Vanishing Point is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point is quite possibly the ultimate road movie, as it incorporates every single thematic and stylistic convention that characterises the genre. Made in 1971, during the dawn of disillusionment that would define the United States during the 70s – the film perfectly captures and reflects the popular counter-culture lifestyle of its time.
The plot of Vanishing Point is actually among the simplest in cinema history. Car delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) bets his dealer that he will deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco in less than two days. After eluding two police officers who have been after him for speeding, the film turns into a feature-length car chase, accompanied by some iconic music of the time. The pursuit is intertwined with flashbacks and the police reading of Kowalski’s record to familiarise us with his past. We learn that not only is he a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran, former racecar driver and motorcycle racer, but also a former police officer.
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A popular reading of the narrative is that Kowalski’s journey represented the rapid changes in America’s social decay and disillusionment. For example, he travels through several states and encounters various people while insisting on his freedom against the “establishment” until the last second. The picture the ride paints is incredibly pessimistic. Drugs are easy to access and almost essential to living your life; people are primarily unfriendly and only looking out for their selfish interests, racism is everywhere, and the police are amoral. The stability of the picture-perfect 1950-60s middle-class American life is shattered to pieces in front of our eyes. Let alone the fact that Kowalski, a former police officer and war veteran, seems unable to find his place in the world and makes a living on temporary jobs with no real purpose or goal.
The film is often considered a great example of existentialism as it is apparent early on that Kowalski and the road travelled are just an allegory for the journey through life. There is no real reason for him to deliver the car to San Francisco apart from the bet that would make his latest amphetamine purchase free of charge. He just drives for driving’s sake with no real purpose. His life and journey are not defined by his actions but rather by his complete freedom over them. He becomes a martyr for liberty as the pursuit is broadcast live on the radio by a blind DJ called SuperSoul (Cleavon Little). SuperSoul keeps encouraging Kowalski to elude the police while calling him the “last American hero”, with the two forming an inexplicable bond where the DJ seems to understand Kowalski’s reactions. In a way, SuperSoul simultaneously becomes the narrator of the events and Kowalski’s conscience.
Vanishing Point is a product of its time, an action-thriller wrapped in a more serious portrayal of the societal problems in America with discussions on counter-culture and anti-establishment beliefs. It successfully stands its ground next to such classics as Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, Bob Rafaelson’s Five Easy Pieces and Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. But at moments, it surpasses these with its incredible stunts and overall oozing coolness.