Vanishing Point (1971) Directed by Richard C. Sarafian. With Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger, Robert Donner, Lee Weaver, Victoria Medlin.
Ever since Terrence Malick’s Badlands, I’ve been a huge fan of road movies. In 1991, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise was a fresh breath of wide open country air, shedding light on a different kind of American dream. One which shrugs off the trappings of everyday life and embraces a side of Americana you have go out and discover for yourself. Road movies are often a struggle for freedom. With stunning scenery, a killer soundtrack and a reliable set of wheels, they can represent a direct escape from the self-imposed oppression of being stuck in a repetitive cycle of life. The world is the ultimate film set – a backdrop character that tells an underlying narrative all of its own.
Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point has all of these qualities. You can smell the burning rubber and taste the dust as Barry Newman’s Kowalski attempts to race his 1970 Dodge Charger from Colorado to San Fransisco (1,230miles approx). There isn’t much in the way of a plot, but there doesn’t need to be. Above anything else, this is an experience. We’re in the passenger seat for a ride with “Super driver of the Golden West” as eloquently put by Cleavon Little’s radio DJ, Super Soul.
This is a film that speaks without speaking, for the most part. Much of the dialogue belongs to Cleavon Little, who semi-narrates the journey from his radio station in his own inimitable style. The real talking is done by the sights and sounds. The raw aggression of the engines. The screeching of tyres on the road. The soulful soundtrack (Bobby Doyle, Jimmy Walker, Delaney & Bonnie) that makes you want to jump in a car and just drive somewhere. Anywhere.
As impressive as the scenery is, so are the collection of chases and thrills on offer. Throughout his journey, Kowalski is pursued by the authorities across varying terrain of road and desert. The stunt driving is a sight to behold as cars skid, flip and roll wildly out of control. This is the real fast and the furious. The people he encounters showcase the good, bad and ugly side of humanity. The subtext of the film is alive with a criss-cross of attitudes from people from all walks of life; peace loving travellers, religious cults, criminal hitch-hikers, a snake catcher and of course, the police – “blue, blue meanies on wheels” – as Cleavon Little calls them. Through all of this, Kowalski remains sturdy. He wears an invisible bullet-proof layer that makes him immune to the madness of the world around him. He’s not interested. He just wants to drive.
Vanishing Point can easily be seen as Easy Rider’s younger cousin. The ride is basically the same, but the experience here is more thrilling. Through its no-frills central character, it has a very loose quality that enables it tell a story with pictures and sound. Get your motor running. 4/5