Speed Week Plus: Vanishing Point (1971) – a Review

In this low budget counter-culture extravaganza from the Vietnam era, a former race driver Kowalski, whose current job is delivering new cars, makes a bet Friday night that he can deliver the new white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco by 3pm the next day.

That’s it–no medical situation, family emergency or secret assignment from the Impossible Mission Force. But he’s destined to become a famous (or infamous, depending on the culture of the beholder) antihero just the same.

Kowalski is plagued by flashbacks, hopped up on speed and just wants to put the hammer down in a tire-melting musclecar for the heck of it–even though the delivery’s not due until Monday.

Needless to say, local police don’t endorse his spontaneous quest for a burst of freedom and a chase ensues which lasts for the entire movie.

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Kowalski’s driving evolves as the film goes on. At first he flogs the Challenger around like…well, like he’s on drugs, and not used to the car. But he tightens up during the chase, and there is a lot of hard driving scenes and a few stunts that make this cult favorite worth watching.

Stunt Coordinator Carey Loftin chose the Challenger R/T because of the fantastic horsepower and the toughness and handling potential of the torsion bar suspension. Though the trailer (above) calls it supercharged, and a police character in the film says, “We have reason to suspect it is supercharged,” the cars used during filming were bone-stock 440 four-speed cars, except for one 383 automatic. The only modification made was to install beefier shock absorbers in the car used for a stunt jump. Actor Barry Newman (who played Kowalski) remembered the 440 engine to be insanely powerful. Max Balchowsky, who also prepared the cars for the famous chase scene in Bullitt, tuned the stock suspensions of the Mopars in Vanishing Point.

The soundtrack is possibly a sample of the worst records produced in 1970, with the exception of Mississippi Queen by Mountain, which rocks so appropriately for a car scene that the Dukes of Hazard feature also employed it. The distorted power chords during the climactic scene fit nicely, too. Otherwise, you might as well replace the entire soundtrack with the psychadelic jams from the period.

Vanishing Point was remade as a TV movie in 1997. Though the script was a pleasant surprise, the acting and direction leave much to be desired. And the “high speed” chase scenes appear to top out at about 25 MPH. Couple that with the needless (yet obligatory) destruction of two fine automobiles and Viggo Mortensen spending 90 minutes auditioning for a toothpaste commercial, and the remake won’t be getting a write-up from me for Speed Week Plus.

Below is a scene with loads of potential…if only they’d filmed it at speed! BTW, somebody called the other car a Porsche. It is actually a Jaguar E-Type roadster. And trying to fender-bang a musclecar off the side of the road in one of these would be suicide. But Hollywood film makers consistently prove their ignorance about cars to this day, and this aspect of the scene is an example. What they got right: the Jag gains ground in the corners, and holds its own on the straights…until Kowalski bangs the Challenger into fourth gear.(Apologies, but this is the best presentation of the scene I can find, anymore.)

Finally, here’s the Charger vs. Challenger scene from the remake with Faggo Mortensen, in case you like:

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