Vanishing Point (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Racing to San Francisco.

Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a car delivery driver whose next assignment has him driving a white Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum from Denver to San Francisco. He is a former cop who seems disillusioned and detached from the world around him. To give his existence some meaning he decides to ‘challenge’ himself by making the delivery in record time and even makes a bet with a local drug dealer while purchasing some ‘uppers’ that he can get to San Francisco by 3:00 the next day. As his record drive proceeds he gets the attention of the local law enforcement from every state that he drives through, but none of them are able to stop him despite all efforts. He also attracts the attention of a local blind, black DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) who has access to the police radio frequency and able to help Kowalski with his goal.

Richard C. Sarafain’s direction and John Alonzo’s cinematography are the real winners here. In fact my favorite scenes from this film are the long distance shots capturing the car driving along the lonely highways to the backdrop of the stunning western skies and its rugged, sandy landscape. This is a movie that will appeal to one’s emotional senses and bypass the need for logic. Certain things aren’t fully explained particularly Kowalski’s past, but the fact that it isn’t makes it more enjoyable. It’s the connection with his need for speed, escape and non-conformity that attracts us and it’s the adrenaline that propels the movie and viewer’s interest forward thus making this one of the quintessential road movies from its era or any other.

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Newman seems an unusual casting choice as he really doesn’t have the dynamic star power or all that many lines of dialogue. He is also clearly in his mid-30’s for a part that seems better suited for some renegade, long haired 20-year-old, but in some ways his presence makes the movie more intriguing and distinctive by showing middle-aged people can have a dormant desire to rebel as well and sometimes even more so.

Little is terrific in what is probably the best performance of his career even though it seemed highly improbable and even ridiculous for a black DJ playing soul tunes at a radio station located in a small, isolated town inhabited by conservative, white, racist people. Severn Darden is edgy as a traveling evangelist and Dean Jagger is appealing as an old-time snake hunter. On the flip side of the 20th Century Fox DVD you can see the extended U.K. release that features a brief scene with Charlotte Rampling as a hitch-hiker. This sequence was intended to be allegorical, but really isn’t that impressive even though Rampling is quite attractive with her hair highlighted with blonde streaks.

Spoiler Warning!

The ending, which features Kowalski intentionally driving into some bulldozers parked in the middle of the road, which kills him instantly in a ball of flames, has proved through the years to be quite controversial and filled with many interpretations. I found it to symbolize Kowalski’s ultimate need for escape as he realized that he could never achieve the true freedom that he wanted, so he decided in a way to become a martyr and take his chances in another world beyond this one. The wry smile seen on his face just before he does it signifies the ‘fuck you’ that he gives to the authorities who are convinced that they finally have him cornered but really don’t. It also connects to the death of the counter-culture movement who by that time had realized that their dream of a utopian society filled with complete individual freedom and outside of mainstream control was never going to happen.

End of Spoiler Warning!

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 15, 1971

Runtime:  1Hour 45Minutes (U.K. Version) 1Hour 39Minutes (U.S. Version)

Rated R

Director: Richard C. Sarafain

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

4 responses to “Vanishing Point (1971)

  1. One of the defining films of the 70s.

  2. “Till the light of life stops burning and another soul goes free.”

  3. Pingback: FM (1978) | Scopophilia

  4. This and Two-Lane Blacktop would make a great double bill.

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