December 21, 2004
Richard C. Sarafian, ,
Starring: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Paul Koslo, Robert Donner, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter, Anthony James, Arthur Malet, Karl Swenson, Severn Darden, Delaney Bramlett, Bonnie Bramlett, Lee Weaver, ,
Vanishing Point (1971) is one of the great existential counter-culture films of the 1970s. Like the similar-minded films, most notably, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and Duel (1971), this car chase movie features an anti-hero protagonist who equates the open road with freedom and staying in one place for too long with death. For years, it has quietly amassed a devoted cult following that has had to suffer with pan and scanned VHS copies but now 20th Century Fox has finally released it on DVD in its original aspect ratio.
Kowalski (Newman) is a hot shot driver burning the candle at both ends. He’s a thrill-seeking junky fueled by amphetamines and driving fast. His latest assignment is driving a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. His fast driving soon catches the attention of the police which forces him to use his vast arsenal of driving techniques to evade them. DJ Super Soul (Little) is a blind black disc jockey who listens in on the pursuit of Kowalski and mythologizes the man while also warning him of trouble further down the road on his radio show.
At first glance, the premise of Vanishing Point seems pretty slim. Admittedly, it is total B-movie material, however, Guillermo Cain’s screenplay sneaks in a subversive political subtext. Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Kowalski is Vietnam veteran who has had trouble adjusting to normal life back home. He’s seen police corruption first hand and mistrusts any kind of authority. Cain uses Super Soul as the mouthpiece for the film’s political stance. He cheers Kowalski on with an inspired rap. “The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver. The last American hero. The demigod. The super driver of the golden west. Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone rider. The police numbers are getting’ closer! Closer to our soul hero in his soulmobile!” However, Super Soul also pays for helping out Kowalski as a group white rednecks trash his radio station and beat him up. And yet, he defiantly persists despite this opposition.
Barry Newman IS Kowalski. He portrays the man as a burn-out who’s been through a series of dangerous, risky jobs that fuel his need for speed. He has tired, seen-it-all-before eyes that say more than any words could. Kowalski is more than just a burn out; he is also a folk hero of sorts who is helped by the everyday people he meets along the way. There is something sympathetic about Newman’s performance; there is still a glimmer of humanity that years of disappointment have failed to eradicate.
Cleavon Little is good as Super Soul. It was his feature film debut and he makes the most of his screen time with an inspired performance. He delivers his dialogue in a way that feels like it was entirely improvised. He transforms Super Soul into some kind of hep, jive talking preacher of the counter-culture who rocks the mic with his inspired raps.
Director Richard C. Sarafian and cinematographer John Alonzo create a film of pure, visual storytelling. The first ten minutes alone feature almost no dialogue. They realized that the car is the real star of Vanishing Point and showcase it in dynamically shot sequences that perfectly convey speed and motion through driver point-of-view shots and kinetic edits. For example, one scene starts with a close-up of Kowalski’s license plate and then the camera pulls back suddenly to reveal his car speeding along the road.
Fans of Vanishing Point are in for a real treat as both the US and UK versions of the film have been made available on DVD. The UK version runs seven minutes longer and features a scene where Kowalski picks up a female hitchhiker (Rampling); they stop, get high and spend the night together. It’s easy to see why this scene was cut for the US release; it slow things down just before the film’s exciting climax.
Director Richard C. Sarafian contributes an engaging audio commentary. He mentions that the film was given a low budget of only $1.3 million and a crew of only 19 people! However, it was a tight and efficient unit. He also talks about how the production went through eight Dodge Challengers and tells a funny story about how the last car was stolen by a prostitute and the State Patrol tracked her down and brought the car back. So little has been written about Vanishing Point and it is great to hear Sarafian talk at length about his experiences making the movie.
Also included are vintage TV spots and a theatrical trailer that features wonderfully kitschy ad copy: “Everyone wants a piece of his hide!”
Vanishing Point is a cult film that has endured over the years. UK music group Primal Scream named their 1997 album after the movie and even recorded a song entitled “Kowalski” that features samples from the movie. Audioslave took their love of the film even further and brilliantly recreated and condensed the movie into a music video for their song, “Show Me How To Live.” The video incorporates actual footage from the movie and replaces Kowalski with the band. After years of obscurity, 20th Century Fox has finally given Vanishing Point a proper DVD treatment with an excellent transfer and made both versions available for fans to compare and contrast.