Vanishing Point (Second Review)
In the Haight-Ashbury in the late ‘60s if you needed to get back to the East, everyone knew the best way to do it. “Yeah, man, far out! You just go to one of these drive-away companies. They’ll give you a groovy set of wheels and they’ll pay you to drive it all the way!” And it was true, though I’ve always thought it probably wasn’t quite as easy as that. Probably have to cut your hair, at least. Maybe even have a valid driver’s license?
I have loved this movie ever since I saw it at a triple feature at the down-at-the-heels (and, sadly, long vanished) Embassy Theater on Market Street, where they played a wheel-of-fortune-type game called Ten-O-Win between features. They had been playing it since the Great Depression! I won $10 and a free ticket once!
So here we have Kowalski (Barry Newman), who pulls into Denver one night. If he were any higher on speed he would have had to use the airport. He immediately turns in the Imperial he was driving and gets into a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum, than which there has never been a hotter production, street-legal hunk of Detroit iron, and hits the accelerator. He has to get it to San Francisco. There is no big hurry, but before long he has the angry highway troopers of four states on his tail, with the citizens of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California listening to the saga as narrated by a blind, black AM DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little).
Why is he driving so fast? There is no reason why! This movie is completely, wonderfully, beautifully unexplained, right to the shocking end.
It is the Zen of speed. We know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of four tires sizzling on the pavement?
That’s really all you need to know.
We learn a little about him in flashbacks, but nothing that would explain why he is so hell-bent on getting down the road. And that’s what I love about it. This ain’t the Bandit, delivering a truckload of Coors to Georgia. It’s just Kowalski, driving real fast on the road and across the desert, meeting a few people here and there, including a naked hippie chick on a motorcycle.
They had very little budget, but Chrysler rented them five cars at $1/day, and they sort of … used them up. By the end they were cannibalizing parts to keep one on the road. The stunt driving is damn good for its day. This was not too long after Bullitt revolutionized the car chase in cinema. It did no business at all when released, at least partly because no one had any idea what to do with it. It has since become quite a cult classic. Count me into the cult.