Reel Men: Kowalski of 'Vanishing Point'

Reel Men: Kowalski of 'Vanishing Point'

Aug 01, 2011

We are men, men who enjoy movies. Within the diverse canon of films that comprise our favorites, male characters exist whom we count among our heroes. These are men who often represent the archetypes of manhood, for better or worse. These are the Reel Men and we will be studying these characters in order to determine what lesson of mandom can be gleaned from them.

Vanishing PointThe Film: Vanishing Point (1971)

Who’s The Man: Kowalski

Kowalski is a former racecar driver and San Diego police officer. After his surfer girlfriend tragically drowns, a pattern of destructive behavior finds him disgracefully removed from the force. He finds employment with a car delivery service and specializes in ridiculously speedy transports. One night, after just having finished one job and running on almost no sleep, he decides to see if he can drive from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. Will he succeed?

What Makes Him a Reel Man?

Like the poker table or the baseball diamond, the open road often serves as a suitable proving ground for manhood. Many of life’s most important lessons can be learned behind the wheel; all the better if that wheel happens to be attached to a gorgeous, super-charged 1970 Dodge Challenger. The road trip therefore is not just a means of getting from point A to point B, but a rite of passage. Kowalski teaches us the fundamentals of taking a solo road trip.

Making Great Time

According to Google Maps, this journey from Denver to San Francisco should take just over twenty-one hours…that is, if one were driving the speed limit. Kowalski, on the other hand, understands that a heavy foot is vital to shaving precious minutes, and subsequently hours, from your estimated time of arrival. While we at certainly don’t advocate breaking any posted speed laws, it seems counterintuitive to expect a man behind the wheel of a Dodge Challenger to keep it under seventy.

But beyond simply maintaining breakneck speed, Kowalski understands that achieving great time means following the path of least resistance. If a certain road is crowded by less ambitious motorists, construction equipment, or a police roadblock, the option to proceed off road is always viable. In fact, Kowalski opts to travel miles across the barren desert rather than have to circle around through a time-consuming detour. Foolhardy? Yes. But he made up some valuable time.

Vanishing Point

Never Be Afraid to Pass

The other drivers on the road are most likely not trying to cover over 1200 miles in an absurdly short amount of time so they may be in decidedly less of rush than you are. It is therefore not considered an act of aggression or rudeness to pass them. Kowalski turns this simple highway maneuver into an automotive ballet as he passes everything from station wagons to low-hovering police helicopters with ease. Again, path of least resistance is the key so best to remove the slower-moving obstacles from that path.

Make As Few Stops As Possible

The major advantage to taking a road trip alone is the fact that you are beholden to no schedule but your own. You and you alone determine when to stop for food or rest. Kowalski is a beast in this regard. For the majority of the trip, he stops for neither. He seems never to tire and his diet consists solely of amphetamines; likely the cause of said wakefulness. But then, he begins to slip in this regard; assisting an old man whose truck has broken down and whiling away far too much time with a drug-peddling biker and his girlfriend. But given the fact that the biker’s girlfriend is a stunning beauty who staunchly objects to any and all forms of clothing, Kowalski’s lingering is understandable.

Choosing the Right Radio Station

It may sound like a completely superficial aspect of a successful road trip, but selecting the right radio station can be invaluable. If your trip begins in the middle of the night, you can find yourself fading right about the time the sun is rising. This is the time when loud, upbeat, kinetic music is so important and Kowalski was lucky enough to have the bouncing beats of, appropriately, station KOW and the incomparable DJ Super Soul to keep him awake. The aforementioned amphetamines didn’t hurt either, but as most of us don’t travel with narcotics, the need for the right station becomes even more dire. And while it isn’t likely that you or I will ever receive personal guidance from a radio personality, we do have an advantage over Kowalski in that satellite radio now makes it possible to tune into exactly the type of music that keeps our eyes open and our hands steady on the wheel.

Vanishing Point

Never Pick Up Hitchhikers

This seems like the most self-evident of the lessons we learn from Kowalski, but it bears repeating. The pair of stranded motorists for whom Kowalski decides to stop seemed perfectly harmless. But they turned out to be two of the more unlikely bandits in cinema. Now granted, Kowalski was able to fight them off with aplomb, but they did succeed in robbing him of valuable time, which is arguably the more heinous crime.

Barry NewmanThe Man’s World

The highway system of Kowalski’s time was vastly different from the one on which we commute today. Namely, Kowalski benefited from not only the standard interstate system, but also an expansive network of country roads and unmarked shortcuts to exploit when things got hairy on the main roads. A number of these side roads have since been lost to development, and the sheer number of roadside businesses that have cropped up have greatly lessened the wild frontier feel of the “open road.” Part of what makes watching Vanishing Point such an experience is the cinematography which offers shot after shot of untainted natural beauty only encroached upon by a seemingly endless river of blacktop.

The Man Behind the Man

Barry Newman is not an actor whose work I am familiar with outside of Vanishing Point I’m sorry to say. As Kowalski, he is stoic despite the torture he sustains at the memory of his past. What’s obvious is that the open road is the only thing that brings him peace and he refuses to leave the cathartic embrace of the highway for any longer than he absolutely has to. This is why he doesn’t sleep, and this is why he takes one job right after the next. Newman’s performance captures this drive beautifully, no pun intended.

One Final Toast

So many cinematic heroes of manliness achieved such status by virtue of their four-wheeled chariot of choice. It would therefore be impossible to choose a single character of the lot as the best driver or even which vehicle reigns supreme. But in Kowalski’s case, it’s safe to say that his white 1970 Dodge Challenger ranks highly among the list. The entire second half of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is, among other things, a loving homage to Kowalski and his American muscle machine.


Categories: Reel Men, Features
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