Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Vanishing Point" (1971)

"Vanishing Point" (1971)
Starring Barry Newman and Cleavon Little
Written by Malcolm Hart (story) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (screenplay)
Directed by Richard Sarafian

I love a good car chase; I mean, what guy doesn't?  There's something infinitely appealing about watching metal screeching around a corner, hearing the roar of powerful engines, the squealing tires leaving rubber on asphalt... And a good car chase is extremely difficult to pull off, a supreme mix of pre-production, production and post-production.  You've got to plan it to the letter, shoot it on the edge of recklessness (or at least employ camera trickery that can be risky for a picky audience), and then you've got to edit it just right and mix the sound just so to get the audience's hearts thumping.  A bad car chase can make your movie limp and dull; but a good one can elevate even middling films to classic status (yeah, "Bullitt" really isn't all that great, save for that famous chase sequence).

So last night I watched "Vanishing Point," an intriguing early 70s thriller pretty much starring a Dodge Challenger.  Sure, it has a driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman) and there's an eccentric blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) blasting out commentary and the film's soundtrack over the airwaves.  But really the star of the show is that Challenger.  The story, such as it is, has Kowalski, a car delivery driver, attempting to drive the Challenger from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours.  What follow is a loose collection of encounters with police and various colorful characters, interspersed with short flashbacks of Kowalski's past.  The storytelling isn't particularly complex in terms of plot, but the vague flashbacks are intriguing, offering mostly out-of-context snippets that let the viewer piece together the life of Kowalski leading up till now.  Of course, this ends up ruined later on when there's a scene where a police officer merely reads off Kowalski's history from a file folder.  Boo.

Kowalski encounters a few bizarre characters, including an elderly snake wrangler, a couple of gay hitchhikers/bandits, and, um, a naked woman riding a motorcycle.  It's all very strange and out there, but, hey, it was the 70s, right?

Cleavon Little has a significant part as Super Soul, a local radio DJ who picks up on Kowalski's story and champions him over the airwaves.  They never actually interact, but they have a couple of surreal conversations where they talk to each other over the airwaves that are fairly well-played by both actors.  Little actually gets far more dialogue than Newman does as Kowalski.  Kowalski speaks very little, and long stretches of the movie are filled only with music and sound effects.

But let's finally get down to it: The chases in "Vanishing Point" are pretty cool.  There's excellent sense of speed going on.  Budgetary and filming technique limitations of the time mean this is never going to look like "The Matrix Reloaded", but the practical effects and stunt-driving are pretty damn impressive.  According to Wikipedia, the chase sequences were filmed with the cars traveling 50-60 mph with undercranked cameras, and the effect is pretty good, making the film feel much faster.  Coupled with a great soundtrack of rock and energetic soul, the chase sequences are damned entertaining all around.  There's not quite as much vehicular carnage or destruction as, say, HB Halicki's "Gone in Sixty Seconds", since the chases here occur out in the wide open desert instead of dense urban areas, but they're no less thrilling.

"Vanishing Point" is actually quite cool.  Whether you want to see it as high-octane political commentary with anti-establishment themes, an existential exploration of a man in control of his soul, or just a bunch of weird shit that happens between car chases, you'll probably find yourself rather entertained.