20th Century Fox
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Produced by Norman Spencer
Story By Malcolm Hart
Screenplay by Guillermo Cain
VANISHING POINT holds a unique place in movie history: it may be the only existential car chase movie ever made. I’ve seen this movie maybe three or four times and while it is undoubtedly an interesting movie and one worth watching it’s that type of movie where at the end you sit there and wonder just what the point of the movie was.
Or does it have a point? Should it even have a point? Maybe having a point is irrelevant to what the filmmakers were trying to say. Or maybe, like Oblio in the classic 1971 animated film “The Point” it’s supposed to teach us that we don’t have to have a point to have a point. VANISHING POINT was made back in the 70’s, which was a good time for movies in terms of movies being made that were experimental in nature. Today we would call this an independent movie but back then this was considered standard movie fare. It’s a movie that doesn’t spell out everything for you or beat you over the head with explaining every little thing the characters do or say. The story’s not dumbed down or panders to a demographic. It’s a strange story with a baffling lead character and even more baffling supporting characters but it does have one of the best movie cars in history: a supercharged 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that should be considered Barry Newman’s co-star.
Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a professional driver who transports cars from one place to another. He delivers a car in Denver and insists that he needs to get to San Francisco as soon as possible. The Dodge Challenger has to go to San Francisco and despite the fact that he’s had little sleep, Kowalski takes the car. To help him stay awake Kowalski looks up drug dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) and scores a whole bunch of speed. For reasons that are still not clear to me, Kowalski makes Jake a bet that he can drive from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. Now this means that Kowalski is going to have to do at least 85-90 miles an hour the whole way. He naturally attracts the attention of the police who take exception to his driving so damn fast and it’s not long before Kowalski is the target of the state troopers of several states who chase after him in cars and helicopters trying to get him to stop. But Kowalski refuses to stop for anything or anyone.
Kowalski runs into a series of notable characters along the way, outcasts like himself who live on the fringe of society, existing on the edge. Dean Jagger plays an eccentric old timer who lives out in the desert and catches poisonous snakes to trade to a traveling old time Christian revival show led by Severn Darden. A pair of psychotic homosexual hitchhikers try to rob him. He stops at a shack by the side of the road to score more speed from a biker and has a revealing conversation about his past with the biker’s girlfriend, a beautiful blond girl who likes to ride her motorcycle in the nude. And the strangest of these characters is Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind black DJ running an R&B/Soul radio station in an isolated redneck town. Super Soul listens to the police reports of this wildass driver who is evading every trap the police set up for him and Super Soul starts hailing Kowalski as “The Last American Hero” and brings the chase to national attention.
What makes the Super Soul character stand out is that during the course of the movie, he and Kowalski somehow establish a psychic bond that enables Super Soul to help Kowalski avoid the police traps that have been sent for him. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what happens. Like so much else in VANISHING POINT nothing is explained and it’s left up to you to bring your own interpretation of what is going on to the table.
Barry Newman is very good as Kowalski. He knows that in a movie like this, the less he says, the better. Through the use of flashbacks we see Kowalski’s past as a war hero, professional race car driver and police officer. He apparently sees himself as a failure in everything he’s done and that’s what influences his decision at the end of the movie. Or maybe not. Maybe he was just really hopped up on the speed. Who knows? Cleavon Little is wonderfully manic as Super Soul although you have to wonder just what the hell such a hip black guy who obviously would be more at home in New York or Los Angeles is doing in a redneck town way the hell out in the desert. If you look close you’ll recognize John Amos (James Evans from “Good Times”) as Super Soul’s engineer. The rest of the performances are nothing to brag about but they are quirky and intriguing.
So should you see VANISHING POINT? You should if you want to see a car chase movie that depends more on character and oddball performances than crashes and stunts. For that, I’d recommend you see “Smokey And The Bandit” (which is the “Citizen Kane” of car chase movies) or “Cannonball Run”. It’s a very engaging and somewhat surrealistic movie and I can’t explain why it has such a hold on me but it does and that’s enough. The best thing I suppose I can say about it is this: if a bunch of philosophers/existentialists got together and decided to make their version of what they think a car chase movie should be they’d probably come up with something very close to VANISHING POINT.
P.S.: This movie was remade as a Fox Made-For-TV movie starring Viggo Mortensen in 1997 and that version should be avoided as you would avoid Ebola. Trust me. I’ve seen it.