Drivers’ Cinema: Vanishing Point
Simply put, director Richard Sarafian’s 1971 film Vanishing Point combines the sprawling landscapes and early-70’s counter-culture backdrop of Easy Rider with the car chase sequences of Bullitt and The French Connection.
Barry Newman plays Kowalski, an ex-cop and racing driver apparently missing a first name. Much of his past is an enigma, but we do learn that Kowalski was discharged from the police force after stopping his partner from raping a woman. But why Kowalski doesn’t have a first name is never revealed.
We do however know that everything in his past involved driving hard. And drive hard is exactly what Kowalski does when his friend bets him that he can’t deliver a Dodge Challenger across the Western states, from Colorado to California, by the next day. Eager to win the bet, Kowalski refuses to stop when flagged down by a motorcycle patrolman, and a chase grows through the rest of the film.
Sarafian chooses to tell the story of his counter culture hero Kowalski in a visual style, leaving dialogue and plot to the background. This film contains little character development with several characters being introduced, then forgotten, and never mentioned again. Frankly, it’s all about the car, a memorable and magnificent white Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum that spends most of the film flying over roads and seemingly defying the laws of gravity.
The ethos of the film is put your foot down and go, except for a couple of scenes (this is where character and plot come back in) where Kowalski carries on a conversation with a blind disk jockey, Super Soul, played by Cleavon Little. Super Soul listens to the police radio scanner and encourages Kowalski to continue evading the police. He seems to understand Kowalski and can somehow ‘see’ and ‘hear’ Kowalski’s reactions, almost telepathically. With Super Soul’s help, Kowalski gains the interest of the larger news media. As a result, people begin to gather at Super Soul’s radio station to offer their support. Kowalski becomes a cause célèbre, and is dubbed “the last American hero” by Super Soul.
Vanishing Point does have a lot of moving parts. There’s the blind DJ, an eccentric old man wandering the desert, gay highway robbers, a naked motorcycle girl, and even a Christian snake-handling cult. While these characters aren’t always defined very well, they represent the period during which the film was shot, a time of great change.
It’s difficult to speak about the ending of Vanishing Point without giving it away, so if you’ve never seen it, go see it and then read on. Otherwise, stop now. If you have seen it, then you know that police set up a roadblock with two bulldozers in the small town of Cisco Grove, California that Kowalski has to pass through. As Kowalski approaches at high speed, he smiles as he crashes into the bulldozers in a fiery explosion, committing suicide. His supporters disperse quietly as firemen work to put out the blaze that engulfed the Dodge. I believe that in Kowalski’s mind driving represented freedom. He drove because that’s what he did and the fact that the cops were trying to stop Kowalski from driving meant that he was losing his liberty. Taking his life was the ultimate freedom and protest.
Vanishing Point can be enjoyed on a couple of different levels: First, it’s a movie that is a rolling social commentary on the post-Woodstock mood in the United States. Second, it’s a ripping good car chase movie. Flawed for sure but enjoyable. I wonder if Kowalski ever reached the elusive ‘vanishing point’ of the film’s title, an optical illusion—when driving on a long, straight, flat stretch of road there is a point on the horizon where the two sides of the road seem to connect, no matter how long you drive, you never reach it.
Click here to buy the DVD on Amazon.
Click here to search for posters on Ebay.