Cinophile – Vanishing Point

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Kowalski is a speed-popping racing man with a car to deliver in record time. Between him and his destination sits the American Establishment and all its spirit-squashing rules. With a Dodge Challenger as a metaphor and the open road as a battleground, the very meaning of existence will be debated. Well, that or this is just a damn cool road movie. With films from the Seventies it can be hard to tell…

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Most of the stunt driving in Vanishing Point was by Carey Loftin, a renowned actor and stuntman who also drove the truck in Steven Spielberg’s Duel and performed the key stunts in the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt. In total there were five cars used  – Loftin chose them to be Dodge Challengers because of their horsepower and strong suspension.

Vanishing Point – whether by design or accident – is two movies. On the surface it plays as a chase film, where a lone driver outwits and outrides his pursuers. Underneath it’s an examination of America at the start of the Seventies, mulling in the aftermath of the revolutionary Sixties. But from there things get a little strange, even mystical. Especially when you watch it a second time. To this day not even the cast and crew have given satisfactory explanations of what the audience is supposed to think. That may be because they didn’t really think it through themselves. This has given the film a reputation for being a deeply philosophical piece, where everyone will have a different opinion on what it’s about. Like Donnie Darko, but with muscle cars and mutton chops.

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Gene Hackman was almost hired to play Kowalski, but the studio opted for Barry Newman instead. In 1997 the band Primal Scream released an album called Vanishing Point. It is actually an alternative companion soundtrack for the movie.

Yet even if you never take it to those existential heights, Vanishing Point is a very satisfying petrolhead experience. Its centrepiece is the Dodge Challenger taking on scores of police vehicles, with Kowalski tearing across the freeway, ripping up dirt roads and even taking random jaunts into the desert. Cars crash and roll – all while a growing audience of America’s free spirits cheer him on. In particular a blind disc jockey becomes his unofficial cheerleader. Jeremy Clarkson considers it the best car movie made – certainly a hard point to argue (though this column still prefers Gone In 60 Seconds).

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The production closed stretches of roads to shoot the various chase scenes. But during one session, a car managed to bypass the closures and appear on the set. Barry Newman, who was driving during a scene, had to swerve off the road and crash into a hill to avoid the oncoming vehicle. 

Vanishing Point wobbled at the box office, but became a cult classic and inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s debut feature Duel. You can certainly declare that they don’t make films like this any more. Even the 1997 TV remake of Vanishing Point was heavy with dragging dialogue and shallow character motivations. The original avoids these where it can and gleans over them when it can’t. Vanishing Point comes from a time when movies truly were still an experience – a larger than life metaphor that doesn’t need to explain itself. All it wants is that you strap in for the ride.

 

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: November 18, 2013

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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