Highway Star: VANISHING POINT (20th Century Fox, 1971)

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VANISHING POINT is one of the best films of the 1970s. Much more than just an extended car chase, the movie explores the eternal struggle between the individual and the system. Though a product of its time, it still resonates as an exploration of the rejection people have for the establishment and the desire for liberty.

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The film starts at the end, as we see the police setting up bulldozers to block the road. News media are arriving, people are gathering in the streets, and helicopters fly overhead. A white Dodge Challenger, driven by a man only known as Kowalski (Barry Newman), is heading straight for the dozers at full speed. He bangs a U-turn, only to have three cop cars coming at him in the other direction. After smashing through a barbed wire fence to avoid the cops, he stops for a moment near some junked cars, then turns back on the road and heads toward the bulldozers….

The movie then switches gears to two days previous. Kowalski drops off a car in Denver and decides to immediately take another one to San Francisco. He stops at a biker bar to cop some speed from his dealer. Telling the dealer he’s going to make it to Frisco by tomorrow at 3:00pm, they make a bet that Kowalski won’t make it. He cruises down the open road at breakneck speed, when two motorcycle cops tell him to pull over. Kowalski runs then both off the road and the chase is on. Blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little of BLAZING SADDLES) acts as his eyes and ears, guiding him past the police by monitoring their radio frequency. When some local yokels crash Super Soul’s station, beating up the DJ and his engineer (John Amos), Kowalski discovers he’s truly on his own, as police in three states try to hunt him down.

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We learn Kowalski’s background through a series of flashbacks. He’s a Vietnam veteran (and Medal of Honor winner) who became a cop. Discharged form the force on trumped up charges, he raced motocross and stock cars. His girlfriend (Victoria Medlin) died in a surfing accident, and Kowalski dropped out of society altogether, trying to outrun life itself by swallowing copious amounts of speed and delivering cars at a fast pace. He’s always on the move, restless, dissatisfied with the world as he knows it. Kowalski represents the last of the rugged individualists, a free spirit who’s decided to create his own world unencumbered by the restraints of establishment standards.

There are short vignettes through the picture highlighting Kowalski’s brief encounters with other humans. While driving through the desert to elude the cops, he gets a flat tire. A rattlesnake threatens him, but an old man (veteran actor Dean Jagger) appears and captures the snake, putting it in his basket with others. He’s also a societal dropout, trading the snakes for coffee and beans. The old timer helps Kowalski hide from police helicopters under some tumbleweeds, then takes him to some hippie “Jesus freaks” (led by character actor Severn Darden) to get some gas. The old man has what Kowalski longs for…total freedom from the world at large. But Kowalski always has to keep moving, unwilling to put roots down in one place.

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A biker named Angel (Timothy Scott) passes him on the highway, giving him the thumbs up. Kowalski is now a media sensation, thanks to Super Soul and the public’s hunger for sensationalism. Angel invites Kowalski to his shack and gives him more speed, when they hear Super Soul broadcasting the only way out is through Sonora. But the DJ’s voice sounds “mechanical, square” according to Angel’s completely nude (and uninhibited) girlfriend (Gilda Texter). Angel heads down the highway to check. Sure enough, there’s a roadblock waiting for Kowalski, so Angel devises a way for the Challenger to get through. Kowalski continues to the California border, as we see scenes of the ultra-efficient California Highway Patrol machine determined to stop him. The film circles back to the beginning now, as Kowalski heads towards the bulldozers. Putting the pedal to the metal, he rams head-on into them, going out his own way in a final, defiant blaze of glory.

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Director Richard C. Sarafian made some good movies (this one, MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING) and some clunkers (SUNBURN, STREET JUSTICE, SOLAR CRISIS). VANISHING POINT is his best, from a script by Guillermo Cain. The beautiful Western scenery was shot by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who cut his teeth on documentaries, then went on to lens Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA, HAROLD AND MAUDE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN (Osacr nominated), FAREWELL MY LOVELY, and SCARFACE. Editor Stefan Arnsten got his start with Hugo Haas (HIT AND RUN), then did mostly television; his film credits include HARPER and KID BLUE.

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The soundtrack features Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (who also appear as the Jesus freak’s hippie band), Mountain (doing their classic “Mississippi Queen”), Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Reed, Kim Carnes, and the Doug Dillard Expedition. VANSHING POINT was an influential film, inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. The movie’s iconic ending was paid tribute in the series finale of SONS OF ANARCHY. I first saw it at the drive-in, and wanted a Dodge Challenger bad (I still do)! And I still want that elusive freedom sought by Kowalski, still elusive to many in this uptighter than ever world.

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