Monday, January 27, 2020

Vanishing Point: A High Speed Road to Destiny

Barry Newman in Vanishing Point.
Rural car chase movies were a staple at drive-in theaters in the 1970s, where you could view Grand Theft Auto, Eat My Dust, and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. The most famous of these films is arguably Vanishing Point, which was released in 1971. Unlike the aforementioned "B" pictures, Vanishing Point was made by a major studio, 20th Century-Fox, and boasted a budget of $1.3 million. It was not intended to be a "drive-in flick," but that's where it found its greatest fame.

Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a car delivery driver tasked with taking a super-charged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. Kowalski bets a friend he can complete the one-way 1250-mile trip in 15.5 hours. By the time he reaches Nevada, his frequent encounters with the highway patrol have gained statewide police interest.

The Dodge Challenger as a high-speed blur on the highway.
Concurrently, his story has attracted media attention thanks to the efforts of Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind African American disc jockey. He learns about Kowalski's exploits by monitoring the police band. Super Soul transforms the driver into "the last American hero, the super driver of the Golden West." He also "talks" with Kowalski on live radio, offering encouragement and useful police information.

Newman and Dean Jagger.
As the drama unfolds, the viewer gets glimpses of Kowalski's past though flashbacks, newspaper headlines, and police reports. He was a Medal of Honor winner who served in Vietnam. He worked as a police officer, but fought corruption and was dishonorably discharged. A woman who loved him died in a surfing accident (though it may have been suicide). As he speeds down desert highways, he encounters an old hermit (Dean Jagger), two hippies, and a girl at a gas station. He treats them all with respect and kindness.

Yet, this is literally all we know about the protagonist of Vanishing Point. Even though he's on screen for almost the entire running time, Kowalski remains an enigma. His motive for defying the police (or the Establishment) is never clear. And as he becomes more and more defiant, it becomes obvious to him--and the audience--that his journey cannot end well. In hindsight, Kowalski is the ultimate post-Vietnam 1970s anti-hero. (It's too bad that he takes amphetamines to combat fatigue, since one could argue that the drugs impact his final decision.)

Cleavon Little as Super Soul.
Barry Newman projects the required "cool factor" as Kowalski, but the part doesn't require a lot of acting. In the only other major role, Cleavon Little is electrifying as Super Soul, whose desire to transform Kowalski into an American hero contrasts with his nondescript life in a small, racially-divided Southwestern town.

Of course, the film's most famous "actor" is the white Dodge Challenger, which zips across the highways and desert landscapes at high-octane speeds. On the DVD commentary track, director Richard Sarafian reveals that the crew "burned up about eight of the Challengers" during the shoot. In 2011, a Pennsylvania Dodge dealer worked with the company to produce ten Kowalski Editions of the famous white muscle car.

Some fun facts:
  • The Vanishing Point soundtrack has also gained fame over the years. The film includes an appearance by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (which include Rita Coolidge). Kim Carnes, who would later gain fame as a singer ("Bette Davis Eyes") wrote two songs for the soundtrack.
  • A scene with Charlotte Rampling as a hitch-hiker was cut from the U.S. release.
  • Viggo Mortensen played Kowalski in a 1997 made-for-TV remake.
Here's a clip from Vanishing Point from our YouTube Channel:


  1. Eight Challengers?! You know, I always forget how many cars are needed to make a film, especially one with a lot of fast driving. This kind of flick ain't normally my thing, but it sounds like there are enough interesting facets to make it worthwhile. Thanks!

    1. Yes, the director said the script the Challenger to do things that Challengers just weren't made to do!