Thursday, September 29, 2011

Vanishing Point

 The only time I have ever watched 1971 offering Vanishing Point was way back in about 1978-79. I can't recall the exact year but it was playing on telly and I had to go to bed before the end!! I know how it ended because the next day at school it seemed as if I was the only kid that had missed it!! ( I remember one kid saying they quite clearly saw Kowalski jump out before the car crashed!! ) Suffice to say it has taken me just over 30 years to finally....finally watch it!! Of course Vanishing Point has gone on to cult status, particularly among the Mopar enthusiasts of the world. And yet after watching it last week I think this is a better film than it is given credit for.

 Vanishing Point to you heathens who aren't in the know is quite simply the greatest road action film ever made. There are others that come close, particularly the Mad Max films, and the poor pretenders to the throne in the Fast and Furious franchise. But for me Vanishing Point is the ultimate petrol head film! I know I'm one as I'm a muscle car owner. Its influence is immense with the likes of Canonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit, The Getaway, etc, all owing a debt to the master. But probably the best homage of all came in 2007 with Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

 Tarantino in Death Proof also used a Dodge Challenger, even in white!! This film also references its source calling Vanishing Point " one of the best American movies ever made "...repeatedly! The license plate is also that of Vanishing Point's in being OA 5599. But even though Tarantino is a master film maker even his rampaging ego would acknowledge that even he can't get close to the original Challenger's mystique.

 Even though it has now achieved cult status on release in January 1971 Vanishing Point received mainly negative reviews, particularly in the US. Critics called it ' tedious ', ' lacking in point ', ' one for car addicts only ', ' will get car sick ',  etc. Funnily enough though one observation was made, and that was in regards to its 'sophisticated craft' due to its superb cinematography. More on that later. Conversely outside of the States it was the opposite, becoming a critical and commercial success, particularly in the UK and Europe. But it more than made its $1.3 million budget back taking $12.5 million at the US box office alone.

 Even the Fox studio had no faith in the film and it was initially released in small theatres throughout the US. But after its unexpected success in Europe it was re-released on a double bill with The French Connection. But its cult following really began after a nationwide television screening in 1976. The fact the film hasn't faded away is seen by the fact it has under gone the indignity of several re-makes. In 1997 Viggo Mortenson starred in a television film as Kowalski and Jason Priestly as the DJ who replaces Super Soul. Whilst this re-make is similar it removed all the originals mystical elements. Richard Kelly, writer and director of Donnie Darko is currently in the process of writing a script for a 20th Century Fox re-make. For me I say ' leave it alone why don't ya! '

 The original of course starred Barry Newman as Kowalski, a car delivery driver from Denver, Colorado. But like so many roles Newman was not the first choice for the role. Gene Hackman was initially cast but studio executive Richard Zanuck vetoed the choice and insisted on the casting of the unknown Newman. I have even read that before Hackman's casting Kris Kristofferson was considered. I'm not sure what became of Kristofenson but funnily enough his 1973 wife to be, Rita Coolidge, sang in one of the film's sound track songs.

 As a film it had social counter-culture themes running through it. It summed up the post-Woodstock mood in America with its popular alternative lifestyle of drug use, sex, nudity, rebellion, and rock 'n' roll. All this is seen from Kowalski taking speed to the nude girl on the bike. Then there is the sound track! Initially the score was to be from an album entitled Motel Shot  by Delany, Bonnie, and Friends. But the producers turned it down because the studio did not want to take the time in securing the rights to the tracks. Instead many of the tracks were written after filming had finished, and Delany, Bonnie, and Friends ended up writing three original songs for the film.

 The soundtrack is notable for the first ever recorded material from Kim Carnes who also wrote one of the tracks performed by Big Mama Thornton. Also future big musical score names Mike Post and Pete Carpenter had input. The soundtrack was released on vinyl at the time and is now well out of print but various studios have re-issued it on CD with two added tracks. I personally loved hearing Mountain's classic Mississippi Queen at one stage!!  In another musical aside the character of Super Soul, the blind Negro DJ, was modeled on the legendary, The Big Bopper. Initially the character was to be named Super Spic before being re-named Super Soul.

 One of the problems that Vanishing Point faces in being taken seriously as anything more than a car film is its 99 minute running time. 99 minutes is a fairly standard running time for many films. But because the studio was suffering financial troubles, Richard Zanuck cut the shooting schedule by a whopping 22 days from its intended 60. In response director Richard C. Sarafian decided to forgo certain scenes rather than have them rushed. Funnily enough though the UK/European version of the film included a scene where Kowalski picks up a female hitchhiker. This scene was cut out of of the US film. As an example of how quickly the film had to be shot is seen in the fact that Super Soul's scenes, played by Cleavon Little, were filmed in only 3 days in a small town called, Goldfield. 

 The big problem with shooting the film was also  the vast distances the crew of 19  had to travel in finding remote enough locations for safe shooting. Much of their day was taken up with just traveling.  Then, on top of that, a motel had to be found for the night. When you start looking at some of these issues then you can appreciate the film a bit more. Surprisingly though there were no mishaps on set. Barring the occasion where a civilian driver drove through a closed road block, forcing Newman to swerve off the road to avoid a head on collision!

 With this being a car film it is interesting to look at how it was filmed as well. For instance whilst the Challenger looks to be traveling at high speeds, the camera in fact was slowed down to half speed, while the car/s traveled at 50mph. Of course at normal speed they appear much faster. It wasn't exactly a new technique, but when you look closely it isn't as obvious as it can sometimes be in other similar scenes ( for instance the car chase in The French Connection ). On set there was a stunt driver but he encouraged and taught Brian Newman how to do many of his own. For instance the scene where Kowalski does a 180 turn in front of the bulldozers was performed by Newman. This was done without the director knowing who was driving! The other thing was that in many of the car scenes light weight cameras were mounted directly onto the front of the cars in filming scenes of the driver. This was done instead of the common practice of filming drivers from a tow vehicle. For me this adds a real feel of authenticity to the driving scenes.

 Barry Newman is the human star here ( who went on to a fairly ordinary career in film and TV ), but the real star of the show is the white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T! It was Zanuck's ides to use a Challenger because he wanted to re-pay Chrysler the favour for providing cheap rentals to the studio for many years. In fact almost every car in the film is a Chrysler! The stunt coordinator liked the car because its ' quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower'. Apparently 5 Challengers were loaned to the production, but they weren't all the same with several having the smaller 383 V8, instead of the 440 as depicted in the film. I have read varying facts and figures as to how many cars were used and wrecked. One source states all 5 cars were returned to Chrysler, whilst another states as they were wrecked, parts were cannibalised to keep the others going. I find it highly unlikely all 5 cars survived filming considering the places they were taken, and the jumps etc, they performed. But I believe there is a survivor in a small car museum in Gatlinberg, Tn. I believe the other survivors 'disappeared' because after release of the film Chrysler wanted to distance itself from it. I wonder why????!

 The cars with the 440 ci V8 were so powerful Barry Newman said of them " it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You'd put it in first and it would almost rear back!!" The car in the film is of course white and this was for a reason. It was felt the vivid white of the car would stand out against the stark landscape of Utah and Nevada. It sure did because for me one of the highlights of the film is the scenery. This little detail to me shows the thought that went into the film. Several of the cars had to be re-sprayed. In certain scenes the observant viewer will be able to spot one cars original factory green paint showing in some of  the dents!

 And that brings me to the crash! The car that was used was not actually a Challenger but a 1967 Chevy Camaro that had the motor and gearbox removed. It was packed with explosives and towed into the bulldozers by one of the 383 powered Challengers. There was a 1/4 mile long tow rope between the two cars and the stunt driver, Carey Loftin, towed the Camro into the bulldozers at high speed. It was thought that the car would fly over the dozers but instead it was wedged between the blades. The scene wasn't re-filmed as this was thought to actually look better. I laughed at the use of the Camaro because now it is now a classic, and wouldn't even be considered for such a thing. Instead I'm sure it would be snapped up and restored. Then again would anyone in their right mind now drive a 1970's Dodge Challenger like this ??!!

 The end of the film has been debated ever since! There is a certain degree of mysticism and ambiguity about it. I think the viewer can read what they like into it. There are enough hints dropped through Kowalski's flashbacks that point towards at his state of mind. To me the way he turns around before the bulldozers and drives off and thinks in the desert says it all. I personally think it was suicide and a personal release for him. The gap between the blades and the shining light?? Again, read what you will into it!

 To me Vanishing Point is an incredibly overlooked film in regards to its social commentary. I mean Easy Rider done the same thing several years earlier. I think Vanishing Point is saying the same thing, but in a new decade. For me Vanishing Point is an incredible social look at an America caught between two definitive and divisive moments of its history, Vietnam and the coming of Watergate. I just love the 1970's 'feel', with the dark cloud of Watergate looming. 

 But have an even closer look. This is actually a beautifully crafted film. The cinematography is quite simply, stunning. The scenery of Utah and Nevada is both awe inspiring and breathtaking. The starkness, and yet stunning beauty of it, is an unpaid actor in the film. Seriously, if you haven't taken taken notice before, watch the film again and look behind the cars! But for me also the town scenes are extremely poignant. Inadvertently the film has taken a snapshot of small town south west America in the early 1970's. It is fascinating viewing because so many of the by standers in the film are towns people and not 'extras'. This is one thing I love about films like this that AREN'T filmed on a film lot. They are filmed in real locations which are now a quiet history lesson as to what things looked like back then. For me this added in scenery only adds to Vanishing Point's social commentary. This is a film that shows ordinary, real Americans, and their ordinary little towns in 1971. 

 The crafting also uses the clever device of starting just before the end, and then going back two days. The scene where Kowalski is back tracking from the bulldozers with the shot freezing as he passes another car is superb. Again a little detail like this, if seen, makes the viewer sit up and realise this is a better made film than they realised. Sure jumping back in time and starting at the end isn't original, but it is the way it was done that makes it stand out. Honestly take another look at this film and look behind the car chase and tire smoke. There is a lot more to see than you realise.

 Vanishing Point will never be rated as a truly great film. Sure it isn't great but it is also far better than given credit for. When you consider the constraints it was made under you can only admire the end result. It is a well made film and I cannot praise the cinematography enough. If it wasn't for the cars then it would go down as a great nature documentary of Utah and Nevada! So whilst the film lacks a script as such it compensates with stunning scenery, and a wonderful snapshot of a little seen America of 1971. But above all it is a social commentary that unfortunately isn't picked up on enough. I think this is as good a film in that regards as Easy Rider. Of the two I prefer Vanishing Point.

 This is a classic 1970's film that has so much going on which isn't seen by most viewers. It's cult status as a car flick is deserved and it is without question the best of them all. But to the more astute viewer there is more to see here than just a fast muscle car and tire frying action. I think this is a great example of 1970's film making even though the film itself isn't great. Surprisingly IMDB has this with 7.2/10. I would actually agree with that. Seriously watch this again, and I mean REALLY watch it, as it is a better film that it first appears to be.

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  1. Thank you for a very detailed post on one of my favourite films Brent.
    I've watched Vanishing Point many times over the years but the detail you put into your article has certainly given me a new insight into some aspects of the film.
    I've actually got a double sided DVD of this film with the US release on one side and the UK release on the flip side. I can't understand why they bothered releasing it that way because the only extra scene is the one you mention where Kowalski picks up the hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling. There are strong hints that the hitchhiker is an angel who has come to tell Kowalski his time on earth is up, but as you rightly say the viewer can read what they want into the ending. Personally I always find the ending very uplifting in a strange way and the film itself is one of the 70's finest and like you I definitely prefer it to Easy Rider.
    Before I go I was wondering if you'd seen that other 1971 road movie Two-Lane Blacktop? if not it might be of interest to you.

  2. Excellent write-up on a classic! Love Vanishing point. Barry Newman was great.

  3. Excellent write up as usual Brent, Vanishing Point is one those Grindhouse films that's been on my list of films to see. Have to make an effort to finally watch it!

  4. that is intersting about the deleted scene. If the inference is that she is an angel it sort of tidies up the ending doesn't it?! I have never heard of Two-Lane Backdrop!!

    Thanks is a cool film anyway it is looked at. Not a masterpiece but still a really fine 1970's film. is certainly worth watching on so many levels. There is more to it than just the car chase angle as I explained. For me whilst I love the cars the scenery alone is stunning and worth watching the film for.

  5. Great write-up, and I completely agree with every word. This film is indeed my favorite road film, and certainly ranks amongst the greatest masterpieces of cinema. It's also hard to tell what's so good in it to those who haven't watched it, because Vanishing Point, to me, is more felt than seen.

  6. I agree it is a seriously under rated film. There is just so much going on and being said besides the fact of a guy driving a car fast.