Vanishing Point

Director: Richard C. Sarafian
Screenplay: Guillermo Cain (story outline by Malcolm Hart)
Stars: Barry Newman (Kowalski), Cleavon Little (Super Soul), Dean Jagger (Prospector), Victoria Medlin (Vera Thornton), Paul Koslo (Charlie, Young Nevada Patrolman), Bob Donner (Collins, Older Nevada Patrolman), Timothy Scott (Angel), Gilda Texter (Nude Motorcycle Rider), Anthony James (Male Hitchhiker #1), Arthur Malet (Male Hitchhiker #2)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: U.S.
Vanishing Point Blu-Ray
I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque.Although it is probably now best known as the film that inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007)--or at least was the film most frequently named-checked--Vanishing Point should be seen as a particularly charged variant of a now extinct genre: the artsy B-movie. Since the death of drive-ins and grindhouses, B-movie making has shifted almost exclusively to the straight-to-video realm, which seems to encourage a kind of monotonous mediocrity. Yet, there was a time when a low budget, an unknown director, and a complete lack of star power could produce unique cinematic gems. Meager resources need not always produce meager results, and it is not without significance that the B-movie production mills of the ’60s and ’70s produced such noted auteurs as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Brian De Palma.

Alas, director Richard C. Sarafian, who started his career directing television in the early ’60s, never reached the echelon occupied by those filmmakers, but his name will forever be associated with the cult status of Vanishing Point, which, like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), sought to personify the schisms in American culture, particularly the tensions between the counterculture and the establishment, along the rush of the open highway. Not just an extended car chase movie, Vanishing Point was part of the so-called American “Cinema of Unrest” as it sought to be a multilayered metaphor for not just the American condition, but for the nature of fate itself. Faddishly existential, it offers precious few explanations for its actions but insists that it be taken as something both meaningful and exhilarating, which is why youth audiences high on Sartre and their own alienation ate it up while mainstream critics couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The story takes place over a two-day period, beginning with a sense of strange austerity, as the idyll of its golden, morning-sun-drenched images of peace and quiet are slowly invaded by wailing sirens, a low-flying helicopter, and finally two massive bulldozers that pull into position in the middle of a highway and drop their blades with a clanging metallic thud. All of this is intended to stop a man named Kowalski (Barry Newman), a professional driver who has been charged with driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver, Colorado, to Fresno, California. The film then flashes back two days earlier as Kowalski picks up the car, gets hopped on a speed to stay alert for the drive, and then takes off into the vast expanse of mountains and deserts between the two states. Who the car is for and why Kowalski is transporting it are never explained, nor is the reasoning behind why he must do it in 15 hours. The only motivation Kowalski seems to have is the need to drive and keep driving, as if he might cease to exist if he ever stopped moving. The film flashes back at various points to sketch in some details of Kowalski’s past as a racer and police officer who lost his girlfriend in a surfing accident, and we also learn through bits of dialogue that he was a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam. Otherwise, he is a cipher, an empty shell with tangled hair and long sideburns who exists to drive and nothing else.

Although the film is in constant motion, with Kowalski picking up constant pursuers in the form of state police and highway patrolmen, there are also moments of respite in which he encounters various denizens of the American outback, including a band of religious revivalists in the desert, a prospector (Dean Jagger) who collects snakes, a pair of gay highway bandits (Anthony James and Arthur Malet), and eventually a hippie outpost whose leader (Timothy Scott) has been seen as a kind of alternate-universe version of Peter Fonda’s Captain America. During his brief time with the hippies, Kowalski also crosses paths with a nude woman on a motorcycle (Gilda Texter, who ironically would go on to a long career as a Hollywood costume designer), which is perhaps the film’s most labored and dated symbol of pure freedom. The film also frequently cuts back to a radio booth helmed by a blind black DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little), who keeps tabs on Kowalski’s journey and feeds him information. Like the nude motorcycle rider, Super Soul is also a rather labored convention whose physical blindness does nothing to perturb his “all-seeing” shaman-like nature, which naturally must be taken down by a racist mob in a sequence of race-baiting violence.

If some of the cultural elements and zeitgeist symbolism in Vanishing Point have not worn particularly well over time, the film’s visuals have maintained their raw elegance and rugged beauty. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who was nominated for an Oscar three years later for his work on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), sets up gorgeous widescreen vistas that emphasize both the expansiveness of the sky and the rough-hewn beauty of the land. Kowalski’s white Dodge Challenge stands out against the stark terrain, which is frequently reduced to a near abstraction, especially once Kowalski is stranded in the bleached desolation of the badlands, his tires cutting dark, criss-crossing lines through the sand. While the film features a number of impressive stunts (it is a car chase movie, after all), what is ultimately memorable is the way Alonozo’s images transform Vanishing Point into a visual poem of light and dust infused with the relentless need for speed that drives Kowalski and the film itself straight into their fate without comment.

Vanishing Point Blu-Ray
The Blu-Ray disc of Vanishing Point contains both the 99-minute original U.S. theatrical version and the 106-minute U.K. version, which restores a sequence starring Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean
  • Audio commentary by director Richard Sarafian
  • “Built for Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point” featurette (HD)
  • “OA-5599” featurette (HD)
  • “Cars, Cops , and Culture” trivia track
  • Vanishing Point Trivia Challenge”
  • Interactive 1970 Dodge Challenger (HD)
  • “Super Soul Me” BonusView feature
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Two TV spots
  • Enhanced for D-Box Motion Control Systems
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateFebruary 24, 2009

    In its new high-definition 1080p transfer on a dual-layer BD50 disc, Vanishing Point looks and sounds fantastic. Despite its relatively low budget, this is a visually impressive film that has a number of shots that could stand toe-to-toe with anything in a Terrence Malick film. The image is clean and clear throughout, with excellent detail and color that never sacrifices the film-like quality (there is still a decent amount of visible grain and texture). The original monaural soundtrack has been remixed into an effective DTS-HD 5.1 surround track that makes good use of the surround channels to emphasize directionality and space, as well as plenty on the low end to give weight the Dodge Challenge’s 426 Hemi engine.
    The majority of the supplements on this Blu-Ray are new, although it also includes all of the material from the 2004 DVD release, including a thoughtful and informative screen-specific audio commentary by director Richard Sarafian, the original theatrical trailer, and two television spots.

    New this time around is “Built for Speed: A Look Back at Vanishing Point,” an 18-minute retrospective featurette that features new interviews with Sarafian, actor Barry Newman, actress Gilda Texter, and stunt coordinator Lou Elias. Also commenting on the film are Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell (who, I guess, is a major fan of the film) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski, who talks of being inspired by the film and others like it when he watched them in communist-controlled Poland as a teenager. Another new featurette is the 10-minute “OA-5599,” which is built around interviews with various car enthusiasts and collectors waxing rhapsodic about the power of the Dodge Challenger. Fans of the car will also enjoy the Interactive Challenger, which allows you to admire a virtual version of the car from four angles, see it in one of four factory colors, read information about it, and watch video pods with auto experts. While watching the film you have the option of turning on the “Cars, Cops, and Culture” trivia track, taking the “Vanishing Point Trivia Challenge,” or utilizing the “Super Soul Me” BonusView feature, which includes pop-up interviews with many of the original artists who recorded the soundtrack: Leslie West of Mountain, Kim Carnes, Laura Creamer of the all-girl group Eve, Jimmy Walker, Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, and legendary DJ Jim Ladd. There is also a rather silly option called the “Virtual Dashboard,” which puts a digital dashboard on the screen while you’re watching the film so you can keep track of Kowalski’s speed, mileage, and fuel; track his progress on a map; and read information about the songs on the soundtrack. It’s a fun idea in theory, but the problem is that the dashboard takes up about half the screen. Finally, this Blu-Ray is equipped with information for D-Box Motion Control Systems, which synchronizes your home theater seating with the action on-screen to create real-life motion.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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