It's 1971 on the American highway. Duel gives Steven Spielberg his start, and Two-Lane Blacktop may be the purest road movie ever made. However, Duel's been made-for-TV, and only gradually will its reputation spread. Blacktop, after its initial run, will be plagued by soundtrack issues not resolved until the twenty-first century. The many years of too-few showings will bolster its cult status but limit its audience. The most successful road movie1 of that year is Vanishing Point, an existential car chase with enough mysticism that it also drifts across the line dividing realism and fantasy.
And then there's that barenaked lady on a motorbike.
Kowalski (Barry Newman), a Vietnam vet and onetime police officer, delivers cars. He lives on the rush and makes a bet with his speed dealer that he can take his current charge, a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum from Denver to San Francisco in record time. The race hardly helps with wear and tear on the Challenger, and it brings Kowalski into conflict with law enforcement. After some 1970s chases and cop car crashes in the scenic southwest, the police grow determined to stop him. He becomes a cause célèbre thanks to the DJ, "Super Soul" (Cleavon Little), who speaks to him over the radio and, at times, can hear his responses. And it is not just Kowalski's interplay with Super Soul that skirts the edges of reality. While this film features a lot of road action— 1970s style—it also takes us through the countercultures of a dissatisfied era, and hints about what the road and race may represent to the haunted hero.
The road movie always involves eccentric characters met along the way. Some of these characters here feel like people from our driver's past, and the film juxtaposes them against actual flashbacks. The key women seem eerily similar to his deceased girlfriend, Vera (Victoria Medlin), and also a girl he saved from a sexual assault years earlier. We receive hints that two of them might be that young woman, now older. First Girl seems to recognize and admire Kowlaski, while "Nude Rider" keeps a collection of articles related to the incident.
Others seem like genuine lost souls, a fact worth considering when we arrive at the conclusion. When Kowalski gets trapped on the highway, he drives out across the desert and encounters a mysterious prospector (Dean Jagger). Both offer assistance to each other, before crossing paths with Christian snake handlers let by one "J. Hovah."
Of course, the characters also reflect the times. Our antihero served in the Nam, surfed, and was discharged from the police force for taking action against a corrupt partner. The snake-handlers combine old-time rural fundamentalism with hippie-influenced Jesus Freakdom. Kowalski's popularity reflects an era of antiheroes, distrust of authority, and sympathy with the outsider. Super Soul, African-American and blind, comes under attack by small town rednecks. Kowalski also encounters a pair of gay men; sadly, two years after Stonewall, these characters get played for cheap comic relief. Their "just married" status, nonetheless, may represent a kind of first for American cinema. Angel (Timothy Scott), who acts to help Kowalski, is both hippie and biker, and he and his Old Lady, believers in free love. Billed as "Nude Rider," Angel's girlfriend plays her entire part sans clothing.
When I was a little kid, this film made its way into primary school consciousness via the early adolescents some grades ahead of us, who doubtless heard about it from smirking teens and scandalized adults. The one thing we knew was that there was a movie playing where a barenaked lady rides a motorcycle! The fact rated mention for a week or two and then vanished from the playground and my mind. Decades passed and I finally saw this movie and realized, with a nostalgic chuckle, that I was watching that movie. While not irrelevant, the nudity is obviously exploitative. Still, if seven and eight-year-olds were discussing the scene, it got the overall public reaction the director was seeking. The woman in question, Gilda Texter, has a lengthy and illustrious career as a Hollywood costumer, but she also made a handful of onscreen appearances, most trading on her comfort while uncostumed.
Vanishing Point begins and ends in enigma. After the prologue and its cryptic low-budget fade, we flash back days earlier, with Kowalski delivering one car and picking up the Challenger. We then make our way across the country to a slightly different take on that opening scene. While we're directed to certain conclusions, the greater significance of the finale remains up for interpretation.
Vanishing Point was remade for TV in 1997, with its hero now a Gulf War veteran. I haven't seen the remake, but no one I know has much positive to say about it. The original is a different story. It has dated, to be sure. The years have been kinder to Duel and Two-Lane Blacktop, but the films form a trilogy of sorts, and Vanishing Point remains a trip worth taking.
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Writers: Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Barry Hall, from a story outline by Malcolm Hart.
Barry Newman as Kowalski
Cleavon Little as Super Soul
Dean Jagger as Prospector
Victoria Medlin as Vera Thornton
Lee Weaver as Jake the Dealer
Karl Swenson as Clerk
Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott
Robert Donner as Deputy Collins
Timothy Scott as Angel
Gilda Texter as Nude Rider
Anthony James as First Hitchhiker
Arthur Malet as Second Hitchhiker
Severn Darden as J. Hovah
John Amos as Engineer
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends as Revival Singers
Cherie Foster as First Girl
Valerie Kairys as Second Girl
Tom Reese as Sheriff
Rita Coolidge as Singer
Ted Neeley as Singer
1. The 1970s was a kind of Golden Age of Road Movies. In addition to Two-Lane Blacktop, Duel, and Vanishing Point, we have acclaimed films as diverse as Paper Moon (1973), Badlands (1973), and Harry and Tonto (1974). In the same era, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino walked, hitchhiked, and trainhopped across period America in Scarecrow (1973), to critical acclaim but little box-office success.
The real-life Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash inspired Gumball Rally (1976) and Cannonball (1976); Rally's better, but either is preferable to the celebrity-infested Cannonball Run franchise of the 1980s. Cannonball shares a director with the SF car flick Death Race 2000 (1975). Spielberg followed up Duel with The Sugarland Express, a crime comedy/drama, very loosely inspired by real incidents. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play a pair of low-level crooks who hijack a police car on a cross-country quest to regain custody of their son. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a trashy outing, features the road, Peter Fonda, and hilariously bad dialogue, but it holds up as guilty pleasure and fun time capsule. Fonda starred that same year in Race with the Devil, a road movie with Satanic villains, while Max Baer Jr. co-wrote and starred in the drive-in hit, Macon County Line. The latter's sequel-by-setting, Return to Macon County (1975), comes closer to the road, with its 1950s fantasy about a driver (Nick Nolte) and his mechanic (Don Johnson) traveling to California. Along the way they pick up a slightly demented waitress (Robin Mattson), tick off a small-town sheriff and some local badasses, tear up rubber, and spend nights in abandoned houses. Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke lock horns with more conventional bad guys on the road to Vegas in the family-unfriendly The Gauntlet (1977), and Jack Nicholson heads across Africa in the more cerebral and cinematic thriller, The Passenger (1977). The Driver (1978), with Ryan O'Neal pursued by Bruce Dern, falls somewhere between. When the Muppets finally hit the big screen in 1978, they also hit the road (The Muppet Movie). The oddball '78 film, Wanda Nevada gives us Peter Fonda again, who hits the road after winning thirteen-year-old Brooke Shields in a poker game. The story has them following a prospector's map, and stands as the only time Peter worked alongside his famous father, Henry Fonda. Carny (1980) came along a little too late, but it still looks and feels like the 1970s, and the artful cult flick, with Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson, and the teenage Jodie Foster, contains echoes of Two-Lane Blacktop.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Feel free to /message me with, "good review, jackass, but how could you forget...?"
Mad Max (1979)-Suggested by FlavouredMilk
Bad News Bears in "Breaking Training" (1977)- Reminded myself that the first Bad News Bears sequel was a road movie.