Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Vanishing Point"

"Vanishing Point" has to be the most contemplative car chase movie ever made.

This cult hit from 1971 is about a guy in a super-charged Dodge Challenger on the run from the law. He hasn't actually done anything wrong, other than drive too fast and recklessly, but nevertheless manages to gather the attention of an army of police and state troopers. It's the chase itself that puts him at odds with the authorities, as if by the act of running he hopes to force them to come after him.

The antihero is Kowalski, a thoroughly enigmatic figure played by Barry Newman. When we first meet him, he's been driving for days with hardly a stop, and the police have laid a trap for him that seems flawless. A crowd of gawkers and newmen have gathered to witness the outlaw's last stand.

All we know about Kowalski at first is that he works for a car delivery service. He arrives in Denver with a midnight delivery, and insists he be given another car immediately, and is given the Challenger going to San Francisco. It's not due until Monday, but Kowalski insists he can make the trip in 15 hours.

There doesn't seem to be any reason for his hurry, other than he needs to be constantly on the move. A stop-off at a local biker hangout to score some speed pills is his only pause before hitting the road.

When a pair of motorcycle cops try to get the speed demon to pull over, Kowalski barely notices them at first, then unthinkingly runs them off the road. This sets off the escalating series of chases, first in Colorado, then Utah and finally California.

On a side note, I loved the contrast between the state trooper headquarters. In Colorado and Utah, it's a couple of goold ole boys hanging lazily around the office, talking on a phone to their interstate counterparts and making tepid promises to catch the offender. In California, it's a very modern office teeming with the latest equipment and a horde of officers, all of them women.

Through very terse, elliptical flashback scenes we learn that Kowalski use to be a cop himself, before being drummed out of the service for standing up to corruption. He had a girl he loved, who died, and he stumbled through a variety of jobs driving in demolition derbies, motorcycle races and car races. He was also a decorated soldier in the early days of Vietnam.

He has a variety of encounters out on the road, the most mesmerizing being a trip through Death Valley to lose the cops. He meets an aged prospector who combs the desert not for gold but snakes, which he trades to a cynical local preacher for food and supplies. The preacher uses the reptiles for snake-handling ceremonies to fill his tent. The old man helps Kowalski hide his car from the police helicopter searching for him, then barters with the preacher for gas. There's a rousing concert of rock/gospel going on, and the preacher emerges long enough to tell the prospector he doesn't need the snakes anymore, because he's got the music now to entice worshipers, so he casts out the vipers, flinging them out of the basket en masse.

Kowalski also has a brief encounter with a pair of homosexual hustlers whose car, festooned with a "Just married" sign, has broken down. They stick a gun in his face, and Kowalski just laughs at them before throwing them out of his car. It's an odd, brief scene that -- like a lot of the movie -- doesn't really explain itself; it just unfolds and demands that we accept it for what it is. Were the robbers proto-gay marriage activists, or did they steal the car from a married couple?

In his last significant encounter before the final show-down, Kowalski scores some more speed from a biker hippie, whose girlfriend tools around their trailer home riding a motorcyle completely nude. In most movies this would be the set-up for some gratuitous sex, but Kowalski demures at the girl's offer of "anything you want," clearly thinking about his dead girlfriend. It's also suggested that she may be the girl he saved from being raped by another cop years ago, and they have this touching little conversation while she's completely naked.

(Another aside: In a little research, I learn that this actress, Gilda Texter, only made two other acting appearances, both also in 1971. But she went on to a very busy film career in costumes, including "Romancing the Stone" and "The Green Mile." How ironic that the hot naked mama from "Vanishing Point" should find her calling putting clothes on people!)

During all of his run, Kowalski receives commentary and guidance from a blind, black radio DJ named Super Soul (played by Cleavon Little, who would become famous a few years later as the sheriff in "Blazing Saddles). Super Soul listens in on the police radio frequencies, subtlety alerting Kowalski to the dangers ahead while building a popular following for the speed freak. Eventually, some plainclothes policemen brutally assault the radio station.

The car chase scenes are pretty amazing, even though by most standards there aren't any spectacular crashes or gravity-defying jumps. What makes them work is that they've obviously been filmed at full speed, with the Challenger really going incredibly fast. For safety reasons, most movie chases are done at normal speeds and made to look faster by under-cranking the camera or perspective tricks, and it always feels artificial. They actually burned some rubber to make this movie.

The white Challenger is a character unto itself in the movie -- to the point that it would be fetishized by Quentin Tarantino in "Death Proof." The new Challengers out now were designed to look nearly identical to the one in "Vanishing Point." These sleek, flat-nosed muscle cars make us think of days past when gas was cheap, speed limits went mostly unheeded and the only thing limiting your freedom was how hard you stepped on the gas pedal.

3.5 stars out of four

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