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.


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.

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’.

Film Directors: A sort-of A-Z: W

Close to the finish line now, with ‘W’. Before we get to the last tricky few, please continue to play along, adding your own choices in the comments. ‘W’ has lots to offer, and I will try to feature the less obvious choices, (with one exception) leaving many for you to select from.

German film-maker Wim Wenders is a man of many talents. As well as directing films, he also makes documentaries, and is an accomplished photographer too. He has made films in both German and English, and in Europe and America. I first noticed his name when watching the film ‘The Goalkeeper’s Fear Of The Penalty’ (1972), a downbeat crime thriller that showed obvious talent. I later saw the experimental ‘Alice In The Cities’ (1973), a black and white film with limited dialogue, that became famous as the first of Wenders’ ‘Road Trilogy’. That theme continued in 1984, with the outstanding ‘Paris, Texas’, starring Harry Dean Stanton in a haunting film about a man’s search for his missing wife. Wenders managed to make the bleak regions of Texas take on a European feel, and the soundtrack by Ry Cooder is unforgettable. He later made other award-winning films, including ‘Wings Of Desire’ (1987), and continues to work to this day.

Australian Peter Weir has been directing films since 1969, and has made some of my personal favourites during that time. ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ (1975) took a small story idea, and developed it into a mystical film experience, with tremendous performances from a mainly female cast. His political thriller ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’ (1982) looked at the turbulent events in Indonesia, through the experiences of journalists based in that country. It starred Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, and also featured an amazing performance from Linda Hunt, playing a male role. The year before, he had brought the epic war film ‘Gallipoli’ to the screen, with the impressive tale of Australian troops fighting in Turkey, in WW1. His list of credits continues, with ‘Witness’ (1985), and ‘The Mosquito Coast’ (1986), both starring Harrison Ford. ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989), ‘Green Card’ (1990), and ‘The Truman Show’ (1998).

From Poland, I am featuring Andrzej Wajda. He made films from 1951 until his death in 2016, aged 90. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honours, as well as being acclaimed by critics and audiences all over the world. Perhaps his best known work internationally is the startling War Trilogy, which began with ‘A Generation’ (1954). This was followed by the riveting ‘Kanal’ in 1956, telling the story of resistance fighters during the Warsaw Uprising, fighting the Germans in and around the sewers of Warsaw. The trilogy was completed with ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ (1958), dealing with events immediately after the end of the war in Europe, with the upheaval and retribution that followed victory. It is generally thought to be one of the best 100 films films ever made.

No surprises with my top choice for ‘W’. A writer, actor, producer, director, theatrical wizard. He acted on stage, on the radio, and in many films too. During my lifetime, I can think of few people who have been as talented as Orson Welles. As a director, he made two of my all time favourites, and as an actor, he starred in many more. His 1941 film ‘Citizen Kane’ is hailed by many as the best film ever made, though I prefer some of his others myself. Like ‘Touch Of Evil’ (1958), with its legendary opening tracking crane shot, and Welles magnificent in the role of the bloated has-been detective, Quinlan. Or the wonderful ‘Chimes At Midnight’, something of a flawed masterpiece, with Welles never better as the tragi-comic Shakespearean character, Falstaff. So although I may prefer him for his acting, his directing is at the top of my list too.
Here’s that opening tracking crane shot I mentioned. This is film-making.

Film Directors: A sort-of A-Z: U and V

As you might expect, the letter ‘U’ throws up very few directors with that surname, so I am using two letters in one post again today.

I have seen some of the films of one man with a ‘U’ surname though. American director Ron Underwood, who made the amusing monster horror, ‘Tremors’ in 1990, starring Kevin Bacon. He followed that with another comedy, ‘City Slickers’ (1991), then the ‘giant ape’ remake ‘Mighty Joe Young’ (1998), with Charlize Theron and Bill Paxton in the leads. He made other films which I have not seen, and still works extensively, mainly for television.

‘V’ offers more fertile ground, with almost fifty to choose from, including American Indie film-maker Gus Van Sant. His powerful drama about the life of drug-addicted young people, ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ (1989), delivered a believable lead role from Matt Dillon that remains my favourite from that actor. This was followed in 1991 by ‘My Own Private Idaho’, a film about two young male prostitutes living a bleak and pointless life. I was very impressed by that film, especially with the completely convincing performances of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in the leads. In 1995, he directed the genre-busting crime comedy, ‘To Die For’, with a standout performance from Nicole Kidman. He is also known for three films lumped together as ‘The Death Trilogy’, including the immensely powerful ‘Elephant’ (2003), a film about a real high-school shooting that rightly won the ‘Palme D’Or at Cannes. (He also made the highly-acclaimed ‘Good Will Hunting (1997) but I never liked that film.)

I have to mention French director Roger Vadim, and not primarily for his films. Vadim was a man who was indeed lucky in love. Not only did he have an affair (and a child) with the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, he also married not only Brigette Bardot, but Jane Fonda too. As a teenager, I envied that man a great deal, I can tell you. In between, he made a lot of films, most notably the steamy drama ‘And God Created Woman’ (1956), which introduced the sexy Brigitte Bardot to a worldwide audience. As well as numerous films in his own language, he later directed the amusing (and very sexy) science-fiction romp, ‘Barbarella’ (1968). Fonda was the eponymous heroine, and she never looked better than in this role as the glamorous space adventurer. It also gave us Duran Duran, and his ‘Orgasmatron’. Priceless camp.

My final choice still leaves you with more ‘V’ film makers than you can shake a stick at, believe me.
It is popular to talk down Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. He makes exciting films, sexy films, and films that are very often an in-joke. He has no defined directorial style, and in many cases, settled for sensationalism, and style over substance. Yet there are times in life when even a self-styled film bore like me just needs to be entertained. To sit back and enjoy a story, soak up the visuals, and (yes, I confess) admire a pretty and usually half-naked woman. Verhoeven will not leave behind a legacy of classics, hailed in the cinematic halls of fame. But he undoubtedly knows how to entertain an audience at many levels, in various genres. Never heard of him? I think you will know at least some of the films. Exploitation? At times perhaps, but very well done indeed.
‘Soldier of Orange’ (1977) is a little-known Dutch war film that needs to get a wider audience. This story of resistance fighters, and Dutch volunteers in The German Waffen SS during WW2 is a fine drama, and stars the reliable Rutger Hauer too.
‘Flesh and Blood’ (1985) is a rip-roaring English-language swashbuckler, set in the 16th century. Hauer stars again, as the leader of a band of mercenaries who happily rape and pillage their way around Italy during the confusing wars and politics of that time.
‘Robocop’ (1987) was the original outing for this franchise. A futuristic action thriller that gave a whole new meaning to the warning, “Halt. Police!”
The list goes on. ‘Total Recall’ (1990), the sexy Sharon Stone in ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992), and the pleasingly voyeuristic (at least for me) ‘Showgirls’ (1995). Monsters in space got a wonderfully inventive ironic treatment in the fun and exciting ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997), and Verhoeven returned to WW2 in 2006, with the satisfyingly sentimental ‘Black Book’, about the resistance in Holland. Something for everyone, in a career that continues in controversy with ‘Elle’ (2016), and more to come.

He might be my directorial ‘guilty pleasure’ indeed. Here’s a trailer.

Film Directors: A sort-of A-Z: T

After a break of a couple of days, I am finally up to ‘T’. Quite a few famous ones of course, including one American who shot to fame in 1992. I am only featuring foreign-language directors today, so there will be plenty left for you to add your own selections.

I have used the English language titles for all the foreign films mentioned.

I have to start with the world-famous French film-maker and actor, Francois Truffaut. Before his early death at the age of 52, Truffaut helped found the French New Wave, and left behind a legacy of important and critically-acclaimed films. His awards and nominations are too numerous to mention, but he won both Oscars and Baftas for his work, as well as many domestic plaudits too. From ‘The 400 Blows’ in 1959, to ‘Confidentially Yours’ in 1983, his career never flagged, and he retained his influence and the admiration of critics throughout. Other famous titles include the ‘film within a film’ ‘Day For Night’ (1973), ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (made in English, in 1966), and ‘The Last Metro’ (1980), a wartime drama starring Catherine Deneuve.

Another French director, Bertrand Tavernier may not be as well known as Truffaut, but in a long career, he has also made some outstanding films. These include ‘A Sunday In The Country’ (1984), the English-language Jazz drama ‘Round Midnight’ (1985) with music by Herbie Hancock, and the adaptation of ‘In The Electric Mist’ (2009), starring Tommy Lee Jones. But Tavernier is mainly included here for one of my personal favourite films, the almost unknown ‘Life And Nothing But’ (1989). Despite winning numerous awards, this subtle work has all but disappeared off of the radar of film fans. The touching story of widows searching for their husbands shortly after WW1 stars the wonderful Phillipe Noiret, as the officer in charge of trying to identify the bodies.

Swedish director Jan Troell may not be someone you have ever heard of. But he made a film that features on my personal list of the best films of all time, and one I have never forgotten. I have written about ‘Everlasting Moments’ (2008) many times on my blog, and even reviewed it on other sites. My love for this gentle and affecting film knows no bounds, I assure you. But he has made many other films, including the wonderful ‘The Emigrants’ (1971), starring Max von Sydow, and the sequel ‘The New land’ (1972). He still continues to work today, in his native Sweden.

My top choice today is the Russian auteur, Andrei Tarkovsky. Up to his death in 1986, he made some of the most remarkable films in the history of cinema. Beloved of film buffs and critics alike, his long and often complex films rarely make for light or easy viewing. But they can be incredibly rewarding, if you give them the attention they deserve. ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ (1962) is a haunting war drama, the story of a young boy acting as an army scout, in the mysterious swamp-lands of Russia during the German invasion. In 1966, Tarkovsky made ‘Andrei Rublev’, the true story of the life of the famous icon painter, set in the 15th century. This was followed in 1972 by the eerie science fiction epic, ‘Solaris’, which was later remade in America (in 2002) by Stephen Soderbergh, starring George Clooney. Other notable works include ‘Mirror’ (1975), and ‘Stalker’ (1979), rated by The British Film Institute as one of the fifty greatest films of all time. There has never really been anyone like Tarkovsky, I assure you.

Here’s a trailer for ‘Solaris’. It may look dated now, but don’t let that fool you.