Movie Reviews 265 – Vanishing Point (1971)

Vanishing Point

The birth of the counterculture in the late sixties and early seventies gave rise to a public that was more liberal, vocal, rebellious and demanding in daily life and those demands transcended onto the silver screen. The changes brought about included relaxed sexual attitudes, open use of drugs, defiance against authority and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for over the top action. The result was a subgenre of unbridled movies featuring car chases, nudity, violence, anti-war propaganda  and blaxploitation. All those elements and sub genres can be found in the cult classic Vanishing Point in which a mourning and spent Vietnam vet, ex-cop,ex-stunt driver reaches a breaking point.

Hired long distance driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) gets a job to deliver a souped up Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. As soon as he gets the car he inexplicably self imposes a 2 day delivery time despite the long distance. Right from the outset Kowalski definitely races ahead of law enforcement attempts to stop him, first for minor speed infractions, then mounting offences as liabilities (and cars, and motorcycles) start to pile up.

His journey through picturesque mountains and sterile desert is punctuated with painful flashback memories of his past as a cop and racer as well as reflective moments with his former love who died five years earlier in a surfing mishap. When a small time blind radio DJ, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), listens in on police radio and hears about the ongoing chase, he takes up Kowalski’s cause and broadcasts encouragement, advice and spiritual guidance. While he obviously cannot receive any feedback from Kowalski himself, he appears to have a near psychic rapport the protagonist.

Along his route Kowalski has brief encounters with an desert worn snake catcher (Dean Jagger), a prophesying group of melodic hippies and a nomadic couple in which the woman rides walks about and rides a motorbike in the nude. All heady stuff.

Escaping one fuzz trap after another as he crosses state lines, each new jurisdiction vowing confidently that “we’ll git him”, Kowalski is eventually corralled as he nears a small town where two bulldozers are positioned side by side to block his last escape route. A fine slit of space between the blades imposes a decision that will determine Kowalski’s ultimate fate.

The symbolic White Knight in the guise of Kowalski’s 1970 Challenger propel Kowalski as fights his inner demons on the rubber slicked road to freedom. The mechanical mayhem is bestowed with a funkadelic soundtrack blending in with roaring mufflers and street squeals as the muscle cars are pushed to their extreme limits.

I have to admit that the praise I’ve heard over the years did not entirely fulfill my built up expectations. But the succinct dialog reminds one that this is really actually a reflective film. It just happens to be conveyed in one glorified chase. Watch for an uncredited John Amos to complete your 70’s flashback experience.


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