Vanishing Point is one of the most enigmatic films of the early ’70s. Along with the similar Electra Glide in Blue, it is one of the defining films of the era, and shows the dark hangover of the ’60s. It’s been highly influential on films ranging from Tarantino’s Death Proof to Drive to Baby Driver, and even spawned an alternative soundtrack to the film by Primal Scream. My dad clearly remembers seeing it at the time—and being forced to leave the cinema when the naked woman on the motorcycle appears. He didn’t get to see it again till decades later. It was remade for TV in the ’90s with Viggo Mortensen as Kowalski, and even Richard Kelly was hired to write a remake post-Southland Tales.
The film’s plot is fairly simple: Kowalski (Barry Newman) arrives in Denver, Colorado on a Friday night to pick up a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum He has to drive to San Francisco to deliver it by Monday. He gets totally hopped up on amphetamine, and very quickly becomes of interest to the Highway Patrol. Then he becomes a kind of folk hero through the DJ Super Soul. The viewer finds out through flashbacks that Kowalski is a former Vietnam vet, and also a racecar/motorcycle driver and a cop. On his way, he encounters a naked woman on a motorcycle, various hippies, bikers and a homosexual couple.
It’s an existentialist film about this mysterious figure who is dubbed “The Last American Hero,” someone who is fed up with conforming and going out on his own terms. As the film spools out, he rejects materialism, authority, hippies and even drugs (besides his amphetamines), although in the UK cut he accepts some marijuana, and is the quintessential fatalistic individualist. The character of Kowalski was based on a couple of people whose lives came to similar outcomes. Interestingly, when they remade the film in the ’90s he was rewritten as a militia sympathizer, and Super Soul was replaced by “The Voice,” a right-wing libertarian shock jock.
Vanishing Point still plays well today, because it works as just a fun car chase film but also has philosophical undercurrents that may draw in some people in who would not be interested in that kind of movie. The film was directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Sarafian wasn’t a great auteur, but he did make a couple other ‘70s films of note, including Man in the Wilderness (same story as The Revenant) and the Burt Reynolds vehicle The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. The film and its mainly desert landscapes were beautifully photographed by John A. Alonzo, who also shot a great chunk of Chinatown after he replaced Stanley Cortez. Alonzo also shot Harold & Maude the same year as Vanishing Point, a film that also has decidedly anti-authoritarian protagonists. Barry Newman is fine as Kowalski, but he is supposed to be a blank character so he is just doing everything that is required of him, Charlotte Rampling appears as a female hitchhiker in the UK cut.
Fabulous Films has compiled a nice package here, with the US and UK cuts on two separate discs. The special feautres are a commentary by Richard C. Sarafian, a picture in picture commentary, a duo of featurettes, the theatrical trailer and TV spots. It’s also the first UK Blu-Ray release in a plain Amaray after a previous Steelbook from 20th Century Fox—I much prefer Amaray cases over Steelbooks any day of the week.