VANISHING POINT (Richard C. Sarafian, 1971)

by Paul Rowlands

Barry Newman, Charlotte Rampling (UK Version only), Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter, Anthony James, Arthur Malet, Karl Swenson, Severn Darden, John Amos. 99 minutes. (UK Version: 106 minutes.) point
n. 1. the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to converge.
2. [in sing.] the point at which something that has been growing smaller or increasingly faint disappears altogether: custody fees have dropped close to the vanishing point. (From The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009. )

'The last beautiful free soul on this planet'. 'Super Soul' (Cleavon Little), VANISHING POINT.

'The best way, to my knowledge, to get away is to root right in where you are'. Snake wrangler (Dean Jagger) to Kowalski (Barry Newman) in VANISHING POINT.

VANISHING POINT is an existential, amphetamine-fuelled road movie/ chase movie with a disenchanted, morbid mindset. Despite being very much an early '70s movie, it's a film that has continued for generations to speak to those with an interest in existentialism, fast cars, the fallout of '60s idealism and erm, dope. it's one of the all-time great cult films.

Barry Newman (FEAR IS THE KEY, 1972) stars as Kowalski. Through flashbacks we learn that he was a decorated Vietnam veteran, whose life started to freefall after being busted out of the police force (he was a twice promoted Detective) for ratting on a partner with a penchant for sexually abusing women. (The partner is played by Cassavetes regular Val Avery.) He then became a demolition derby driver and a motorcycle racer, giving up after two accidents. After his girlfriend (Victoria Medlin) dies in a surfing accident, he turns his back on society and develops an obsession with dying.

Kowalski becomes a car delivery driver, a job which suits his adrenaline junkie personality. He often takes 'speed' to keep him going and so he can meet his deadlines. He accepts a job in Denver to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger to San Francisco, and we eventually learn that although he has a large window to deliver the car, he has set himself an impossible deadline, ensuring that the police will be on his tail across three states. He is helped in his efforts to elude the police by 'Super Soul' (Cleavon Little), a blind black DJ who gives him information over his radio show. (We learn of Kowalski's 'deathwish' in the opening chase scene from the climax, where he drives towards a police road block. it turns out that this is actually the last scene of the movie.)

VANISHING POINT is a lament for the dying embers of the counterculture movement, as now the characters one meets on the road are hostile (the gay hitchhiking couple who try to steal his car) or selfish and cynical (Severn Darden's 'Reverend'). To find good people (Dean Jagger's snake wrangler old timer, Timothy Scott's generous and good-hearted hippy, Gilda Texter's nude motorcycle rider), one has to literally look in the desert, away from civilization. Such people have either been pushed out of mainstream society or rejected it. (A pre-climax scene featuring Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker who connects with Kowalski and gives him marijuana feels like a narcotic hallucination. The scene only appears in UK prints because the studio felt audiences would find it confusing.)

It's also a chase movie, a genre that reached it's commercial apex with SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT six years later. The open road signifies freedom of spirit and the power of imagination. And the irresistible lure of hauling ass. To Americans, with their long highways, mountain ranges and panoramic vistas (captured beautifully in this film by cinematographer John A. Alonzo), it has an extra special pull. Since EASY RIDER (1969) the open road was perfect in every way but one: hauling ass or just being on the road meant cops would be on your tail, or hostile 'natives'.

The film isn't subtle (or sophisticated) in what it's trying to say. The flashbacks make it crystal clear that Kowalski is meant to represent The Man who turned his back on The System but has now realised that The System is never going to go away and always prevails. He was a soldier, decorated for bravery, and a twice promoted cop. But The System protects it's own and exploits the innocent, and it rejected and outcasted him when he tried to stand up for what is right. After nearly dying in two accidents and losing the woman he loves (a woman who enjoys marijuana and whom as a cop he really should stay clear of), he is ready to give up on living. Despite it's status as an action or chase film, VANISHING POINT is quite a sad film. It's message is that the '60s is over, and the dream is dead. Dean Jagger's old timer tells him that the best way to survive is 'to root right in where you are' (he's talking about hiding from the police in the desert but it's obviously supposed to work on two levels, like a lot of the dialogue) or to live in your head. But it's too late for Kowalski. The desert is simply a resting place before he makes his final charge towards death (interrupted again by his brief dalliance with Rampling in the UK version).

VANISHING POINT is an interesting companion piece to TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, and one could easily surmise that either one could have influenced the other, had they not been released four months apart in the US. (VANISHING POINT came out in March, TWO-LANE in July.) Their similarities merely indicate that during the few years that followed EASY RIDER, there was something in the air (discontent, sadness, disillusionment) that translated to the films being made. 1971 is a watershed year in film history: these two films and others like ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, DIRTY HARRY, STRAW DOGS, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE FRENCH CONNECTION show that the '60s dream of a freer, uninhibited society has failed, to be replaced with hostility, lawlessness, violence, alienation, the reality of drug addiction, and the development of narcotics as a lucrative trade.

Both VANISHING POINT and TWO-LANE are existentialist road movies, concerning characters obsessed with perfection and in love with constant motion. Both have characters who love to test themselves by racing the clock across the highways of the country. And both share apocalyptic endings (although the fate of James Taylor's Driver is ambiguous). One has to admit that TWO-LANE is the deeper and more resonant film, and VANISHING POINT at times is close to being laughable. The oddball characters can be homophobically presented (the camp gay hitchhikers), a little unbelievable (the nude female motorcyclist) and excessive (Cleavon Little's blind black DJ, who is prone to making statements like Kowalski being 'the last beautiful free soul on this planet'). The flashbacks that represent Kowalski's memories of his time with his pot-smoking surfer gal (Victoria Medlin) are embarassingly trite with over-laden strings and soft-focus photography. (And her death is more funny than tragic, the way it is randomly presented.) The film overdoes it's attempts to make Kowalski a figure with deep meaning. His backstory is so obviously stacked up to make him a mythic figure that he's not a believable character. He's not someone anyone could relate to. Whereas TWO-LANE was at it's best in it's quiet moments, VANISHING POINT is at it's best when the film is moving: the beautiful scenery, the cops giving endless chase, the the effervescent gospel/ funk/ soul/ folk soundtrack, and Cleavon Little's enjoyably exuberant performance. It has a very real sadness in it's heart, and although an artistic flourish like the nude motorcycle rider may seem unbelievable and self-indulgent, it's also memorable and resonant. Kowalski (and the film) obviously see her spirit and non-conformity as something that represents a bygone past (hence her exiling into the desert). The society that he is running from would respond to her by exploiting her. VANISHING POINT may not seem very real at times, but it's coming from a very real place and it's one of the reasons it has managed to hold up across the years.

The film's climax is beautifully ambiguous. Is Kowalski consciously committing suicide by driving into the roadblock with a smile on his face? Or is that little shaft of sunlight between the two bulldozers meant to represent a hole he was convinced he could get through? My own interpretation is that Kowalski wasn't trying to kill himself. He no longer cared about living and saw death as merely another step in his existence. The shaft of light was a hole that would either prolong his life on his earth or take him to his next life. (It's also worth noting that Kowalski was full of amphetamines at this point!) Newman believes that Kowalski thought he could make it through, whereas director Richard C. Sarafian (whose career highpoint this was) supports my interpretation.Perhaps Kowalski's final act represents him following the snake wrangler's advice to 'root right in where you are'. When he dies, his spirit has not been broken by The Man (represented by the police) because he is living in his own head and being true to himself. He is fully prepared to accept the consequences of his actions.

VANISHING POINT's cult was revived in 1997 when Scottish alt rock act Primal Scream released their album of the same name. Frontman Bobby Gillespie described it as 'an anarcho-syndicalist speedfreak road movie record', and explained that 'The music in the film is hippy music, so we thought, 'Why not record some music that really reflects the mood of the film?' It's always been a favourite of the band, we love the air of paranoia and speed- freak righteousness. It's impossible to get hold of now, which is great! It's a pure underground film, rammed with claustrophobia.' (Four years later, the track 'Breakdown' by Guns n Roses, from 'Use Your Illusion II', sampled a line from the movie featuring Cleavon Little.) The same year also saw the release of a TV movie remake starring Viggo Mortensen that effectively stripped away what made the film so interesting. The star of the original film, Barry Newman, found himself being sought out by Steven Soderbergh for an important supporting role in his late-60s/ early 70s homage thriller THE LIMEY (1999).

In 1994 the Keanu Reeves action movie SPEED (coincidentally also the name of Kowalski's drug of choice in VANISHING POINT) was released. What made the film chiefly so enjoyable was the purity of it's premise, which ensured that the film needed to keep moving. It reflected the purity of 'speed', the thrill of constantly moving at a high speed. It was VANISHING POINT without the existentialism, morbidity and amphetamines in it's veins. In 2007, Quentin Tarantino (a fan of the movie) featured the same 1970 white supercharged Dodge Challenger in the second half of DEATH PROOF and had characters namecheck the title of the film. VANISHING POINT's status as an essential cult film was cemented right there and then.

A groovy soundtrack, beautiful photography, oddball characters. An ambiguous, apocalyptic ending. A sad, morbid snapshot of the end of an idealistic era. The thrill of high speed and constant motion. Root right in where you are and check out one of the most entertaining, memorable cult films ever made. Amphetamines optional.

NB. Richard C. Sarafian originally wanted a pre-FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) Gene Hackman for Kowalski, but the studio (Fox) insisted upon Barry Newman. Kowalski was based on twpo separate true stories: a disgraced police officer, and a high speed pursuit that ended with the death of the man being pursued when he drove into a roadblock. The character of 'Super Soul' was originally named 'Super Spic' and was based on exuberant DJ 'The Big Bopper', who died in the same plane crash that claimed the life of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Guillermo Cain (co-writer of the film alongside an uncredited Barry Hall, working from an outline from Malcolm Hart is a pseudonym for Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. He also wrote WONDERWALL (1968), the film that provided the title for Oasis's 1995 hit single. The film was scored by George Harrison. The band that appears in the film is Delaney, Bonnie and Friends, and Rita Coolidge (ex-wife of Kris Kristofferson) can be seen as one of it's members.

AVAILABILITY: The R1 DVD and Region A Bluray feature both versions of the film, and an audio commentary by Sarafian (plus the trailer and TV spots). The R2 DVD release is barebones and only includes the US version (ironically!).


'Cult Movies 2' by Danny Peary, Dell, 1983. (Review of the film.)
'Vanishing Point': Audio commentary on the Region 1 DVD/ Region A Bluray.
'Vanishing Point': Wikipedia entry. Read it here:

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. Paul writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. An aspiring novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, he has until now mainly written about film for his own pleasure, various blogs and for so far unpublished projects.

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