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Deconstructing the 1971 Cult Hit, Vanishing Point

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Vanishing Point 1971 movie review

50 Years Later: Vanishing Point– Do We Exist?

The movie Vanishing Point was written from a story outline by Malcolm Hart and transformed into a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (G. Cain). It originally came out in 1971 and was directed by Richard C. Sarafian. The film touches on a variety of different issues being experienced during that time – racism, homophobia, and feelings of oppression – all of which are still applicable in today’s society. Many reviews claim the film to be boring and linear, but to truly appreciate it, a certain cultural understanding of the time period must be made.

A good portion of America was “Anti-establishment” during the time period of focus (the early 1960s – mid-1970s), and Vanishing Point consistently points to “standing up to the man.” The main character, Kowalski, is used as an icon to represent the counterculture taking place, so the film gathered quite a following. Vanishing Point (1971) is about a long-distance car chase through the Mojave Desert.  The main character, “Kowalski,” is a loner, a Vietnam War veteran, and an ex-cop. He is fueled by drugs that allow him to keep going without sleep, and successfully outruns the police every time a new pursuit begins. In the end, instead of surrendering to the police, Kowalski chooses the path which has no hope of being successful (straight into a VERY solid roadblock). We watch the plot unfold and the surrounding details pass us by, but it’s the seemingly small details of this film that make connections beyond the simple plot. These details allow for a more thorough interpretation of the film, or perhaps more than one interpretation as to what is really being said.

The term “vanishing point” literally means “a point at which something disappears or ceases to exist,” and is typically used in reference to an object heading toward and disappearing on the horizon, but is it possible for something to just disappear into thin air?  Are there other planes of existence? Who really knows? No one, but everyone has suspicions or beliefs on the matter. Do we really make our own choices, or are they predetermined for us? The film Vanishing point is filled with Biblical symbolism and references of outside forces trying to guide the decisions of our “last American Hero,” and Kowalski continues to drive along his own existential path.

Vanishing Point
Image courtesy 20th Century Fox

The environment in which the entire film takes place is the desert. The desert is very devoid of life, hot, dry and all-around very unforgiving if you’re not prepared. The desert, while being a very punishing and trying environment, is a symbol of clarity. There are no obstacles in Kowalski’s line of sight, so he can see every possible direction to go in, every possible enemy coming toward him, and he can go in any direction, making the possibilities of decision infinite. Given the harshness of the environment, it is also a test of our character’s will and determination: he must make a choice of which way to go because he can’t stay where he is, and with no directions to follow it’s a test of his will to make it through the desert as a barrier, to the promised land. The desert is also referred to as “the most propitious place for divine revelation” and the burning sun combined with extreme drought is comparable to “consumption of the body for the salvation of the soul” giving it a Biblical connection, so some would believe it is fated whether or not he beats the desert.  But Kowalski is the one making the choice of whether to let the desert be his end or to find a way out, not fate. 

The star of the film is the white Dodge Challenger, and the main character is the driver of the car:  Kowalski. The color white has its own meaning: “purity, innocence, wholeness, and completion.” We can make the assumption that the color of the car means that its contents are whole and complete and will therefore not be influenced by outside influences such as the radio DJ – “Super-Soul” – who constantly plays songs with lyrics such as “Where do we go from here?” (suggesting confusion) or “I get so tired…” (suggesting he stop and rest, which he never does). The color white also means neutrality and independence, assuming nothing in this film is accidental, proves that Kowalski continues to make his own, independent choices about his path and that there are no proverbial strings being pulled to decide his fate. 

Image courtesy 20th Century Fox

Kowalski ends up with a flat tire while driving in the desert, so he stops to fix it. Once he’s finished putting on the spare tire, he returns to the trunk to replace the equipment he used. The desert is home to some dangerous creatures and while returning the equipment to the trunk, Kowalski is confronted by a deadly rattlesnake. Kowalski appears to have a momentary stare-down with this rattlesnake, and in the face of danger, Kowalski does not move. Snakes are symbolically mysterious, not only do they mean transformation and rebirth, but the Bible also connects them with knowledge, wisdom and human mortality. Snakes are sneaky, they attack for no reason, and this particular rattlesnake literally appears out of nowhere. Another character who seems to appear out of nowhere is the old man who tells Kowalski “don’t move, I’ll get him.” Kowalski waits for the old man to wrangle the snake and in the face of death, Kowalski stands his ground and does not change his mind about the direction he is taking, despite the obvious signs to back away from the impending possibility of death. 

The release of this film in the UK has an additional seven minutes of footage, and in this footage, it shows how the police are tracking Kowalski (nothing mysterious) and changes the way the film can be interpreted. Barry Newman, the actor who portrays Kowalski, felt that the missing piece gave the film an “Allegorical lift.” Without the clip, Kowalski just continues doing what he’s doing and it seems to be a plain refusal of surrender, “Give me liberty or give me death,” so to speak (Patrick Henry). In the missing clip, Kowalski picks up a female hitchhiker and they spend a romantic night together getting high (the only time in the film that Kowalski actually sleeps). In the conversation that takes place, the mysterious hitchhiker tells Kowalski that she “has been waiting for [him], everywhere, since the beginning of time, patiently, as that’s the only way to truly wait for someone.” Kowalski and the mystery woman become intimate, and then the camera backs away and returns the next morning to find Kowalski alone in his car with no trace of the mystery hitchhiker. Who could this woman be, if waiting for him since the beginning of time? 

Vanishing Point
Image courtesy 20th Century Fox

Upon doing some research of reviews for the film, most of the reviews with this piece of film in mind interpreted the mystery hitchhiker as death in the flesh. Director commentary (DVD) includes Richard Sarafian’s interpretation of the hitchhiker as “meant to be an allegorical figure representing death.” Assuming this to be the truth, then Kowalski literally becomes “One” with death. Historically speaking, our main character has had many possible brushes with death: he’s a veteran (fought in the war and has the scar to prove it), he used to be a cop (dangerous job), and he used to race stock cars and motorcycles (he has flashbacks to accidents he’s been in), but he’s managed to avoid all of them. Kowalski is on a dangerous path being chased by the police, and he doesn’t have very many options. He could surrender to the police or he could look for some way to escape, but he has no intention of surrendering. His decisions will ultimately be his end, and knowing this, he continues on just the same. 

Despite the warning signs that he is driving to his own “Vanishing Point,” Kowalski maintains his course. There are people along the way who try to “help” and warn him that there’s no way out, he could change his mind, he could surrender and live, but Kowalski chooses death. There’s nobody else determining his fate. There’s nobody pulling strings or clouding his judgment. Kowalski is human and exists until he chooses to no longer. The film Vanishing Point is truly an argument for the existential road that is life.

  • Amber Soha

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mike J

    May 24, 2021 at 1:30 am

    Hi Amber. Kowalski’s epic journey does not take place exclusively in the desert. The route he takes is nowhere near the Mojave. Did you even watch the movie?

  2. Scott

    May 30, 2021 at 5:27 pm

    Amber, I saw this movie first at age 10…. it is one of those literally life defining artistic experiences, albeit in what was considered to a degree a “B movie”… You have a very impressive and in my humble opinion spot on finger on the pulse of this very out of the ordinary, early 70’s cinematic product… particularly guys of a certain age usually gravitate toward it…. for reasons they may or may not be fully aware of perhaps. I commend you on an excellent treatise on a cult classic movie.

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The Living Daylights Has a lot of fun within the Bond formula

James Bond is sent to investigate a KGB policy to kill all enemy spies and uncovers an arms deal that potentially has major global ramifications.

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The Living Daylights film review

James Bond Spotlight

It wasn’t guaranteed that the Daniel Craig films would successfully reboot James Bond, in part because such a restart had already been tried before. After 1985’s A View To a Kill, in which age had begun to show on both Roger Moore as Bond and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, the first real reboot was attempted. Timothy Dalton – who had turned down On Her Majesty’s Secret Service because he felt that at 24 he was too young to replace Sean Connery – was brought on and a script was commissioned to return Bond to his Cold War roots. The result was The Living Daylights, which doesn’t quite work as a reboot but makes for deeply enjoyable viewing.

Too many of the old Bond conventions remained for The Living Daylights to be a true departure; the roles of M and Q were not re-cast and the same notes are hit with both of them. In the same pattern that goes as far back as Goldfinger, an action-packed cold open leads into sexytime for Bond, followed by the elaborate credits sequence. But the overall story, in which a defecting Russian general (the great Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe) plays the British for fools and Bond must track him down through his mistress (Olivia d’Abo), is a welcome departure from Roger Moore’s cartoonish adventures in America.

The antagonistic presence of the Soviet Union gave From Russia With Love its classic urgency and it made The Spy Who Loved Me the best of the Moore films, thus it does wonders for Dalton. Although the “car into ski-car into using a cello case as snowmobile” chase scene is as silly as anything Moore did, the stakes in the Dalton film are more honest. It still does not make sense why the MI-6 would care about a drug dealer in New Orleans (as in Live and Let Die), but helping a beautiful Czech cellist defect from behind the Iron Curtain is exactly what James Bond should be doing, no matter how cartoonish his methods might be. Having reasonable goals for Bond allows audiences to tolerate much more silliness.

The Living Daylights James Bond 007 Review
Images via United Artists

But even most of the “silliness” in this film is deadly serious. The film’s best fight scene is one that could have been a throw-away, between a secondary Russian villain and a supporting British agent who’s never named, yet it carries all of the intensity of the famous fight in From Russia With Love. The big action set-piece takes place in Afghanistan, where Bond allies with the mujahideen not because he thinks theirs is a comically righteous crusade against evil (as would happen a year later in Rambo III) but because it’s the most practical way for the bad guys to get got. This is the perfect setting for Bond: one where the action sequences may occasionally get ridiculous, but the characters at least intend to live in a complicated world.

It’s interesting that, unlike almost every other Bond film before or since, there’s only one “Bond girl” in The Living Daylights. Despite the apparent monogamy, Bond’s attitude toward women did not reboot with the switch to Dalton; d’Abo is essentially a prop and proves especially useless during the Afghanistan sequence. Still, her character is not saddled with an embarrassing name and seems to have her own motivations independent of Bond’s, which is more than can be said for Tanya Roberts, Jane Seymour, or Denise Richards.

In some scenes, Dalton’s frustration with d’Abo seems to border on anger, but that’s not so bad because Dalton found the perfect note for Bond. Bond ought not to hate the audience or the female lead, but neither should he particularly care what they think of him. For Bond, there should be only allies, enemies, and the light glaze of contempt that he spreads over the remainder of the world. Connery had it and Craig has it, but George Lazenby seemed a little too happy just to be there while Moore and Pierce Brosnan had their tongues too firmly in cheek. Dalton found that perfect sweet spot of light contempt, and it’s no wonder that after The Living Daylights’ strong financial performance, Connery had a number of positive things to say about him.

Sadly, Dalton would lose the thread with the very next film, License to Kill, in which his contempt seemed to drench every line of the screenplay as well as a number of talented actors including a young Benicio del Toro. Perhaps it was Dalton’s fault, or perhaps it was simply because the Berlin Wall was falling and new world order was being shaped. Dalton’s Bond was no longer needed, but neither should he be forgotten: in the same way that Connery defined the Cold War of the 1960s for any number of moviegoers, no movie transforms the Cold War of the 1980s into a pop-culture artifact better than The Living Daylights.

– Mark Young

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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Moonraker Completely Misses its Mark

James Bond investigates the mid-air theft of a space shuttle, and discovers a plot to commit global genocide.

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Moonraker review

James Bond Spotlight

Moonraker has the unique distinction of being the most absurd and over-the-top Bond film produced in 50 plus years of the series. Spy films exist in a genre unto themselves, but the Bond films sometimes like to crossover into other popular genres as well. The first clear example of this was 1973’s Live and Let Die, which mimicked the then-popular Blaxploitation genre. When Moonraker was released, however, the Bond series took this genre crossover to its extreme, resulting in a Bond film as much a science fiction saga as it is screwball comedy. Certainly one of the strangest Bond films to date, Moonraker holds a unique admiration among Bond fans and remained the highest-grossing of all the Bond films until the release of Goldeneye in 1995.

Before Moonraker came 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me which concluded with the end credit; “James Bond will return in For Your Eyes Only.” Then came the exuberant popularity (and profits) of Star Wars, also released in 1977. Star Wars’ popularity led to a barrage of memorable rip-offs from Luigi Cozzi’s Starcrash to Jimmy Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars. Bond producers also took note, changing their planned release schedule to push Moonraker ahead of For Your Eyes Only in order to capitalize on a then exploding interest in sci-fi epics. The third act of Moonraker is set entirely in space, complete with laser battles, keypads set to the theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired rotating space station. Adding to Moonraker’s space cred was the growing fascination with a then-developed space shuttle that NASA was preparing to launch only a few years later. Producers made the choice to use the SRS Space Shuttle model in the film to play directly into a worldwide fascination in next-generation practical spaceflight.

The ambition is apparent in the visuals, but where Moonraker fails is in its execution of story. Tightly packed with all of the elements of a Bond film, without regard for their cohesion, this often overwrought story too heavily relies on bizarre moments that come across more Mel Brooks than James Bond. Moonraker is structured around the same basic Bond outline the series tends to follow; Bond visiting a number of very exotic locales in search of clues leading to whatever villainous mastermind happens to be plotting world domination. In Moonraker, that super-villain is Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a space industrialist with plans of creating a new master race. All of the locations Bond’s investigation of Drax leads to are a bit too obvious. In their pursuit of grand set-pieces, producers seemed to overlook subtly for scale. Perhaps the worst moment in the film comes during a boat chase down the canals of Venice. Bond’s motorized gondola transforms into a terribly executed hovercraft that proceeds to drive across St. Mark’s Square in a scene derivative of bad slapstick. Campy scenes like this, as well as scenes with the return of giant henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) instantly take viewers out of the story. A subplot in which Jaws falls in love with a short, pigtailed beauty, shedding his bad ways for good, plays just plain silly in a film that over-utilizes comedic cause where it should have focused on dramatic effect.

Moonraker James Bond 007 film review
Images: United Artists

Roger Moore isn’t known for being the best of the Bonds, and here he seems to go out of his way to prove why. Where Connery sold Bond as sexy and smooth, Moore’s performance comes across as forced and rigid.  An awkward fighting style and over-obvious one-liners don’t help his case. Moonraker also has the distinction of having perhaps the most overblown (seriously no pun was intended), straight-to-the-point names for a Bond girl in all the films; Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles).

Where Moonraker does succeed is in the exquisitely crafted set pieces by production designer Ken Adams. Adams sets, including a portable lab in a Venetian glass factory, a geometric space command center in hollowed Amazonian ruins and the space station itself, with its winding corridors of glass tubes, are all standout designs that succeed more than the films actors at creating the foreboding moods beneath the surface of the story. The greatest of all Adams designs is a conference room that folds in on itself, disappearing into the floor. Set beneath the thrusters of a space shuttle, the room is indicative of the famous war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, another set designed by Adams.

At its conclusion, Moonraker is only a mildly amusing entry into the Bond canon. Perhaps Moonraker’s greatest flaw is its reliance on perpetuating the characteristics of the series without setting itself apart. Moonraker is a movie produced to be visually appealing above all else. Maybe it’s because the script was rushed to come out ahead of the already planned For Your Eyes Only. Whatever the case, the double entendres Bond fans have come to love fall flat to shtick in this installment of the franchise. Moonraker completely misses its mark, catering more to a generation captivated by Star Wars than the generation that grew up with Bond since 1962. Money wins again.

-Tony Nunes

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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The Man with the Golden Gun is a Curiosity Amongst Bond Fans

James Bond is targeted by the world’s most expensive assassin, while he attempts to recover sensitive solar cell technology that is being sold to the highest bidder.

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The Man With The Golden Gun James Bond review

James Bond Spotlight

One hallmark of the venerable Bond franchise is its willingness to change with the times. Sometimes the changes feel organic, like the shift to a more brutish Daniel Craig after international terrorism took center stage in the early 2000s. Other times, however, you can smell Bond’s desperation to stay relevant. Such is the case with 1974’s middling entry, The Man with the Golden Gun.

Guy Hamilton’s fourth turn as Bond director (GoldfingerDiamonds Are ForeverLive and Let Die) is a study in uncertainty. As Bond, Roger Moore is still searching for the debonair persona he would find in the upcoming classic, The Spy Who Loved Me. Surrounding Moore’s tentative performance are a collection of unfocused action set pieces, a less-than-formidable duo of Bond girls, and the most repugnant character in the series’ history. Add an ill-conceived leap onto the kung-fu bandwagon and you’ve got a recipe that would have poisoned a lesser franchise.

That’s not to say that The Man with the Golden Gun (TMWTGG) is without merit. First, the story is refreshingly simple. Bond must find and eliminate the world’s most deadly assassin, Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), who intends to blackmail the energy-starved West with a mysterious solar energy device (an iconic MacGuffin called the “Solex agitator”). As the dapper assassin Scaramanga—who collects $1 million for every hit with his little golden gun—Lee oozes a slimy charm that is a welcome addition to the franchise. Perhaps more than any arch villain before him, Scaramanga feels like a regular man who can relate to Bond. He may have grandiose designs on environmental extortion, but he’s mainly just a thug who excels at killing people. Sound familiar?

Scaramanga is introduced by a snappy pre-title sequence, as well. With the help of his diminutive henchman, Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize), Scaramanga lures a hapless hitman into his nightmarish funhouse full of traps. Not only is this a clever illustration of Scaramanga’s killing prowess, it foreshadows the film’s ultimate showdown with Bond. It also establishes one of the most interesting villain-henchman dynamics in the history of the franchise. “If you kill him, all this be mine!” Nick Nack implores Bond; his loyalties split between protecting his master and feeding his own ambitions. It’s an extra layer of texture we don’t normally see from Bond henchmen.

The Man with the Golden Gun review
Images: United Artists

The impressive shooting locales are spotted all over the Far East, including Thailand, Hong Kong, and Macau. Hamilton does a great job capturing the humidity and flare, keeping Bond in the streets and local establishments as often as possible. It also yields the film’s most ingenious set-piece; the wreck of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong harbor. The derelict ocean liner is cleverly transformed into the Far East headquarters for MI6. Another highlight is Bond’s low-altitude flight through the jagged rock formations in Hạ Long Bay. These geographical flourishes have become a staple of Bond films.

Sadly, that’s where the praise for The Man With The Golden Gun ends.

Even the normally-reliable John Barry, who penned the franchise’s most iconic themes and songs, falls prey to mediocrity. Though the title tune is undeniably catchy, Don Black’s insipid lyrics do little to help Scottish crooner, Lulu, who does her best Shirley Bassey imitation. This is definitely Barry’s weakest effort with the franchise.

It’s also the worst script penned by long-time Bond scribe, Richard Maibaum. Working from an early draft by Tom Mankiewicz and the original novel by Ian Fleming, Maibaum pruned most of the gamesmanship between Bond and Scaramanga. Instead of a battle between equals, Scaramanga feels more like a jealous half-brother with an axe to grind. It’s a missed opportunity for Bond to match wits and marksmanship with a superior adversary.

More glaring is Hamilton’s listless approach to the action sequences, including his continued obsession with excruciating car chases. Bond pursues Scaramanga through the streets of Bangkok before reaching a bifurcated bridge. In the film’s most iconic stunt, Bond executes a perfect corkscrew jump to traverse the broken and twisted bridge (bafflingly accompanied by the sound of a slide whistle). Making the chase even more intolerable is a curtain call from the racist Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James). As if Pepper wasn’t loathsome enough in Live and Let Die, he turns up to insult Asian citizens in their own country. Truly, this reprehensible character is emblematic of a time most Americans would rather forget.

Man With the Golden Gun review
Image: United Artists

Despite looking stellar in a bikini, Britt Ekland’s turn as Agent Goodnight is thoroughly forgettable. She’s completely useless as a field agent and barely registers a blip on the charisma radar. Her low point arrives in the final act when she accidentally activates a death ray with her ass. Faring even worse is Maud Adams as Scaramanga’s mistress, Andrea Anders. Bullied and subjugated by Scaramanga, Anders comes crawling to Bond, who promptly slaps and manhandles her. Anders looks less like a damsel in distress than a helpless victim of domestic abuse. Surely, Roger Moore must look back on this scene—obviously devised to toughen his image—with embarrassment and regret.

And let us not even discuss Bond’s brief detention at a kung-fu school. That he is rescued by two teenage girls is an unmitigated disgrace masquerading as a punchline.

What makes The Man with the Golden Gun particularly frustrating, especially when compared to similar missteps like A View to A Kill or Die Another Day, is how little fun everyone seems to be having. The humor isn’t zany enough to inject any camp, and the story (particularly Scaramanga’s reduced role) is too thin to be taken seriously. It’s stuck in the middle of what Bond used to be with Connery, and would eventually become with Moore. That it survived this transition is a credit to Moore’s natural charm and producer Cubby Broccoli’s determination. In that way, The Man with the Golden Gun is a curiosity amongst Bond fans; it’s hard to muster either enthusiasm or disdain for it. Perhaps, in the grander scheme, it’s the movie Moore had to make before he truly became James Bond.

J.R. Kinnard

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight. The article is part of our James Bond Spotlight.

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