Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Film for Thought - Vanishing Point (1971)

Barry Newman is not a name that many remember. He was an American actor, like Ryan O’Neal, Bruce Dern and Robert Blake, whose heyday finished in 1979! I doubt that many are aware of Newman’s 1974-1976 legal drama Petrocelli. I know I wasn’t until the age of 10 when I was struck with Pneumonia and consigned to my bed for 3 months. In that time I became well acquainted with Ironside, Columbo and Diagnosis Murder but it was Newman’s Petrocelli which struck a cord. Of course this was short lived and it wasn’t long before the eponymous character was confined to the back of my memory and lay dormant for many years. Newman’s bravura performance as the LA lawyer always fighting dodgy real estate dealers was just a tiny recollection useful for trivia in a pub quiz. Imagine my surprise when I purchased Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point is a 1971 film panned by the critics but extremely popular with fans of counter culture cinema. It tell the story of the ethereal Kowalski and his mission to get from Denver to San Fransisco in a matter of hours. We never know why, but he’s got to get there and so sure of his skill as a driver he is willing to make a bet with his drug dealer to prove his point! I was really enjoying the film with its folksy soundtrack, fast cars and charismatic support from Blazing Saddle’s Cleavon Little when I suddenly realised that it was none other than Tony Petrocelli driving the car. A film that had started out well had suddenly turned stellar and, even better was the intense and restrained performance which was miles away from the hammy, contrived but entertaining portrait of a naff lawyer thoroughly out of his depth!

Coming out of a genre that produced Easy Rider, Two Lane Black Top and Electra Glide in Blue, Vanishing Point is a film that I can safely say stands alone from all of these (I can only rely on the fact that I have seen all the others to form my opinion). I have never seen a movie where so little has given so much (except perhaps for Walter Hill’s The Driver). There must be under 3,000 words of dialogue but the decision of the writers to keep it spare pays off and the characters develop through their actions and the impact of the surrounding scenery.

Vanishing Point is one of the starkest films that I have ever seen and it is all the better for it. The great outdoors that Americans are so proud of is used to great effect with sweeping vistas, rocky canyons and bleak deserts used to evoke a journey across the barren heartlands of the Midwest countryside. There is a sense of despair that underlies the film (which I am sure will appear to those who think that The Smiths are the best thing since sliced bread) but to the closer observer there is much more a sense of cool defiance (more suited to a fan of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac) coupled with a slick production. 

It is difficult to write any film review without sounding a bit pompous but I would really recommend Vanishing Point as a fantastic independent film full of brilliant performances by its stars. More importantly it is a beautifully shot film which will shock you with its ending and surprise you with how easily you will sympathise with the hero! 

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