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.