven the 1250 miles (see Note) roughly within the 16.5-hour deadline he set himself – and very easily within the target set by his employer – without breaking the law. But he’s got no intention of easing his foot off the accelerator. Instead of pulling over, he sends the first pair of speed cops into the ditch.

And that sets the tone. Countless cops set out to stop him, countless cops are driven off the road, the authorities increasingly infuriated by constant humiliation. Kowalski is helped by blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who has infiltrated police radio, and whoops up public support.

Director Richard C. Sarafian could have hit the existential mother lode by making Kowalski mysterious, akin to the western’s anonymous lone rider, or to a contemporary audience “the last American hero.” Or he could have dressed him up in more contemporary colors. But instead of being a long-haired drugged-up sex-mad hippie, he’s a decorated war vet, a stock car racer and a cop who exposed corruption and prevented a colleague raping a young girl. Unlike the drug peddlers of Easy Rider or the hostage-takers of Sugarland Express, he doesn’t start out as a law-breaker (setting aside his intake of Benzedrine) and the most he’ll be charged with is a misdemeanor.

Apart from a desire for the freedom of the open road untrammelled by petty rules, we don’t get much of an idea why Kowalski is so intent on risking his life, beyond a hint that an idyllic loved-up beach lifestyle had been shattered. There’s a fatalism that Ridley Scott ripped off for Thelma and Louise (1991).

The awe-inspiring driving across arid country is interrupted by episodes uncovering the underside of the American Dream and the nascent counter-culture. He is almost robbed by a couple of gay hitchhikers, encounters an old man (Dean Jagger) living off the land, trapping rattlesnakes and trading them for supplies, and a youth-oriented revivalist group who make music their mantra. He turns down free sex and marijuana offered by a beautiful nude motorcycle rider (Gilda Texter) while her boyfriend (Timothy Scott), with a stolen police siren, guides Kowalski through roadblocks.

Mostly, though, the focus is on the driving. Kowalski’s white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, souped-up to reach 160 mph, leaves a Jaguar E-Type in the dust, and makes a mockery of the succession of wannabe cop speedsters.

He can leap over gaps, race off-road, charge through the desert, hide from pursuing helicopters, and could probably have hidden out till the heat died down except his blood is up and his eyes are starting to glaze over and he’s got a peculiar smile on his lips.  

Even on a small screen the full-throttle driving hits the spot. But it scores on many other emotional and intellectual levels. It strikes a chord with the disaffected. It’s the ultimate in defiance of authority, innate skills belittling superior forces. The fastest man will always have an audience rooting for him. If you can’t win, choosing how this will end means you remain in control. Speed puts a man in the zone, where you are reduced to an essence of being.

On paper, this should hardly work at all. In the hands of director Richard C. Safarian (Fragment of Fear, 1970) it works like a dream. Barry Newman (The Lawyer, 1970) is superb with very little to go on, nothing but a buttoned-up driving machine. Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, 1974) on the other hand goes nuclear as the hippest of the hip disc jockeys. Oscar-winning Dean Jagger (Firecreek, 1968) makes his mark and you might like to know Gilda Texter went on to become a successful costume designer. Depending on what version (not the one I caught) you see, you’ll get a glimpse of Charlotte Rampling (Three,1969).

Stone cold classic. Gets the adrenaline going, but leaves you thoughtful.

The DVD is worth buying just for Sarafian’s commentary.

NOTE: That’s according to Google. Though estimates vary. One reference puts it at 15 hours of non-stop driving, another between 19 and 22 hours. Without breaking the speed limit of 70mph and allowing for not hitting any big cities necessitating curbing your speed, I reckoned he would only cover 1150 miles within his deadline but there are clearly plenty stretches of remote road where you would be able to crank up your speed without any bother. It’s noticeable that Kowalski sets off during the night but we never see him doing any night-time driving, he only attracts the attention of the cops during the day.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) ***

Wannabe blood brother to The Misfits (1961) but more like a distant cousin, cowboy out-of-time yarn too pre-emptive for its own good.  Freedom-loving, don’t-fence-me-in Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) falls foul of the law by escaping prison and is pursued into the hills by competent and sympathetic Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) who is saddled with an incompetent law enforcement team out of their depth up against a true man of the west. You can see the end coming a mile off, a truck that interrupts the narrative for no particular reason.

The only problem for me are certain inconsistencies.  A man who refused to be tamed tames a wild horse, his freedom coming at the expense of a captive animal, hobbled overnight to prevent escape. And instead of leading a frightened beast across a busy highway rides him in clear danger.

And I don’t get this voluntary incarceration malarkey, highly principled though it appears, breaking into jail in order to break out a friend Paul (Michael Kane) who just wants to serve out his relatively short sentence instead of being faced with a longer one as an escapee.

Jack won a Purple Heart in Korea but although he was 22 when World War Two broke out there’s no mention of that war record. And it seems a bit of an unlikely cliché that you can still break out of prison in the 1960s with just small hacksaw.

David (Hammerhead, 1968) Miller’s film tries too hard to make a very obvious point, forgetting that it was cowboys like Jack who turned the West into the antithesis of freedom. There are some unexpected touches. Jack, wanting to start a brawl as a means of being arrested, finds himself with a tougher customer than he envisaged, a World War Two veteran who doesn’t take prisoners. There’s a nod towards immigrants swarming into America. Paul, knowing he has crossed a line in the contemporary world, just wants to pay his debt and move on, rather than trying to disappear into a fantasy life. Cops, with all the modern accoutrements, find themselves undone by a man with old world skills.

R.F.D. stands for Rank Film Distributors, patting itself on the head for getting
the picture off to a good start in the London West End.

Once the movie heads into the hills, which is what all this lengthy preamble is for, it becomes more interesting, if only because in what is intended to be a game of cat-and-mouse, the cop cats are revealed as the mice.

But Kirk Douglas, having lit a fire for freedom in Spartacus (1961), seems more intent on going down a similar route than creating a proper character. And, as usual, given he is top-billed, reveals acting insecurity, or arrogance, trying to steal every scene, tipping back his hat just one of his many bits of business to ensure the audience eye follows him.  

On the plus side is some notable playing by Walter Matthau (Mirage, 1965), encumbered with a bunch of lazy cops who spend more time eating and sleeping than doing their job and easily outgunned in the wilderness by a cowboy for whom it spells home.  Gena Rowlands (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) is impressive as Paul’s worn-down wife with a soft spot for Jack though she finds it hard to stand by a dumb man. George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) makes a mean sadistic cop. And there’s an early role for Carroll O’Connor (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). If you’re talent-spotting Bill Bixby (television’s The Incredible Hulk, 1977-1982) is a helicopter pilot.

Kirk Douglas and business partner Edward Lewis were the producers and hired the former blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) to script Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy.

I thought the title was a bit of misnomer: Lonely Are the Foolhardy might be more accurate.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.