Vanishing Point (1971)
Release Date: March 13th, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Richard C. Sarafian Actors: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter
uite possibly the quintessential movie about car chases, rebellious freedom, naked biker girls, and more car chases, “Vanishing Point” entertainingly echoes the lost art of the road action film. As a cult classic and source of cinematic inspiration (most recently for Quentin Tarantino’s portion of “Grindhouse” ), director Richard C. Sarafian’s asphalt-scorching extravaganza thoroughly amazes with continuous high-octane stunts and a bevy of bizarre personas. As the enthusiastic omniscient in the picture notes, audiences aren’t likely to see another “free spirit fighting the evil of the blue meanies” as memorable as Kowalski, the last American hero.
Car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) lives fast and drives faster. In a moment of egotism and drug-induced machismo, he bets a friend that he can drive a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than fifteen hours. Proceeding to embark on a literally nonstop thrill ride through several states, he encounters such oddities and distractions as a crazed antagonist in a Jaguar, violent gay hitchhikers, a completely nude biker girl, and most of the highway patrol.
A simple premise allows the action to hit almost immediately and never stops until the fateful conclusion. The loving camera traces every insane stunt, from dizzying jumps and flips down to the shifting of the Challenger’s gears. And a rocking soundtrack ties the action sequences together through a radio station gimmick (blind DJ Super Soul, played by Cleavon Little, guides the renegade with his police scanner and selection of tunes) that allows a rapid change and a wide diversity in tracks. Everything from rock to gospel to jazz can be heard, with electric guitars, trumpets, and even pianos jamming away. No matter the instrument or the style, each song fully utilizes its originality and energy to enhance the chaotic imagery and delirious characters on display.
Newman portrays Kowalski with a calm and prepared demeanor, regardless of the situation, and through several flashbacks, viewers learn that this man of few words has a complexity behind his motives not initially apparent. He drives as if afraid of nothing, with just as much to lose; upon discovering the origins of his skills, one no longer questions his reckless nature. Perhaps not surprisingly, the delivery driver was not only a former demolition derby and motorcycle racer, but also a Vietnam vet and ex-police officer with a tragic past.
Through this unpredictable wildcard, “Vanishing Point” idolizes the dying breed of the free spirit, mocks the ideals of order and establishmentarianism, and captures an era of peace and chaotic creativity amid a beautiful desolation long gone. With the pulsing score paired to breakneck pursuits and a wild array of uniquely atrocious supporting characters (most unforgettable are the vicious hitchhikers with a queer disposition and Gilda Texter astride her motorcycle in the buff, like Bo Derek on her white stallion in “Bolero”), “Vanishing Point” lives on as an unrivaled spectacle of uncensored fun and excitement. It’s definitely not your average chase flick.
– Joel Massie