by Paul Zazarine
Kowalski's Last Ride
For movie goers who are also autobuffs, a few "road movies" stand out as a cut above the standard box office fare. Perhaps the best known of these is the critical and box office hit Bullitt. While the Bullitt plot was a little thin, it did have Steve McQueen and that exciting chase sequence through San Francisco. Equally as popular today is the 1971 cult classic, Vanishing Point. Vanishing Point was more than just a chase movie, although at the time of release the message it carried beneath the explosive photography and fast paced music wasn't fully appreciated. Over the years it has remained in the minds of movie goers who just happen to also be in love with high performance cars. Vanishing Point had a subconscious effect on the viewer; its impact remained long after seeing it. Fifteen years after its release, many are still intrigued about the stars, the plot and, of course, the cars. Over the years, numerous myths have developed concerning Vanishing Point. Ever since we ran a Vanishing Point trivia question in the March, 1984 issue of Car Review, we've received scads of letters and phone calls relating contradictory details about the movie and the cars. What began as a passing trivia question soon turned into a tidal wave of Vanishing Point mania. We had really touched a nerve, so to put the capper on a lot of wrong information, we talked to some Vanishing Point experts. That only proved to cloud the story even more. So we cranked up the Watts line, assured the boss it was for a worthy cause, and proceeded to call Hollywood. We arranged two interviews, one with Vanishing Point stunt coordinator Carey Loftin; the other with Barry Newman, who starred in the role of Kowalski. What we learned from them reinforced some stories while other myths crashed and burned. Carey Loftin has coordinated and performed stunts in numerous movies including On The Beach, It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World and Grand Prix. Many will remember the exciting street race sequence in the recent film, Against All Odds, which won Loftin an Academy Award. Newman has high praise for Loftin, "Carey is the greatest stunt driver that ever lived. I did a few of the minor stunts, but Carey set up and did the major ones. He really set them up beautifully and made me look great!" Loftin is currently working on a car chase sequence on the elevated railways of Chicago for Running Scared. One of the main points of controversy has centered around the 1970 Dodge Challengers using in Vanishing Point. Carey Loftin remembers that he specifically requested Challengers because of the "quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower. It was a real sturdy, good running car." Five Alpine White Challengers were loaned to Cupid Productions by Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of the filming. How the cars were equipped has been a point of controversy among Vanishing Point buffs. "There were five cars," Loftin said. "The number five car that we never used was an automatic and it did have the 383. All the rest had the 440. All the 440's were equipped with four-speeds, and all were four-barrel motors." Speculation had been that Hemi or Six Pack Challengers were used, which Loftin and Newman dispelled. The cars performed to Loftin's satisfaction, although dust came to be a problem. None of the engines were blown, and Loftin recalls that no special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars, except for heavier-duty shocks for the car that jumped over No Name Creek. No special bracing or frame ties were used in any of the Challengers. Newman remembers that the Challengers were wrenched for the movie by Max Balchowsky, who also prepared the Mustangs and Chargers for Bullitt. "Max was like a surgeon. It was amazing. He would take parts out of one to make another car work, because we really ruined a couple of those cars, what with jumping ramps from highway to highway and over creeks." Newman agreed with Loftin's memory about the cars. "I remember the cars had 440 engines and had a tremendous amount of power. It was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You's put it in first and it would almost rear back! They had a four-speed and there was also an automatic car. That was a 383. I think we used that one as the camera car on the straight runs." One difference between the filming of Bullitt and Vanishing Point was speed - or the appearance of speed. As the Mustang and Charger sped through the streets of San Francisco, the were moving at actual speed. For Vanishing Point, the cameras were undercranked. Consequently, as Loftin explains, "the top speed at the most was between 100 and 110 miles-per-hour. We had a fairly low rear end ratio, and to get the appearance of speed, we would undercrank the camera. When people are walking, it can look really crazy, but out in the desert, it looks like the car is really flying. For example, on the scenes with the Jaguar, we cranked the camera at half speed. The cars were going about 50 miles-per-hour, but at regular camera speed, it would appear to be much faster." For the high speed desert scenes, Newman remembers traveling a little slower. "It was more like 80-90," said Newman. "What happens is if you shoot a car from the side, you can go by at 30 miles-per-hour, but it looks like you're doing 20. The perspective is off. So those shots where I look like I'm traveling at 150, we weren't going that fast at all." We asked Loftin how well Barry Newman drove the Challenger during the filming. "He caught on so fast I couldn't believe it," Loftin laughed. "I'll tell you one thing Barry did. The scene before the crash at the end where he comes up and does a 180 on the road and goes back, he did that himself. The director didn't realize that. I was standing behind the cameraman, and when Barry did the stunt, I said 'he's a good listener and learner.' Sarafian thought it was me. I told him Newman had to do something! Barry did a terrific job." Driving across the desert was not all fun and games, as Newman relates. "We had tremendous traffic control, although once I almost did get in trouble. They blocked off five miles of road to keep traffic away while we made the shots. One of the Challengers was used as a camera car. That particular Challenger was set up with three cameras. One was mounted on the hood looking into the windshield and looking at the driver. Another camera was hooked onto the front bumper and it looked ahead of the car at the white lines. A third camera was on the rear bumper. The camera car also had a tremendous amount of lights on it. The lights were extremely bright, and it's difficult to see, especially with that Colorado sun shining in your eyes. Somehow, while I was driving on this controlled five mile strip of road, a car got through the traffic blocks, and I was on the road by myself, and suddenly, I happen to see a car coming at me! I just swerved off to the right and went up a hill. A couple of the cameras fell off, but we were alright. It was a close call." Special preparations were made for the spectacular crash at the end of the movie, as Kowalski speeds into the bulldozers placed across the road with blades down to stop him. Several days were needed to set up the stunt. A derelict 1967 Camaro was purchased and stripped of engine and transmission. A tow-rig setup that Loftin had used successfully in the past was employed. "I've used this rig for a long time," Loftin explained. "And as long as you're towing it, it will go to that fulcrum. There was a crown on the road, and I had a mechanic there. I would tow the Camaro, and he'd reset the front end. We did this several times until the car would tow right in the center of the road." "I had a quarter mile of cable when we did the stunt. The strip of road leading to the bulldozers went straight back, over a slight hill and then to the left. When I started to tow, I couldn't see the Camaro, so I told the effects man to put it in the ditch on the left hand side so it will be in a straight line. After all the testing I just had to believe that it would work. Once I got it up to speed, it came straight down the road, I was doing a good 80 miles-per-hour at the time of impact." "With the motor and transmission out, we were prepared for the car to go end over end, but it stuck into the bulldozers, which was a better effect. The effects man loaded the Camaro's front-end with explosives to go off on impact, and if I had lost control and gone into the ditch and really hit something hard, it would have exploded there. The director set the bulldozers about five to six inches apart, just enough to get my cable through. He asked me what the point of no return was, and I said 'about two seconds after you say 'action'. Once I go it's all the way. I don't have anything to stop the Camaro except those bulldozers!" "We towed the Camaro with the fifth car, the 383 automatic. I used that one because if you miss a gear and your line goes slack you lose the car. I'd rather use an automatic than risk a chance of losing the car. That 383 was a good running car. In fact, it would probably run just as fast as that 440." What happened to Vanishing Point after it was filmed is as interesting as the making of the movie itself. Newman recounts that a portion of Vanishing Point was cut, shortening the film from 107 to 99 minutes. "There was a wonderful scene where Kowalski stops the car and picks up a hitchhiker, played by Charlotte Rampling. The girl, dressed in black and shrouded in fog, is carrying a sign that says San Francisco. He picks her up, she gets into the car and she asks him 'What are you?' He answers, 'a car delivery driver.' She says, 'No, what sign are you?' They talk and end up spending the night together in the desert. Suddenly she says, 'Don't go to San Francisco,' and vanishes. She was the symbol of death." "That was an interesting scene, because it really gave the film an allegorical lift and explains everything." I was in Austria filming The Salzburg Connection while they were editing Vanishing Point, and I received a call from my agent in New York. He had just seen a screening of Vanishing Point and said they cut it up and made it look like a "B" movie. They cut out the Rampling scenes because they were afraid the audience wouldn't understand what happened to the girl in the car; why was she suddenly not there? That was their explanation. In its final form, Vanishing Point bears little resemblance to the Guillermo Cain screenplay, which was loosely based on two real life events. The movie was released without the Rampling scenes, and the 107 minute version was never shown. Vanishing Point premiered in late January of 1971 in an edited state that bore little resemblance to the original version. "20th Century had no faith in the movie," Newman recalled. Therefore they dumped the film in neighborhood theaters as a multiple release, and it was out of the theaters in less than two weeks." Vanishing Point was then taken to London, where it became the biggest critical and box office hit of the decade in Britain. Because of the immense popularity of Vanishing Point in Britain and Europe, it became a "back door classic" and returned to American theaters on a double bill with The French Connection. Thanks to the tremendous popularity of The French Connection, Vanishing Point finally played to an appreciative American audience. And the cult following began to grow, spurred on by one broadcast on network television in late 1976. What amazes Newman is that even though Vanishing Point has not been aired nationally for almost ten years, "Kids still line up along side of me in my car and say 'Hey - Vanishing Point, Man' and give me the thumbs up sign, It's amazing!" Why has Vanishing Point become a cult classic? "At the time it was made," Newman explains, "we were still living in the sixties, with the individual against the institutions - the establishment. The individual, the loner, the anti-hero was very, very popular then, and it was a very moving thing when the guy killed himself. When he died, it stayed with people. They came back and saw the film over and over again. I was never aware of the impact of the film while I was making it." Newman played Kowalski as "a man who has failed before - and that's the allegorical thing in this film - that Kowalski was going to get through those bulldozers. He smiles as he rushes to his death at the end of Vanishing Point because he believes he will make it through the roadblock. Deep down, Kowalski may have believed he wasn't going to make it, but that's the basis of an existentialist film. The hero is fated to die, and you know it when he takes off that he's not going to live. The title Vanishing Point was meant not for his impact into the bulldozers. At the beginning of the movie, the Challenger and a black Chrysler pass each other and the Challenger vanishes, and he delivers the black car to Denver. It represents Kowalski's point of no return - it was his Vanishing Point - it was his last ride."
Vanishing Point - The Movie
Vanishing Point is based upon two true events. The story centers around a car delivery driver ferrying a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. He's made a bet that he can make the trip in 18 hours. The driver, who's name is Kowalski, has a number of encounters with the police who try to stop him. His cross country trek snowballs into a massive police hunt that attracts the attention of the national media. The Vanishing Point story line was inspired by a young California driver who refused to stop and died after crashing into a police roadblock. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Kowalski was a Vietnam veteran with a Medal of Honor. His girlfriend had drowned, his careers as a police officer, a motorcyclist and as a stock car driver had all ended in failures. The Kowalski character was loosely based on the shattered career of a San Diego police officer. Few understood the existentialist message in Vanishing Point, however there is much more that just 90 minutes of chase scenes. The dramatic final scene in which Kowalski vaporizes the Challenger and himself into the two bulldozer blades was not because he had given up on life. He's smiling at the end of Vanishing Point, as he rushes toward the center of light between the blades, because he thinks he can make it. Barry Newman told us he is currently negotiating for the rights to Vanishing Point. There is a good possibility we may yet learn what happened to Kowalski, because Newman has plans to make Vanishing Point II.
Vanishing Point Collectibles
Among Vanishing Point fans, and there are a lot of them, a highly prized possession is the 99 minute videotape of the film, which, interestingly enough, has Charlotte Rampling's name on the label, although she doesn't appear in the movie. It can be purchased from your local video dealer or through Magnetic Video Corporation, 23434 Industrial Park Court, Farmington Hills, MI 48024. The catalog number is 1028, and the suggested retail price is $59.95. The Holy Grail for Vanishing Point fans is the original soundtrack album, released on the Amos label and distributed by Bell records, a division of Columbia Pictures. Its catalog number is AAS8002. It is no longer in the catalog, however you may run across a copy in used record stores or swap meets. The music used for the soundtrack features Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (one of whom is Rita Coolidge), Jerry Reed, Kim Carnes and a number of unknown artists. The cover artwork shows a white 1971 Challenger, with New York plates, inside and on the back are stills taken from the movie.
Our sincerest thanks to Barry Newman and Carey Loftin for taking time out to speak with us. Special thanks to Robert Hilpl who loaned us the Vanishing Point videotape and soundtrack album and supplied us with pictures of his Alpine White 1970 Challenger. Special thanks also goes to Jill Kirklander at 20th Century Fox for researching the Vanishing Point stills. Also thanks to Mark Warren and Jeff Johnson of the Special Interest Auto Club for their help. Photos by 20th Century Fox, Robert Hilpl, and Paul Zazarine. Kowalski lives!
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