Monday, September 10, 2012

Vanishing Point, She (1935), and Sleep, My Love

Vanishing Point, by Richard C. Sarafian, 1971

Vanishing Point took me by surprise. I expected a badass 70's car chase movie, and on one level that's exactly what it is. But it's also the story of one man's existential race into oblivion.

It begins with the hero, Kowalski (Barry Newman), a car delivery man who is taking an awesome car (I guess, anyway, I'm not a car guy) from Denver to San Francisco. He bets a guy that he'll be able to get it there by 3PM the next day, only 16 hours from his time of departure. I just did the math, and that means he would have to go a minimum of 80 miles for hour the whole way in order to make that goal, and that's not counting stops. So Kowalski takes a bunch of speed and sets out on his mission.

It doesn't take long before Kowalski gets the attention of the police, and it's no wonder. Nothing is going to stop him. If he sees a road block, he just jumps the median and goes around it on the other side of the road. He's getting help in avoiding the law over the radio from his friend Super Soul, a DJ (played by Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles) who talks in a secret code of jive poetry.
All the while, the police are bearing down on Kowalski, as he edges closer and closer to the end of his race.

Vanishing Point is a really cool oddity among car chase movies because of its dark, psychedelic, and philosophical overtones. Things get more and more surreal for Kowalski as he goes deeper into the desert, meeting snake handlers, desert hippies and naked motorcycle riding hippie girls on the way. We get an idea of what is driving Kowalski through some sketchy flashbacks of his past, but he never states explicitly why he's doing it.

One last thing: If this review is selling you on Vanishing Point, and you decide to watch it, try to find the UK cut. It was available on the flipside of the DVD I had, so it shouldn't be too hard. It has an extended sequence cut from the American version, a surreal scene where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker. It's one of the most important scenes in the movie, and we Americans didn't see it upon release because someone decided we were too stupid to get metaphors. That happens to us a lot, doesn't it?

She, by Irving Pichel and Lansing C. Holden, 1935

Based on a popular series of novels by H. Rider Haggard, She is an epic adventure produced by the man who brought King Kong into the world, Merian C. Cooper. It was intended to replicate the success of Kong, and despite its wonderful production design and special effects, it failed to do so, and I can tell you exactly why: NO MONSTERS.

She is the story of a man's quest to a lost land to find the Fountain of Youth deep in the arctic. Family lore has it that his ancestor found the fountain centuries ago. There they find an ancient race of cannibals and their ruler, She Who Must Be Obeyed. She believes the guy is his own ancestor that she had taken as a lover 500 years ago, and She wants him back.

The film is decent, but never achieves the blend of wonder and high adventure that King Kong did. There's never the feeling that you're seeing something you've never seen before. They are, after all, just shooting on a big soundstage, right? Couldn't they have thrown a giant spider or something in somewhere?

Still, She is full of rich movie history. One cool little fact is that She Who Must Be Obeyed was the visual inspiration for the evil queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Another is that it was thought lost until a print was found in Buster Keaton's personal collection. It's a fun, pulpy little movie, and it's totally worth watching, but it's not going to change your world.

Sleep, My Love,
by Douglas Sirk, 1948

I've been meaning for some time to watch something by Douglas Sirk. Sleep, My Love happened to be the only one of his films on Netflix Instant, and though it's not one of his more well known titles, I decided to give it a look.

Sleep, My Love stars Claudette Colbert as a New York woman who wakes up on a train to Boston, with no idea how she got there. When she returns to her husband (Don Ameche), we begin to see things take a much more sinister turn. He's cheating on her with a younger woman, and wants her money, and is manipulating her through hypnotic suggestion to drive her mad and commit suicide. It's pretty ridiculous, I know, but it's a fun little movie.

I can see now why women at the time responded so well to Sirk's films. He seems pretty sympathetic toward them. Like, if a 40's or 50's housewife believed her husband was cheating (chances were fair that she was right), most people would just roll their eyes and talk down to her. But she could go and see Sleep, My Love and have all her suspicions validated. See? Husbands CAN be evil. And that younger girl he's seeing is nothing but a money grubbing floozy. And that shrink he's sending me too IS a fraud. And look, she met a nicer man on the plane back from Boston. There's hope!

As I said above, this isn't one of Sirk's better known films, but it's a fun little diversion. I would very much like to see the 1950's films he would later become so well known for.

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