Retrospective: Vanishing Point (1971)

This is not a movie I was expecting to like so it’s nice to be surprised. This is a classic film probably best remembered for the car – a white Dodge Challenger. It’s got that iconic shot of one character nude and on a motorbike, and it’s considered to be part of the hippy counter culture, a car version of Easy Rider with the same sort of depressing ending. It’s a rather nihilist movie with a character who is constantly on the move.

The film is interesting as it doesn’t have an idealised view of California which is common with other movies from the same period. California is where the Kowalski’s (Barry Newman) road actually ends. His motivations seem very simple – drive fast, just because he can. Kowalski is a delivery driver who makes a bet with his drug dealer that he can get to California at Saturday 3:00, from late Friday in Denver. That is his only motivation, simply to make that target. He does not talk much but we see his past through jump cuts and other characters explaining what he has done. Like many movies from this period, it has an excellent choice of music which captures the time and place with classic blues and 60s-70s hippy tracks. Super Soul (Clevon Little) acts as a guide to Kowalski through his very long drive, fuelled by a diet of speed while being chased by three states worth of highway patrol whilst meeting a bunch of oddballs including two very camp thieves and a hippy open air gathering with the creepiest preacher. No one actually wants him do this trips, not his delivery manager nor his drug dealer, no one wants him to punish himself and so the only person motivating himself is indeed himself.

This character has laughably awful luck as we discover he is a medal of honour winning solider who becomes a cop and is rapidly promoted until he tries to stop a rape and is then fired. His girlfriend is a surfer who drowns, he is also a professional bike and NASCAR driver who suffers huge accidents so now drives cars for a delivery service without sleep. His race to the coast is seen as a nice simple binary way to show those supporting him on the side of the metaphorical angels and those opposing him, seen as restricting fascists, trying to restrict the one free man left. This simplicity is what makes Vanishing Point a really nice period piece as it is such a typical hippy film from the time, making it a good companion piece to Easy Rider but with far more interesting car chases and visuals of West Coast USA, especially at a time when there wasn’t as much traffic and the roads were not as extensive, seeing the oddballs moving west inspired by the hippy movement. This was a time between Woodstock and Altamont Festival. Woodstock was the great, optimistic hippy festival, which would herald a happy new future, and Altamont was when the dream died. This movie falls in-between as the hippy dream is alive but suffering from the attention of the ‘man’. The other interesting aspect is the lack of importance given to Vietnam, everything vaguely counter cultural is adorned with peace signs but Vietnam is only mentioned in regards to Kowalski’s past.

Another great aspect to Vanishing Point is like Bullet, this movie is quite aural and sparse, allowing incidental sounds to come through such as the wind and the roar of the big V8 engine from the Dodge Challenger, dominating along with the sounds of the lesser vehicles. The static gives it a lovely sense of place and adds to the unadulterated nature of the movie which gives the impression that its based around something real with reports passing from police departments, to interviews with people around him and support groups popping up to help his travels.

Sadly, the year after it was released, such cars were dead in all but name. The power and freedom of those vehicles were destroyed by government regulation which limited their power (emissions and fuel consumption), their looks (in particular 5mph bumpers), which motoring writer Murilee Martin refers to as ‘the malaise era’. This movie seems to herald an end to the optimism which has proved so infections post war. The end of the movie has been open to many interpretations. In the end he is chased along a road into town which has been blocked by two bulldozers. Initially he goes the other way until he changes his mind and tries to drive between the two as a metaphor for the nation. Considering the pressures and tiredness of the character who has been awake for so long it seems a rather apt ending.

Vanishing Point is one of the best loved and iconic movies of the period, which like many cult movies didn’t sell well initially but then became iconic and well loved and is even cited as a favourite for directors such as Spielberg and Tarantino.

Review by Harry Riedl


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