Retro Review: Vanishing Point (1971)

The same year as the lamentable ‘Straw Dogs’, I went to see this unusual American ‘road film’ at a cinema in East London. There had been a lot of ‘buzz’ about this film, and despite the low budget, and rather C-grade star, (Barry Newman) I had a feeling that it might be worth watching. It was only playing at one cinema by the time I got the chance to go, so I had to drive right across London from my usual South London haunts, to the Art Deco edifice that was the Odeon Cinema, Mile End. I dragged my then girlfriend along too, though I doubted it would interest her.

Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a Vietnam vet, former racing-car driver and police officer; a man drifting in life. He works in a job delivering cars to all parts of the United States, keeping himslef going over long distances by taking numerous ‘uppers’. Late one night, he arrives in Denver, and takes on the delivery of a car all the way to San Francisco, rashly betting that he will make the very long trip by the following afternoon, a day early. The car in question is a powerful Dodge Challenger 440, certainly fast enough for the job in hand. Leaving Denver and heading west, Kowalski embarks on an adventure that will bring him into contact with a disparate mix of individuals on the way.

He soon comes to the notice of the police, who attempt to apprehend him for driving at great speed. Managing to evade them, he becomes the subject of a widespread police manhunt, his progress followed closely by Super Soul, (Cleavon Little) the blind disc-jockey on Kowalski’s favourite radio station, K.O.W. Super Soul monitors the police radio, and begins to urge Kowalski to continue his escape, offering tips and advice live on air. His listeners get in on the act, and soon Kowalski is in danger of becoming a celebrity, with thousands following his progress around the south-western states of America.

Newman plays Kowalski as a man past caring. Disillusioned and bitter, his life seems to have come down to this rather pointless cat and mouse game with the authorities, who become more incensed, as they are unable to catch him. At one stage, he heads into the desert, where he is helped out by an old prospector, played by Dean Jagger. He also picks up some gay male hitch-hikers, runs into trouble from a man driving an e-type, and makes allies with some hippie bikers, who conspire to help him avoid the numerous police road blocks. Meanwhile, racist thugs attack Super Soul’s studio, furious that the man is helping Kowalski. I won’t ruin the ending with a spoiler, but suffice to say it is not what you might have expected.

At the age of 19, I thought it was great. The eclectic soundtrack suited the mood, and Newman was a competent hero of the people, outwitting the forces of law and order. The scenery was amazing, and the driving sections were so exciting, I got home in half the time it took me to get to the cinema, imagining I was at the wheel of that Dodge Challenger. (Many years later, I almost bought one.)
Only decades later did I even begin to think what the film was perhaps trying to say to the audience. Forgotten veterans, a changing country where they had little place. Violent racism still evident, and law enforcement agencies operating not unlike the Keystone Cops. Open homosexuality surfacing, and a misunderstood generation that felt they were living in a country they no longer understood, and which didn’t understand them.

Or maybe it was just a fun and exciting 98-minute car chase? You decide.

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Significant Songs (167)

True

Back to the New Romantic period, and British bands of the 1980s. After the recent post about Wet Wet Wet, I was reminded of that popular bunch of lads, Spandau Ballet. Formed in 1979, with brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, and front-man singer Tony Hadley, they merged electronic pop music with the fashions of the New Romantic movement, and attracted the attention of many young female fans.

On the surface, they were not really my thing at all, but there was one thing that made them appeal to me, and that was the fact that Tony Hadley had a great singing voice, and delivered powerful vocals. Like many before or since, they fell into the category of groups that I was happy to listen to, but didn’t want to watch. Reaching the height of their popularity in the mid 1980s, they received the Brit Award in 1984, and became one of the biggest selling bands of the decade.

The members went their separate ways in the 1990s, falling out after well publicised disputes over royalty payments. Despite a reunion in 2009, they no longer perform together. Although they rose to fame on fashion and pop, two of their biggest hits were power ballads, showing off Hadley’s vocals perfectly. And this is one of them.

Retro Review: Straw Dogs (1971)

An occasional series, looking back at some good and bad films I have watched over the years.

This film was released at the time when graphic violence in films was on the rise. After decades of killings ‘off camera’, and little focus on the aftermath of violent acts, film-makers were beginning to push the boundaries, realising that public outrage was very good publicity indeed, as with ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and ‘Dirty Harry’, both released around the same time. Director Sam Peckinpah appeared to want to outdo both of those with this mainstream thriller, and apparently embraced the storm of controversy that followed.

I was nineteen years old at the time, and very much in the target market for films like these. They felt fresh and new, more realistic, and although we might not have wanted to admit it, the violence was exciting. It was released in the UK with an ‘X’ rating, meaning that only people over the age of eighteen could watch it in cinemas. It was also shown here uncut, unlike in America, where it was edited in order to be given an ‘R’ rating. The video release years later (1984) saw the film actually banned in Britain, as sensibilities had changed, and it was considered to be a ‘video nasty’. The full uncut version was not allowed to be released on DVD until 2002.

The story is set in a remote part of Cornwall, where American mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) has come to live with his attractive English wife, Amy. (Susan George) It is her home village, so her return with the bespectacled academic causes a lot of interest with her former friends, family, and in particular, her ex-boyfriend. David employs some local men (including that ex-boyfriend) to make repairs on the house, and he withdraws into his studies, unaware of his wife’s provocative flirting with them. Hoffman plays his character as weak and ineffectual, settling the scene for events that follow. Amy is eventually raped by one of them. In the scene that caused all the controversy, she is shown to begin to enjoy the assault, and eventually becoming a willing participant. That changes when a second man arrives, and the first one holds her down, so he can also rape her.

Unaware of the attack, David makes some attempt to integrate into the community, but events spiral out of hand when the family cat is killed, then a local girl is murdered, and David and Amy unknowingly shelter the killer. A group of vigilantes arrive at the isolated cottage, intent on seizing the murderer, and a siege situation develops, with David attempting to fortify the house, and improvising traps and weapons. In the frantic last scenes, David finally finds his courage and tackles the intruders, with grisly results.

This is a film that ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone unfortunate enough to watch it. A big star at the time, Hoffman was wasted in this pointless exercise, along with a crop of fine British and Irish character actors, like Peter Vaughan, T. P. McKenna, and Colin Welland. We are presumably supposed to root for the mild-mannered David, as he gets his revenge on those who mocked him, and sexually abused his wife. But there are no winners in this story, just unnecessary exploitation of sex and violence that doesn’t have a single redeeming feature.

Here’s an Australian trailer.

Significant Songs (166)

Love Is A Battlefield

You wont see many Rock songs on this blog. I am guessing you might have worked that out by now. Over the years, I never really warmed to the genres of Rock, Heavy Rock, Metal, and most things that involve people shouting very loudly, over the sound of crashing guitars and hammering drums. I have to quickly add that there is nothing wrong with that music, as I know it has a huge worldwide audience. But generally, it’s just not my thing.

There have been few exceptions. Times when I just went with the beat, or enjoyed hearing the song lyrics for a change. Often this happened when a famous band of rockers decided to mellow for a while, as in the Guns and Roses version of ‘Live And Let Die’, or when the driving beat was irresistible, as it was with Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’.

Back in 1983, singer and actress Pat Benatar made this record. Perhaps not a true Rock song, at least for die-hard fans or purists. But it was about as Rock as I was going to get at the time.
Pat is the same age as me, and still performing today. This promo video is great!

Film Directors: A sort-of A-Z: Z

The final entry in this latest A-Z. Thanks to everyone who stuck with it, and added their own choices along the way. I have enjoyed reading all the comments, as well as discovering films and film makers that were new to me.

‘Z’ is much better than you might expect. However, I will leave it open for your choices, by only adding one today, a foreign film maker. That leaves many well-known directors for you to consider.

Zhang Yimou (surname first, in Chinese) has made some truly magnificent films, many of which I own on DVD, as well as having seen them at the cinema. Winner of numerous awards, and the recipient of much critical acclaim too, his epics are well known, but his smaller films are equally outstanding. Many of you will know of ‘Hero’ (2002), or ‘House Of Flying Daggers’ (2004). But for me, his best work was the claustrophobic and visually stunning ‘Raise The Red Lantern’ (1991), and the historical romantic drama that preceded it, ‘Ju Dou’ (1990). Then there is the fascinating story of a simple woman taking on bureaucracy, in ‘The Story Of Qui Ju’ (1992). Zhang is one of the finest modern film-makers, in my opinion, and I am pleased to add that he is still working today.

Here’s a taste of his style.

Film Directors: A sort-of A-Z: Y

(There is no entry for ‘X’, but if you know someone, feel free to add it here)

‘Y’ has a few choices, but I will add just one selection today, to leave room for you to play along.

Peter Yates was an English film director who started out working on television shows. In 1963, he made ‘Summer Holiday’, a successful pop-music promotional musical starring Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Such films were all the rage then, with later ones featuring The Beatles, and The Monkees.

Four years later, and he showed a different side with the cracking British crime thriller ‘Robbery’. This starred Stanley Baker and Joanna Pettet, and was considered to be realistic and hard-hitting back then. That must have attracted attention across the Atlantic, as Yates went to America to direct the exciting cop drama ‘Bullitt’ the following year. This featured a now-legendary car chase sequence, as well as Steve McQueen as one of the coolest cops to ever grace the screen. ‘Murphy’s War’ (1971) saw Yates directing Peter O’Toole in a big-budget WW2 film, followed a year later by the comedy crime caper, ‘The Hot Rock’, with Robert Redford, and George Segal.

In 1973, Yates made what is undoubtedly one of my favourite films, and perhaps the most realistic modern crime drama, ‘The Friends Of Eddie Coyle’. Starring a weary Robert Mitchum giving one his finest performances, this look at the criminal underworld of Boston feels incredibly authentic, and the supporting actors, including Richard Jordan and Peter Boyle, deliver outstanding performances too. This film is sadly overlooked now, and I really urge everyone to try to see it. It got the highest rating from respected critic Roger Ebert, and Mitchum’s performance is truly unforgettable.

Other titles directed by Yates might be familiar. ‘The Deep’ (1977) with Robert Shaw, ‘Breaking Away’ (1979) starring Dennis Quaid, and ‘Suspect’ (1987) with Quaid again, alongside Cher.

Here’s a trailer for ‘Eddie Coyle’.

Significant Songs (165)

Goodnight Girl

In 1987, I heard a catchy song on the radio. It was called ‘Wishing I was Lucky’, with great lead vocals, and an interesting construction. I made some enquiries at my local record shop, and discovered it was by a band with the unusual name of ‘Wet Wet Wet’, from their debut album, ‘Popped in, Souled out’. I bought the album, and really enjoyed the other tracks too. Four of them went on to become hit singles, and the band really took off.

They were from Scotland, and fronted by the impossibly good-looking Marti Pellow, whose combination of great voice and cool style was wowing many women at the time. Fame came rapidly here in Britain, and with that followed two more album releases, in 1988, and 1989. The big ballad I am featuring today is from the fourth album, ‘High On The Happy Side, which came out in 1992. Two years later, their cover of the 1967 Troggs hit, ‘Love Is All Around’ was featured in the film ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’ leading to it becoming one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.

By the late 1990s, success and adoration had taken its toll; Pellow was addicted to drugs, and also an alcoholic. As a result, the band split in 1999, with Marti later releasing a solo record, in 2001. Despite attempts to reform the original group, they never again got back to the dizzy heights they once enjoyed, and Marti Pellow is once more a (not very successful) solo artist. This was their heyday though, and it looks and sounds it too. I have also added ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’, so you can see what grabbed my attention in the first place.