High Octane Cinema: Vanishing Point (1971)
The opening sequence of Richard C. Serafian’s existential road movie takes place in a small desolate town, frozen in time from the Dust Bowl era. A parade of cop cars enter the scene as citizens gather around to witness what could be the most amount of action to take place there in years. Two large bulldozers are positioned in the middle of a road, their dark, monolithic shapes casting a shadow on the horizon. A helicopter surveying the area outside of the community spies a white 1970s Dodge Challenger, racing down the main road with immense velocity. It’s not so readily apparent, but this is the end of the journey for the car’s driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), our protagonist and point of focus, but even with a conclusive endpoint, Vanishing Point has a lot more going on under its hood than one may think.
Kowalski, a cross-country transporter of automobiles driven by a need for speed (figuratively and literally), is attempting to make it from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours, as relayed once the film reverses course to a day and a half before its prologue. His chariot in the form of the Dodge Challenger rapidly moves across state lines like a bolt of lightning, and has become the iconic emblem of the film’s cultural stature (going as far as being paid tribute to in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof). He is determined to stop at nothing to make it to his destination on schedule, this goal soon develops into a point of interest for the police, the news media, and millions of other Americans who become informed of the story as it develops. Kowalski’s lone ally is Supersoul (Cleavon Little), a blind radio DJ who catches wind via his police scanner, informing the masses of this man’s quest to not be caught, and elevating his expedition to near-mythic levels.
Vanishing Point has certainly earned its spot in the canon of car cinema, partly through defying the conventions of mainstream American filmmaking for the period. Those expecting a rambunctious affair a la Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry are in for disappointment, as it is much closer in spirit to Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop (released in the same year). A flop in its initial release, it soon became a cult hit after gaining positive notices outside of the United States and a staple of repertory theatres and drive-ins. Overtime it has manifested a reputation that has managed to unite petrolheads and arthouse enthusiasts for intertwining reasons.
As Kowalski moves from locale to locale, encountering an oddball mix of characters, his backstory is fleshed out via sudden flashbacks. We learn of his past vocations as a racecar driver, a policeman, and a Vietnam war veteran; which makes his current line of work as a drug-addicted conveyor seem particularly unglamorous. It simultaneously works as exposition that informs the audience, but combined with the information obtained from the start of the narrative, is a showcase for Kowalski to reflect on the legacy he will leave behind.
An anti-hero in many respects, his crusade becomes less about getting from point A to point B, but rather, the dream of freedom of the hippie movement that, at the time of the then-contemporary setting, was in the rearview mirror. The title speaks to the idea of a changing societal landscape in this respect But Kowalski is only looking far ahead in his exploits. He is aiming for an ideal that traverses beyond the single and remote way of thinking that accompanies the various other travelers he meets along the way, from an old coot who catches snakes in the desert by his lonesome to a nude female biker who expresses her idea of liberation directly. His sense of rebellion in continually out-maneuvering the authorities and becoming one with the road while facing that which torments him makes him a pure, positive symbol of opposition.
It’s because of this that, when reaching the unpremeditated finish line set in his path by the bulldozers, Vanishing Point’s ending isn’t marked by sadness. Kowalski charges into his destiny with resounding force and a smile on his face - his vanishing point is defined by mortality, yet his spirit refuses to deny himself that sense of independence. His refusal to play by the domineering culture and conventions is taken to the furthest extreme with his final act, prefigured by a lifetime of heroic deeds and good naturedness.
Supersoul announces that his radio station will be rechristened in “in honor of the last American hero, to whom speed means freedom of the soul”. While he may not have made it to his destination, watching Kowalski ready to depart Earth on his own terms as Segarini & Bishop’s “Over Me” is juxtaposed against townspeople witnessing his final moments is purely gratifying.