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Vanishing Point (1971) – DVD Review

Vanishing Point DVD cover artc


Written by Guillermo Cain
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Starring Barry Newman, Dean Jagger, Cleavon Little and the 1970 Dodge Challenger


  • Running audio commentary by director Sarafian
  • Includes U.S. and U.K. versions
  • Theatrical Trailer

Released by: Fox Home Video.
Rating: R
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Borrow It.

Kowalski (Newman) delivers cars, driving them from point A to B. One night he starts from Denver to San Francisco, but it is the journey of his life. He is driving as fast as he can, supposedly to win a bet to get to San Francisco in two days. But there’s more to this trip. Fueled by gasoline, speed, and his own personal demons, the law enforcement agencies of three states want to stop him. The official reason being that he’s a menace on the road, they really want him because they can’t catch him and Kowalski is making them look bad. Along with him on this journey is Super Soul (Little), a blind DJ who ‘sees’ the road Kowalski is on and the dangers on it. But Kowalski keeps driving relentlessly on his journey, building up speed so he can reach that elusive Vanishing Point.

[ad#longpost]At its heart, this is a pure chase movie. No silly tacked on plots like The Fast and The Furious, no tired humor like the Smokey and the Bandit movies, and let’s not even mention Speed. Without a massive budget or digital effects, the chase scenes may not be too exciting to today’s audiences, but they feel more real. You can believe that a souped-up Dodge Challenger car can perform multiple hairpin turns, crash through barriers, even drive in the desert. The Challenger is the real star of the movie.

But there is more going on in this movie than just cars going fast. Through an effective use of flashbacks and well-placed exposition, we slowly discover that Kowalski used to be a soldier and a cop, but since he was part of the system, he could really see it for the farce it really was and he dropped out. Of course his addiction to speed, both chemical and physical, helped his decision. On the road and out of the big cities, Kowalski meets others: dropouts and drifters, outlaws and oracles, who can only exist on the fringe. Sarafian is giving us a slightly surreal modern take on the Old West, men and women trying to find opportunity to live free away from stupefyingly corrupt American civilization. He makes this theme even more apparent by having the cops either be ignorant hicks or emotionless drones.

With the movie’s preoccupation with speed, it forgets that speed is not the same thing as power. For power needs weight, and there is very little. Barry Newman really has very little to do except hold the steering wheel and look into the camera. To give substance to this role is a challenge only a very few could have met. And Newman doesn’t. For instance, he’s far too still for someone riding on an amphetamine high. You should feel like he’s pushing the car along by sheer force of will. The scenes of the vast landscapes of the west are beautiful, but its emptiness doesn’t give the viewer any reference to judge the car’s speed. And since speed is the main focus of the film, the film loses momentum.

Barry Newman as Kowalski in Vanishing Point
Barry Newman as Kowalski in Vanishing Point

Also, the movie gets too complicated for its own good. Super Soul seems to have a psychic connection to Kowalski and acts as a guide. But it’s impossible to see why these two would form this rapport. The encounters that Kowalski has on the highway lack any cohesion or narrative flow. They should be signposts on his journey, showing his progress towards the eventual fiery climax. Instead, they seem like random meetings with no rhythm or reason, with no other purpose than to be “symbolic.” This movie needed a stronger hand at the helm to combat this nebulousness.

This disc advertises both a U.S. and U.K. version. The only difference between the two is a scene where Kowalski picks up a rather elegantly dressed hitchhiker who proceeds to light up some marijuana. Presumably, this is why this is cut in the U.S. version. Frankly, I don’t see any reason to have two versions of essentially the same movie when they could have advertised it upfront as “uncut.”

Cleavon Little as Super Soul in Vanishing Point
Cleavon Little as Super Soul in Vanishing Point

The only real extra is a commentary by the director, Richard C. Sarafian. Since he hasn’t seen the movie in a while, he gets the chance to reminisce about the production and the people in it. Since he had a smaller than usual crew, this was a more intimate shoot than most. He also relates how he originally had eight Challengers and wrecked them all and also how the nude girl on the motorcycle got sunburned in some very unfortunate places. Most of his talk focuses on the cinematography, not on the themes he was working on in the film. From watching the film, I can see that it suffered from this lack of focus.

If you’re interested in the counter-culture or car chase genre, Vanishing Point should be on your list. But put it nearer the bottom.

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