Sunday, February 10, 2013

Classic Car Chases, part one: Vanishing Point

Poster for Vanishing Point (1971) 

Vanishing Point (1971)

Like most B movie fans, I'm a sucker for a good car chase and have been known to go straight out insane over a great one. You all know it, really, there's just not much on film that's as much pure fun as watching a bunch of classic muscle cars tearing ass, flipping over, blowing up and generally getting torn to bits while racing along some city street or desert highway at completely insane speeds. Car chases are glorious fun and when filmed by a good director, a great cinematographer, and a good editor, a car chase can send the audience through the entire gamut of emotions.

Now admittedly car chases are cinematic shorthand using action in place of characterization or plot. Car chases are a great way for film makers to pull their audience into the action not only because car's are fast, powerful and dangerous, but also because each and every one of us has found themselves trapped in some late July traffic jam, along some nameless hot, dusty highway, wishing that we could haul along at 125 mph, blowing everyone else off the road and out of our way.

There are so many great car chases out there including the French Connection or Spielberg's first feature, The Sugarland Express, the original version of the Italian Job and of course Steve McQueen's classic driving in the chases from Bullitt.

I'll certainly try to get to all of them over time, but if I'm going to start this series, I might as well start with the best of the best, because when you're talking about car chase films for the last 40 years, the one that all others have been judged by is director Richard Sarafian's mixture of early 70's counter culture and the outlaw on the run genre, Vanishing Point.

Starring Barry Newman, and supported with admirable character turns from Cleavon LittleDean Jagger channeling Walter Huston as a snake hunting, desert rat and the always creepy, Severn Darden along with his traveling band of snake handling Jesus Freaks, and finally because it was 1971, a naked girl on a motorcycle.

Vanishing Point (1971)
A Naked Girl on a Motorcycle. In the early '70's this was way more common then you would think.

Newman is Kowalski, your run of the mill, combination ex-cop / ex-race car driver / medal of honor winner, who, we learn through a series of flashbacks, was forced out of the department in retaliation for preventing his partner from raping a prisoner, then later further broken by the tragic death of his wife. Kowalski now makes his living couriering cars across country. While driving a gorgeous 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco, for reasons that are never really made clear, Kowalski snaps, beginning a race with the police that can only end one way.

Barry Newman and Dean Jagger, Vanishing Point (1971)

Guided by Little's mystical blind DJ, Super Soul, (with a young John Amos in the engineering booth), and with his energy boosted by large quantities of speed, Newman races across the American West easily avoiding the police while still finding the time to stop along the way for side adventures with an aging prospector, and to later briefly befriend a hippie biker and his pretty blond girlfriend, who I should mention was very definitively in severe threat of sunburn.

Barry Newman and the Dodge Challenger, Vanishing Point (1971)

Below is the trailer for the original release that gives a nice sense of the film and it's slightly oddball feel.

As much as I enjoy Vanishing Point, and it really is one of my all time favorites, the film is very much a snapshot of the year it was made, almost perfectly capturing the mood of 1971 America. It was a rough time in America, those dark days after Woodstock and its karmatic opposite, Altamont, with the war in Vietnam plugging away with no end in sight. It was the Billy Jack era, and filmmaker after filmmaker fell over themselves trying to let the audience know that their movie (no matter what kind of film it actually was) was that perfect combination of hipness, depth and meaning. While better then most, Vanishing Point still has pretensions that can't help but come across to modern eyes as just a little bit shallow. Despite that criticism though, it's still a really fun movie.

Cleavon Little as blind DJ, Supersoul, Vanishing Point (1971)

Among the more dated scenes are one where an angry mob of off duty police attack Little's radio station beating both Super Soul, who has something of the magic negro to him, and possibly killing his engineer in retaliation for his radio sermons in support of the fast driving fugitive.

Then there is the fairly objectionable sequence where Newman picks up a couple of skeevy gay dudes pushing a car across the desert. And not just any skeevy gay dudes, this pair of campy queens, mincing about the wastelands are busy looking for straight men to rape and murder. Quickly dispatched by Kowalski, the queens are only on screen for a minute or two, but it's really an incredibly offensive scene, perpetuating the very worst kind of stereotypes.

Dangerous Cliches stalk the desert, Vanishing Point (1971)

Despite these serious flaws, Vanishing Point remains a solid and exciting film. The camerawork by Chinatown cinematographer John Alanzo is stunning, with wide vistas of desert, intermixed with tight action shots. It's a well deserved classic of the car chase genre and it's tragic, sudden ending would set a standard that would be repeated again and again over the years,but never quite as well.

On top of that, for people who like to get a real understanding of the mood for various times in history, Vanishing Point  is in many ways a perfect encapsulation of the era it was filmed in.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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