The Need for Speed
The image of a white 70’s Dodge Charger speeding through the desert is so iconic and imbedded in to our collective subconscious that I had it in my head even before I saw this film. And watching these shots on the screen for the first time evoked in me a great sense of familiarity and nostalgia, only to realize that these same shots I’ve seen in a dozen of other movies, including “Lost Highway”, “Thelma and Louise” and most obviously “Death Proof”. Such is the impact of “Vanishing Point”.
And just like “Two-Lane Blacktop” this is a movie about driving first and foremost, only that instead of focusing on the rebellious lifestyle and realism “Vanishing Point” goes for the inexcusable and immediate thrills of speed and fast cars, and it shows this with quite a style. The camera whips as the Charger vrooms by in to the distance, it glides beside it at full speed and vibrates together with the engine as it’s stationed on the car’s hood. The imagery it evokes is immediately thrilling and ultimately iconic.
“Vanishing Point” consciously revels in this iconography it is creating as it glorifies its main (human) character, the driver named Kowalski (Barry Newman). Through flashbacks we learn that Kowalski was many things, a decorated war hero, a race car driver, a hero cop. In short a superman. But now he’s just a driver with a job to do and nothing to lose. Nothing but a bet he made with his drug dealer at the start of the film.
This is also another film that carries that existentialism and spirituality of “Easy Rider”, some imagery it evokes veers off slightly in to surrealism even. The film actually opens with such a scene, where Kowalski dodges a police blockade and continues driving down the highway only to vanish right in front of our eyes. Then the film goes back two days and shows us the road Kowalski takes to get to that point. But once the film ends all this surreal imagery becomes crystallized and starts making sense. It’s not as ambiguously juicy like the ending of “Blacktop” or shocking like the one of “Easy Rider” but it does carry quite a visceral and visual punch. But the overall story itself and the characters (including Kowalski himself) are very flimsy and undeveloped.
But that’s not what “Vanishing Point” is about, like I said it’s about the driving and the speed. This is what Kowalski is also about and the whole film is a chase between him and the cops, and these are the parts that the movie does easily the best. The sense of speed it provides is exquisite as is the backdrop through which the car is being driven. It is pure Americana in so many ways. Sure the chase scenes are interrupted with various odd encounters that Kowalski has on his way but thankfully they’re never boring or all too long and the good heart-pounding stuff kicks in again soon enough.
“Vanishing Point” plays almost all its chips on one card and wins big. Yes there are existentialist and counter culture themes in the film but they’re clumsy at best. This film’s big rebellious heart is under the hood of that white Dodge Charger and it’s only happy when it’s racing down an open desert highway, preferably with a squad of cop cars on its heels.
Barry Newman - Kowalski
Cleavon Little - Super Soul
Dean Jagger - Prospector