Vanishing Point (1971) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for nudity, drug use, violence and language
Running Time: 98 min. (106 min. UK)
Cast: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Robert Donner, Paul Koslo, John Amos, Charlotte Rampling (UK release)
Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Screenplay: Guillermo Cain (aka G. Cabrera Infante)
Review published November 10, 2005
Barry Newman (Bowfinger, What the #$*! Do We Know!?) stars as Kowalski, a cross-country deliverer of cars for clients that makes a bet that he can drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in a short amount of time. As the length of the trip requires him to speed most of the way, he soon gains the attention of the police. With his expertise as a professional racecar and motorcycle driver under his belt, as well as his prior experience as a police officer, Kowalski uses every trick he knows how to evade the state police for as long as he can to get to his destination. Meanwhile, a small-town DJ called Super Soul (Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles) has been monitoring the situation, with his reports making Kowalski into a sort of folk hero for freedom.
Vanishing Point would continue the trend in many lower budget releases in the late 1960s and early 1970s in showcasing counterculture philosophy mixed with existential twists that make a simple story feel like something deeper in message. Comparisons to Easy Rider are hard to avoid, as they both feature heroes evading the authorities in a road trip full of drugs and anti-authoritarian behavior, while the soundtrack blares soul, rock, and folk tunes all reinforcing the ideals prevalent in the hippie lifestyle.
It's one of the better chase films of the 1970s, which were rife with movies that exploited the canonization of people that dared to tame the last vestige of freedom left, the open road. It is modestly budgeted, but effectively shot, although the heat, humidity and perhaps low grade film stock leave many of the outdoor scenes looking blurry and difficult to distinguish in detail. Logic isn't really on the agenda here, as the entire excursion seems rather fruitless, while the nearly omniscient ramblings of Super Soul are sketchily explained away.
Vanishing Point is a cult film, and there are those that watch it repeatedly and think it is some sort of masterpiece. I don't count myself among them, although I do see the appeal of the allegorical nature of the tale. The antihero trend being very resonant at the time (and perhaps still today), makes Kowalski a cool character to root for, especially since he says as little as possible. At this point, driving is his life. Everything he has ever strived for has been lost before he could succeed, and if he could somehow reach his destination, perhaps some sort of salvation might be achieved.
The story itself isn't very appealing, and the acting and dialogue leave much to be desired, and yet, it is a worthwhile adventure for anyone that loves drive-in cinema, filled with car chases, smash-ups, and visceral delights. As far as the allegorical qualities, I'm not even sure how much of this was in mind at the time that shooting began. Much of the film seems to be filled with half-realized ideas that might be meaningful if they didn't seem like padding. There is a disjointed, uneven nature to the entire film that keeps me from recommending it wholeheartedly, and still, there is something oddly absorbing about the strange and surreal odyssey that Kowalski goes on that keeps you wondering what it's really all about.
©2005 Vince Leo