Cult: Vanishing Point was Barry Newman's finest hour
BARRY NEWMAN, who has died at the age of 92, was a man with some serious cult credentials.
For a start, there’s a 1968 movie, The Lawyer, in which the Boston-born actor played a lively defence attorney. That proved popular enough to spawn a TV series called Petrocelli, named after his lead character, which seemed to play on a loop on Saturday evenings on BBC1 when I was a kid.
He also graced the likes of Fear Is The Key (1972), starring as a mean and moody character who harbours a deep secret as he hits the dusty back roads of America and later in his life he turned up impressively in everything from Bowfinger to Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. If you want to enjoy the actor’s finest hour-and-a-half of cult heaven though, then there’s really only one flick on his CV that demands your attention.
Vanishing Point, directed by Richard C Sarafian and released in 1971, is the trippy tale of a former cop and race car driver called Kowalski who agrees to deliver a classic muscle car – a 1970 Dodge Challenger for those who care about such things – across country to California over the course of a weekend. To help him along the way he scores some speed from a bar room dealer and strikes a bet with him that he can deliver the car by 3pm on Sunday ahead of the Monday delivery date.
What ensues is a strange, otherworldly film that would like to be seen as an existential study of freedom, as many a film post-Easy Rider was, but is really just a revved up road movie that sets out a simple premise and spends the film’s duration seeing it out. Kowalski is pursued from the off by Colorado highway patrol cops and there are any number of odd meetings and diversions along the way for our recovering Vietnam veteran to cope with including a naked female on a motorcycle riding wistfully through the desert, a gang of Christian revivalists (who add to a super groovy soundtrack of tunes to keep the action moving) and a funky blind DJ called Super Soul who charts our hero's journey on his radio show.
Of course, it’s worth noting, like many a film now embellished with the legend 'cult movie', Vanishing Point struggled to find an audience at first.
It originally went out as the lower half of a double with The French Connection and reviewers mostly whined on about its general pointlessness and strange hippy anti-establishment vibe but it’s a film that has grown in status ever since it first crept out to cinema screens in 1971.
Now considered a proper classic of the frazzled '70s road movie genre, and one referenced lovingly in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof, it’s a sizzling race movie and an oddly affecting cinematic experience that leaves you satisfied despite the wafer thin plot that basically glorifies driving very fast, taking drugs and challenging the law at every available opportunity.
It's also Barry Newman’s greatest movie so buckle up for the ride of your life.