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USA 1971
Directed by
Richard C. Sarafian
99 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Vanishing Point

Whether or not director Richard C. Sarafian intended it so (and it is hard to tell as his directorial vision is so equivocal) Vanishing Point comes across as an anti-establishmentarian exploitation movie heavily indebted to Easy Rider (1969).

Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a guy who long-hauls cars to their destination. Having delivered one car to Denver he collects a super-charged Dodge Challenger and undertakes to deliver it to San Fransisco (approximately 1300 miles) in two days' times. Hopped up on bennies when the Denver highway patrol try to pull him over he refuses to stop and so begins a high speed chase across three states.

Vanishing Point had at one time considerable cult status and one can understand that in the spirit of the times the glorification of a gratuitous act of rebellion would have appealed to audiences. Indeed, according to Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind black DJ who rather improbably operates out of a Nevada dust-bowl town playing gospel and soul music Kowalski is "the last American hero for whom speed means freedom of the soul".  It is a large claim but the substitution of the car for the stallion of myth pretty much justifies itself.

Whilst most of the film is given over to depicting Kowalski’s journey some attempt is made to explain the motive for his action in the form of short flashbacks (he himself offers nothing in this respect). Thus we find out that he is a Vietnam vet (‘nuff said). that he got kicked off the police force because he wouldn’t condone their stand-over techniques, and that his wife drowned. In other words he just couldn’t give a damn anymore.

With the bushy-haired and sideburned Newman looking like a someone who might be cast in a Chivas Regal or Old Spice ad of the times (Gene Hackman was originally slated for the role) and Sarafian taking the opportunity to work in, dope-smoking, a couple of topless blondes (and late in proceeding we get a completely naked blonde on a trail bike), dudes on choppers, a travelling medicine show with Delaney, Bonnie And Friends performing in the middle of the Nevada desert this doesn’t in anyway stick dramatically.

One half-expects some kind of turn-around that will demonstrate the director’s self-awareness but it never comes and whether Vanishing Point is simply ham-fisted in its attempts at being cool (Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop released the same year did something similar much more successfully) or a cynical attempt to exploit every hippie cliché available is hard to say. 

Although the balance of the evidence suggests the former with the use of the arid and empty landscape for the excellent chase photography by D.O.P. John A. Alonzo being impressive, if Vanishing Point has any cult appeal these days it is probably more because of its gaucheness (include here a gauzy flashback to Kowalski's wife's drowning and a scene in which he picks up a couple of queer carjackers) more than its successes. For such audiences that is not, however, necessarily a bad thing.

FYI:  Charlotte Rampling appears in a small role as a super-cool hippie hitchhiker but her scenes were deleted before the US release and she only appears in the UK release.




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