'Vanishing Point' Was the Film That Made Me Wanna Go Out in a Blaze of Glory
Joel Golby on Richard & Judy's death pact and Richard C Sarafian's 1971 cult classic.
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have a death pact. Of course they do. Of course they do. If any couple on earth have a death pact, it's Richard & Judy. There are no two people alive who are more destined to end each other. Look deep into their eyes. Know their burning desire to kill the one whom they most love.
When I think about Richard killing Judy, which is often, it makes me sad for him. Richard Madeley, running topless through dark woods with an axe. Richard Madeley, blithely stirring ricin into Judy's morning tea. Richard Madeley, roaring with bitter rage, as Judy's old lady arms stir weakly beneath a pillow.
But I can never think about Judy killing Richard. "If Judy was really ill and in logical mind," Richard told the Telegraph in May, "I wouldn't give a tuppenny fuck if there was a risk of being prosecuted. I'd do what was right for my wife." Richard Madeley shoots an arrow at a distant target. Richard Madeley walks into the night after setting fire to their Plymouth home. Richard Madeley wears Judy's still-warm skin like a suit. Richard Madeley screams "TUPPENNY FUCK" into the evening wind.
But Judy's obviously going to bottle it at the last minute, isn't she? "I've loaded the gun, Judy," Richard is saying, through the vocoder that has replaced large tracts of his throat. It's 2054 and he's on the way out. "Just fucking do it." No. So Richard Madeley's back-up death plan is, as he told the same paper, this: "For me, it would be the locked room, the bottle of whisky and the revolver. I wouldn't want to mess around."
I feel like Richard Madeley saw Vanishing Point at the same crucial moment in his early development that I did.
Let me explain. Vanishing Point, for the uninitiated, is a film about a man driving a car. It was 1971. You could make a film like that. "Man drives car around a lot for 90 minutes" was a legitimate pitch. And what's worse, it took two people to come up with it: one to pitch the story outline – "Okay, so what if a man has to drive a car somewhere? For 90 minutes?" And one to write the screenplay – "EXT: We open with MAN DRIVING CAR. He looks SAD. He drives very at speed into TWO SOLID BULLDOZERS."
Yep, that's how Vanishing Point ends: a man drives around for 90 minutes, just infuriating the police, then decks it into the bulldozer-heavy roadblock they've set up. The first thing you say when our hero, Kowalski, decks it into two bulldozers in a ball of flames is: "What? Why?" And then you rewind the tape. "Why? WHAT? WHY?" Then you rewind it again. And then you're at the start, watching Vanishing Point all over again and wondering how it took two entire human beings to write such an obvious, foreshadowing script.
And so the whole film becomes about decoding what exactly makes Kowalski want to deck his car into two bulldozers, a story told through a handful of entirely unconnected flashbacks. There's a bit where he used to be a policeman? And a bit where he used to be a NASCAR driver who crashed? And a bit where him and some hippy chick are hanging out spooning in a beach shack? It turns out the scar-digging hippy chick was Kowalski's girlfriend, and as we learn, died moments later when she goes for a post-coital surf in the sea and gets hit by a wave – which, beyond choking on a pair of flares or being fatally ignited by a lava lamp, is the most 70s death ever.
There's a school of thought among leading Vanishing Point scholars that says Kowalski isn't just avenging the death of his hippy girlfriend by slamming into two bulldozers with a hella sweet Dodge Charger, but is actually running away from the series of disappointments that mark his life as a former war veteran, a disgraced police officer and a crash-happy racing driver reduced to shuttling cars across country as a way of making ends meet. He is – in some kind of laboured metaphor – driven towards death. To those people I say: you are totally overthinking Vanishing Point.
Vanishing Point is a film that has an eight-minute sequence where Kowalski talks to a rattlesnake hunter that is blatantly just there to pad the film up to the 90-minute mark. Like: when the Rattlesnake Man turns his basket of rattlesnakes upside-down onto the desert ground, the film goes slo-mo just to make it last a little longer. Vanishing Point is a film where there is so much driving that, when there isn't any driving, you instantly get bored. There are shonky police investigation scenes ("We're following him," one officer says. "With computers." Cue a long, lingering shot of a corkboard studded with LEDs), and a bit with a naked girl on a motorbike which doesn't even approach making sense.
At one point, a police chief furiously asks "What's going on out there?" and instead of someone grabbing the walkie talkie and saying "HE KEEPS GOING AROUND CORNERS AND THAT'S A CONCEPT WE CANNOT DEAL WITH" a young officer instead sends the message, "Chief, we lost him." There is no big reveal here. There is no metaphor. The two writers (TWO) seemingly ran out of ideas somewhere around the four-minute mark, clearly after having spaffed all the good stuff on dialogue like this:
HELLA SPOOKY DUDE IN PINK SHIRT: Is something wrong?
KOWALSKI: Why, should there be?
H/S/D/i/P/S: It's just you're so silent. And moody.
K: Well maybe that's just my nature.
[BOTH MEN glare with a TOTALLY INTENSE SILENCE]
H/S/D/i/P/S: Why are you laughing?
K: I'm not laughing.
H/S/D/i/P/S: Yes you are. Way down deep inside yourself.
Like: bare, down-to-the-bones dogshit. But Vanishing Point isn't about words, or story. It's about pink sunsets. Fresh tarmac. A super cool DJ who is blind. Insanely real rock licks. A NASCAR race I don't quite see the point of. Riding up ramps made of mud. Making motorbike policemen fall off their bikes and exclaim, alternately, "Augh!" and "Dangit!" Kowalski beats a guy in an impromptu race (he does this sick move where he changes gear at the exact right time) so hard that he calls him a "bastard" before driving into a river. Are you young? Are you free? Do you have sideburns that could carpet a small bedroom? Then you are Kowalski, mate. We are all Kowalski.
I wanted to be Kowalski when I was 13, mainly for those sideburns, which I couldn't grow at the time and would struggle to even now. I have a vivid memory of watching Vanishing Point late night on ITV2 (this was pre-Arg-from-TOWIE-era ITV2 – the glory days of ITV2, if you can believe it, before a man with a neck that just does not suit a bowtie but who insistently and always wears bowties laughs for half an hour at his own fart while one of his mates gets her eyebrows tattooed.) I was home alone, drinking the exactly one Irn Bru-flavoured WKD I was allowed out of the fridge when my parents weren't home, eating a pizza that was half tuna-sweetcorn and half mortadella. Think I was wearing my grey pyjama bottoms, if it helps the memory any.
Anyway, I was flicking around for something to watch after Robot Wars had ended and found Vanishing Point, and was hooked: I loved that the police never bothered to ask him why he wouldn't stop the car before embarking on a nationwide manhunt, or how easily they were confounded by Kowalski's special move of driving quickly around a corner; I loved the friendship struck up between the blind DJ and Kowalski conducted entire via ham radio; I loved the iconic Dodge Challenger car; I didn't love the Rattlesnake Man bit but let's gloss over that; and, most crucially, I loved the ending. The mad, mad, two-people-run-out-of-ideas-at-once ending.
Because what Kowalski does is go out in a blaze of glory. He realises that he has nothing much left to live for so he decorates some bulldozers with his body parts. And I feel that if I were in a situation where I was ready to "chuck a Madeley" – like Kowalski in the entirely pointless 1997 made-for-TV remake, played by Viggo Mortenson, whose dead hippy chick girlfriend is replaced by a wife who he finds out has died in childbirth so the film actually makes sense – I'd do the same. I'd flutter off the end of a tall building. Lie in the bath with a hand grenade on my chest. Lead the police on a wild goose chase, talk to a snake man, have a deep-but-pointless conversation with a naked girl on a motorbike, take a load of speed and then crash face, shoulder and arms first into two earth-moving vehicles.
I'd just want people to find me and go, "Damn, he really meant to do that." I would want to be Kowalski.
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