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Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point
Fox Home Entertainment
1971 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 98 105 min. / Street Date February 3, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Victoria Medlin, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter, Anthony James, Karl Swenson, Severn Darden, Charlotte Rampling, John Amos
Cinematography John A. Alonzo
Film Editor Stefan Arnsten
Original Music Jimmy Bowen
Written by Guillermo Cain (G. Cabrera Infante) from a story by Malcolm Hart
Produced by Michael Pearson, Norman Spencer
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Vroom! Vroom! Vanishing Point has many a loyal fan - excited devotees jumped to buy earlier releases on laserdisc, no matter how bad they were. This Fox disc is excellent for quality, with a stereo remix and an added, longer English version.

But it's still a silly, pretentious movie, one of the many faux-ethereal "mind blowers" of its time that aspired to importance through a combination of incoherence and pandering commercialism. To many, it's the perfect combo of elements: antisocial hero, road-racing mania, rock music. It's dated theme is a vague grudge against that universal foe, The Establishment.


Pill-popping car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) shuttles back and forth between San Francisco and Denver without as much as a break for fast nap. With a handful of uppers from his dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) he starts out for the coast with the Colorado, Utah, and Nevada highway patrols in hot pursuit. But he avoids them all, thanks to the help of an old prospector (Dean Jagger), a hippie biker and his nude girlfriend (Timothy Scott and Gilda Texter) and especially the broadcast urgings of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind DeeJay.

It's almost as if Richard Sarafian and Guillermo Cain were challenged to come up with a surefire counterculture hit that could strike gold the way Easy Rider had. Vanishing Point is a road movie, mostly action and light on the dialogue. It's about a pointless road race against a clock, using a surreal tone to nullify every incongruity and cliché. Kowalski is addicted to two kinds of speed, and perhaps the warped plotline can be justified as being partly from his distorted point of view. Women appear like visions out of the desert. A gas station attendant is just like (or is) the girl he rescued from being raped by his partner when he used to be a cop. Another female conjures up visions of the surfer girl (cue romantic flashbacks) he lost to the deep blue see (cue lonely surfboard washing ashore). A final vision, seen only in the English vision, is a sultry hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling) who seems to be a personal hallucination.

Kowalski no longer has any values, you see. They've been stripped away by Vietnam, the corrupt LAPD, and his rotten luck with love. He doesn't sleep anymore but instead throws himself into his work like a Joe Paycheck gone wild, oblivious to the world around him.

This leads to the reels and reels of car chase footage. It's the real content of the film, and is expertly shot. It's somewhat credible - this is before ridiculous Dukes of Hazzard-style stunts. But the kind of punishment Kowalski metes out to his white Dodge Challenger is still more than enough to ruin it. He's supposed to be delivering the new car to a customer in another state, but he ruins it several times over. 1

Sorry to get moral all over the place (I'll clean it up later), but even when Savant was a 19 year-old longhair, Vanishing Point was just all wrong. Kowalski uses his car as a deadly weapon and tries to kill pursuing cops in cars and motorcycles. He causes and abets several potentially deadly accidents. At one point the cops say he's only wanted for misdemeanors, which is laughable after all the mayhem. The deadly trap laid for him by the California Highway fuzz is more than justified.

Of course, Kowalski's death wish is so fashionably acute, they needn't have gone to the trouble. He rushes eagerly to his doom. He's set up as a mythological hero, stopping to pose against the rising sun. He's lauded, serenaded and extolled by his personal cheering section on the radio (a wonderfully frantic Cleavon Little). Women throw themselves at him, even a nude dirt bike rider who comes on like a desert nymph. What we really have here is an attractive, imbecilic fantasy for young males who daydream that freedom is outracing the police in fast cars and being pursued by exotic women. 2

Shot in long takes free of editing or effects manipulation, the mad highway chases were the best yet in 1971. A road-film subgenre of exploitation films involving violence and cars sprang up, and through the 70s we were inundated with basically inane pictures like Crazy Mary, Dirty Larry, Gone in 60 Seconds and Death Race 2000. Burt Reynolds petered away his mid-career promise in a series of chase films. At least Vanishing Point is near the start of a questionable pack, and not an imitator.

The cast isn't particularly convincing. TV star Barry Newman just looks vacant and blank, which is as good a way as any to play this non-character. Dean Jagger's desert dog is a nod to loner individualism, perhaps representing Kowalski's future if he were to knuckle under and play possum to The Establishment. Severn Darden seemed to be in every counterculture film ever made, and here he has a short bit as a hucksterish preacher called J. Hovah (big joke). Delaney & Bonnie & Friends play his gospel music group, with Rita Coolidge (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) prominent among the singers. Karl Swenson is an unlikely mechanic, and cadaverous Anthony James (In the Heat of the Night) a perverted hitchhiker. Timothy Scott (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid) is Kowalski's hippie friend who recons the trap set for him by the cops.

Fox's DVD of Vanishing Point has assembled a package that will please this car-crazy fantasy's many fans. Side B of the double-sided disc has at least one new scene not used for the U.S. release, the one with Charlotte Rampling that everyone's heard of but never seen before. It's not good, but that won't matter. Director Richard C. Sarafian's rambling but nostalgic commentary idolizes the late cameraman John Alonzo, who he feels is responsible for giving the picture it's superior visual style. He describes a cheap production by a devoted crew, and only once or twice lets down his guard, almost admitting that it's a commercial trifle. But he has interesting things to say all the way through even if he doesn't even hint at what it's all supposed to mean. Everytime he goes in that direction, he becomes as vague as the movie itself.

A trailer and a TV spot are offered as well.

Vanishing Point is a lot of hyped-up, irresponsible, faux-arty fun. It was tentatively considered deep for a short time when new (I remember the UCLA Bruin review comparing its time-structure and open-endedness to 2001) but was never competition for the really intriguing road picture of '71, Two Lane Blacktop.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Vanishing Point rates:
Movie: Good - or Fair +, but Excellent if you're a chase film nut.
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Richard C. Sarafian commentary; 2nd longer U.K version on 2nd side of flipper disc.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 19, 2004


1. In his commentary, Sarafian acknowledges that the car could never stand up to the off-road punishment it receives. The shoot wrecked seven of them.

2. I suppose that's better than modern video-game daydreams - young boys now surely fantasize about killing hundreds of people with guns or light sabers or Matrix super-powers, as much as they do about sex.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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