By J.D. Lafrance
Vanishing Point (1971) is one of the great existential counter-culture films of the 1970s. Like similar-minded films, most notably, Easy Rider (1969) and Two-Lane Blacktop (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. It came out at a time when the American public was feeling angry and scared at their government as a result of the assassination of important political figures. This film tapped into those feelings and channeled them through its protagonist who is at odds with The Man. For years, it has quietly amassed a devoted cult following and several high profile admirers, chief among them filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and bands like Primal Scream and Audioslave.
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a hotshot driver burning the candle at both ends. He’s a thrill-seeking junky fueled by amphetamines and driving fast. His latest assignment is transporting 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. Super Soul (Cleavon Little) is a blind African-American 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.
The opening scene of the film features a collection of shots of old men in a small, seemingly deserted town out in the middle of nowhere. They all have grizzled looks of people who have lived hard lives with faces full of character. Gradually, we see more activity in the town as bulldozers rumble along, setting up for the confrontation with Kowalski. A CBS news truck shows up and then a highway patrol helicopter before Kowalski himself is revealed, chased by three patrol cars. This is the present and the rest of the film shows how he got to this point.
At first glance, the premise of Vanishing Point seems pretty slim. Admittedly, it is total B-movie material, however, Guillermo Cain’s (pseudonym for avant-garde Cuban novelist G. Cabrera Infante) screenplay sneaks in a subversive political subtext. Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Kowalski is a Vietnam War 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!”
Barry Newman is Kowalski. Not much is revealed about his character except that his whole existence seems to revolve around driving cars from one destination to another. He portrays the man as a burn-out who’s been through a series of dangerous, risky jobs that fuel his need for speed. Through a series of flashbacks we find out he used to race dirt bikes and stock cars. He was also a cop who rescued a young girl from being raped by his partner. Newman 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. This is reinforced by a flashback where we see that Kowalski was in love once and even led a happy life but his girlfriend drowned in a surfing accident. This illustrates why he is so jaded and helps explain his reckless attitude.
Cleavon Little is excellent 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 microphone with his inspired raps. He acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, encouraging Kowalski and warning him of traps that the law has set up for him. The first appearance of his character says so much about the social climate of the time. As he walks his seeing-eye dog across town its denizens clearly look upon him with the same kind of disdain as in the scene in Easy Rider where Billy, George and Wyatt enter a diner and are scrutinized by the prejudiced townsfolk. However, Super Soul also pays for helping out Kowalski as a group white rednecks trash his radio station and beat him up. This racially motivated attack is bloody and brief, speaking volumes about race relations at the time.
Director Richard C. Sarafian and cinematographer John A. Alonzo create a film of pure, visual storytelling. The first ten minutes alone feature almost no dialogue. They know 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. To convey the appearance of speed, the filmmakers undercranked the cameras. For example, in the scenes with the Challenger and a Jaguar he races, the camera was cranked at half speed. The cars were traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour but at regular camera speed they appeared to be much faster. There are liberal uses of zoom shots and the camera is often close to Kowalski’s car as if it is us who are chasing him. There are also fantastic long shots of the car speeding across the land that let us appreciate the vast, open spaces of Nevada, Colorado and California.
Stunt coordinator Carey Loftin performed much of the film’s breathtaking driving. He got his start in the business as a stunt double in the 1940s and 1950s, working on many B movies. He graduated to stunt driver on films like The Young Lions and Thunder Road (both in 1958). Just prior to Vanishing Point, he choreographed the legendary car chase in Bullitt (1968) and would go on to orchestrate equally famous vehicular mayhem in The French Connection (1971) and The Getaway (1972) before winning an Academy Award for his work on Against All Odds (1984). Barry Newman did a few of the minor stunts while Loftin set-up and performed the major ones in Vanishing Point. The actor learned from Loftin and was encouraged by the stunt coordinator to do some of his own stunts. For example, in the scene before the crash at the end of the film, Newman drove, performed a 180-degree turn on the road and went back, himself without Sarafian’s knowledge.
After filming, Vanishing Point was cut from 107 to 99 minutes, completely removing a scene where Kowalski picks up a hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling. It was cut because the studio was afraid that the audience wouldn’t understand what was going on. The studio had no faith in the film and released it in neighborhood theaters as a multiple release only for it to disappear in less than two weeks. The film was not well-received by American critics at the time. Charles Champlin, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Vanishing Point might have had a point, but it … ah … got lost. What’s left is sophisticated craft and fashionably hokey cynicism.” It didn’t get much better in the Reporter where Larry Cohen wrote, “Calculated, tedious and in desperate need of tightening, the picture, produced by Norman Spencer, is uninvolving and devoid of a cohesiveness that might have made it work.” Finally, Variety add the final critical nail in the coffin: “While car addicts may be able to maintain interest in the ultra-fast manipulation of the car, many viewers will just get car sick … or sick of the car, which isn’t the same thing.”
However, the film was a critical and commercial success in England and Europe, which prompted it to be re-released in the United States on a double bill with The French Connection. A cult following began to develop thanks to a broadcast on network television in 1976. Vanishing Point has endured over the years. British rock band Primal Scream named their 1997 album after the movie and even recorded a song entitled “Kowalski” that featured samples from Super Soul’s raps. Audioslave took their love of the film even further and brilliantly recreated and condensed the film 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. Vanishing Point would also go on to inspire other films and filmmakers. The two persistent highway patrolmen who pursue Kowalski only to crash their vehicle in the process anticipate two similar lawmen in the opening chase sequence of Mad Max (1980). Recently, Quentin Tarantino’s ode to grindhouse films, Death Proof (2007), features a chase involving Dodge Challenger that resembles the one in Vanishing Point with the three main protagonists referencing it by name several times. The film was even remade for Fox television in 1997 with Viggo Mortensen as Kowalski and Jason Priestly as Super Soul (?!). The characters were contemporized but the performances and, more importantly, the driving sequences and vastly inferior to the original.
Throughout it all, Vanishing Point has stood the test of time as both a fascinating snapshot of the time in which it was made and one of the best car chase films ever put on film. It is a counterculture film par excellence complete with a jaded protagonist that is transformed into a folk hero for simply evading the law but the filmmakers make the point that Kowalski doesn’t see himself that way. He’s searching for freedom, both literally in trying to evade the cops, but also on a spiritual level. It is this added subtext that elevates the film from being merely a collection of cool car chases to something more meaningful.