Vanishing Point (1971) Poster

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A Dirge For A Dying America
AdamKey21 February 2004
Richard Sarafian's 1971 film "Vanishing Point" is, for starters, a fascinating study of those persons anthropologists sometimes term "marginal men"--individuals caught between two powerful and competing cultures, sharing some important aspects of both but not a true part of either, and, as such, remain tragically confined to an often-painful existential loneliness. Inhabiting a sort of twilight zone between "here" and "there," a sort of peculiar purgatory, these restless specters cannot find any peace or place, so they instead instinctively press madly on to some obscure and unknown destination, the relentless journey itself being the only reason and justification.

Disc jockey Super Soul (Cleavon Little) and delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) are two of these specters, marginal but decent, intelligent men who can't or won't live in burgeoning competing cultures which in reality have offered them very little of worth or substance, despite their own personal sacrifices. Kowalski himself had tried to "fit in" with the Establishment as a soldier and police officer and later, attempted to do the same with the blossoming 1960s counterculture, but soon disappointingly found that they both were ridden with their own various forms of dishonesty and insincerity. Personal honor, self-reliance and genuine respect--Kowalski's stock in trade--were tragically valued very little by either, despite each one's shrill and haughty claims to the contrary.

Moreover, it's no accident Newman's character has a Polish surname; the Poles throughout their history have created a very rich and unique Slavic culture largely based upon just such a "marginality"--being geographically jammed between powerful historic enemies, Germany and Russia, and never being able to fully identify with either one, at often great cost to themselves. It's also no accident Little's character is blind and black, the only one of his kind in a small, all-Caucasian western desert town--his sightlessness enhancing his persuasiveness and his ability to read Kowalski's mind, the radio microphone his voice, his race being the focus of long simmering and later suddenly explosive disdain--all of the characteristics of a far-seeing prophet unjustly (but typically) dishonored in his own land.

The desert environment also plays a key role in cementing the personal relationship between and respective fates of these two men--to paraphrase British novelist J.G. Ballard, prophets throughout our history have emerged from deserts of some sort since deserts have, in a sense, exhausted their own futures (like Kowalski himself had already done) and thus are free of the concepts of time and existence as we have conventionally known them (as Super Soul instinctively knew, thus creating his own psychic link to the doomed driver.) Everything is somehow possible, and yet, somehow nothing is.

Finally, VP is also a "fin de siecle" story, a unique requiem for a quickly dying age- a now all-but-disappeared one of truly open roads, endless speed for the joy of speed's sake, of big, solid no-nonsense muscle cars, of taking radical chances, of living on the edge in a colorful world of endless possibility, seasoned with a large number and wide variety of all sorts of unusual characters, all of which had long made the USA a wonderful place--and sadly is no longer, having been supplanted by today's swarms of sadistic, military-weaponed cop-thugs, obsessive and intrusive safety freaks, soulless toll plazas, smug yuppie SUV drivers, tedious carbon-copy latte towns, and a childish craving for perfect, high-fuel-efficiency safety and security.

The just-issued DVD contains both the US and UK releases of the film; the UK release, I believe, is a much more satisfying film, as it has the original scenes deleted from the US version. As an aside, Super Soul's radio station call letters, KOW, are in fact the ones for a country & western station in San Diego.
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Look back on your life torn asunder...then throw it into third gear and floor it.
Apollyon_Crash2 April 2004
Barry Newman is "Kowalski", an enigmatic figure who has tried everything in his life from stock car racing to the military, and failed at every one of his endeavors. Working as an auto delivery man, he gets an order to transport a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T to San Francisco, and makes a bet with a few friends that it can be done in an impossibly short time. After loading up on "ups" and throttling the car westward, he is soon pursued vigorously by the police and embraced by the public as something of a hero. During a time when national speed limits were all controversy, this film provides a compelling argument against them: A fast car in the hands of a capable driver is not dangerous. Even the police, so caught up in their own system, don't realize that they are the only ones causing accidents and endangering the public while blindly trying to keep up with and capture Kowalski.

While the film sounds at first to be a simple action film, it's really much more than that. Kowalksi's past is revealed little by little through flashbacks, making the film something of a character study. Kowalski's trip becomes a road trip of existentialism as he runs across various strange characters: Solitary hippies, gay bandits, a boogie-woogie snake handling Christian cult, and the blind soul station DJ (brilliantly played by Cleavon Little) who is attempting to guide him on his journey from within the car's radio.

Topping it off is a great soundtrack, breathtaking cinematography and direction, and automotive action that has seen no equal. This film manages to be both compelling and exciting. Just watch it already.

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The road can work on your mind.
L_Miller8 July 1999
Kowalski transports cars across the western US in 1970. He gets a gig transporting a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco and sets out at maximum warp, stopping only for gas and strategy. He commits no crime outside of speeding, and fleeing the cops who are trying to stop him simply because he will not stop. He finds allies along the way, including an old prospector, a DJ named Super Soul, and a hippie who seems to me to be an alternate ending to the life of Peter Fonda's character Wyatt in "Easy Rider". He drives and drives and drives until he meets his destiny in a tiny town on the California-Nevada border at 10:04 AM on some unnamed Sunday.

Why? Is it because of his past; ex-cop, ex-racer, tragically bereaved? Is it because of the truckload of speed he takes at the beginning of the movie (draw your own metaphors between Kowalski's internal use of the noun and external use of the verb)?

Or is it the road, the infinite expanses of the Southwest, the silence, the freedom, the sound of the motor surging, the tires spinning, the wheels gobbling up and sitting out the black asphalt? Who knows? Kowalski seems indifferent as to why he drives, only that he must drive, must evade, must get to where he is going and will not - can not - be stopped.

Do yourself a favor. Rent the original, don't see the '97 made for TV movie (it has some high points, but it's like watching the '99 "Psycho" before seeing the Alfred Hitchcock original). In fact, rent this and "Two Lane Blacktop" from Monte Hellman, and "Mad Max" and/or "The Road Warrior". Watch all of them in as close to one sitting as you can get.

If after watching these movies, you don't understand how they're expressions of the same call to the open road, return them and give up. Not everyone was meant to hear it, just like not everyone has perfect pitch or the ability to wiggle their ears.

This movie drove me (pun intended) to take the handle kowalski and buy a Challenger of my own (flame red, 1973, you see the 1970 R/Ts are very hard to get).

It probably won't do the same for you, but if you've ever been driving down the open road and wondered what would happen if you _didn't_ get off at the next exchange, in fact if you never got off at all, then this film is for you.

And I hope the next ignoramus who compares this masterful film to "The Dukes of Hazzard" loses his brakes and plows into a line of parked Harleys outside some bar with a name like Whiskey Junction or the Dew Drop Inn.
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Best carmovie ever
avril_shun29 November 2002
One thing I realised about carfilms, or whatever you might call them, is that a certain degree of monotony is always required (check out the wonderful Two Lane Blacktop too see what I mean). If you waste too much time with backgrounds, character development, story etc the really important stuff starts lacking (the car as an instrument of freedom, the road, the desert...). In this way Vanishing Point is the perfect carmovie: it's about the most monotonous, yet beautiful things i've ever seen! It's about:

1. The car

2. The road

3. The desert

4. The music

And nothing else! Some vague attempts are made to make a character out of Kowalski, but fortunely they're small in numbers. The car is the true main character of the film.

I recommend this film with all my heart.
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a legend of freedom, not anything else
ak064 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I don't agree with the other reviewers' comments. The car was beautiful, the sound track was fine, OK, but those are not what are left behind in my memory. I think rating this film as a road film or a car film is severely underestimating its value as a legend of "freedom", what 70s were all about. I first saw this film in my early thirties. I was fascinated by the simple yet powerful expression of the will to reach freedom. All the reactions of Kowalsky, the naked rider, the blind DJ, the store owner, etc, they were all after "freedom". And the possibility of being deprived of freedom is the reason why Kowalsky commits suicide at the end. I will remember it as a perfect legend of freedom, and, despite its simplicity, one of the best films ever made.
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Eyes chasing Eyes
tedg7 September 2009
Gosh, I had forgotten how powerful this is.

Seeing it again is a real lesson on how certain cinematic language, if presented purely, transcends. And for a US-made movie, it is pretty pure.

If you do not know it, the primary narrative is essentially no narrative: a muscle car speeding across the desert chased by police, initially for speeding and ultimately just to exert power. This fellow is Kowalski, a name imported from a landmark film. He simply drives. It is his life now. We see flashbacks. Find he was a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, a star racer and then a cop. There's a backstory about his being a good cop and turning in some rotten apples, so by degrees we come to understand the moral landscape.

There is only one other character, a blind black disk jockey who is listened to by apparently everyone. Guided by his eavesdropping on police radio, and some psychic ability.

This was after "Easy Rider" and instead of bold men moving into a life, we have life chasing an honest man. Same ethic, could even have been the same man. But he knows himself. He knows he is a cinematic creature, someone to be observed and dreamed about. He knows he carries his world with him. Always borrowed.

You can see Malick here, the notion that the character sees us seeing him, that he knows he is fictional and knows we think him not. You can trace it to the female version in "Thelma and Louise," where they have their end only because they know someone will watch. Its not like "Cool Hand Luke," or "Bonnie and Clyde" at all where the man decides. That comes from the Hollywood western.

Its derived from the "Breathless" tradition.

A good third of this film is spent on the "audience," the rural townspeople. These parts are filmed in a documentary style, with — it seems — real people who have come to watch the filming, having heard on the radio from a borrowed soul. They look dumb and bored, clearly with nothing better to do than watch, just like us.

Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
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Soul challenger
pullgees15 October 2003
The best road movie ever made. To appreciate it you have got to try and see it from the culture of that era. It is totally anti establishment as was the mood of half of America. So the police are all idiots, the 'good ol boys' are either violent rednecks or passive disapproving onlookers. Kowalski is going to give those mid west conservatives something they won't forget, he's going to shake things up for a day or two. Kowalski is simply the symbol of the many disenfranchised at the time. The story starts at the end. We hear a boring stifling radio news item on the price of grain. We see dreary looking bystanders who need to be turned on. Then Super Soul takes over the airwaves with his wild DJ antics and hippy music trying to jolt these people out of their fixed ways. The old and the new are clashing. This sets the mood we know from then it is rebellious. Other aspects the stunts the music the characters have been well covered below so there is no need to say more on that. Some have said that there is no point to this story or Kowalski's motives and have interpreted the title meaning that. But all a vanishing point is an artist name for the phenomena of perspective where two parallel lines seemingly meet and in the long straight roads of the journey we see plenty of vanishing points.
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An appropriate movie for the era
htmlhillbilly19 May 2003
Warning: Spoilers
Spoilers Alert More'n a few reviewers on IMDB have described Vanishing Point as being plotless and directionless.... They left out nihilistic and bleak.

But that seems to have been a theme during the late '60s and early '70s. Yes, Kowalski dies at the end (commits suicide, really). Just like the car going into the train at the end of 'Dirty Mary & Crazy Larry', or whatshisname getting blown off his motorcycle with a shotgun at the end of 'Easy Rider', or the lone survivor from 'Night of the Living Dead' being killed by cops at the end.... It doesn't matter what you've accomplished, what you've survived through, or how good of a person you are: odds are you'll be offed by a complete stranger for no damn reason, out of the blue. I will leave the parallels between this type of nihilistic thinking and the emotions surrounding a certain military conflict the United States was involved with at the time up to the individual.

Um, anyway, about the movie. Hell yes I liked it. The Mopar muscle-cars of the era really were top of the line... I've never had a chance to own a Charger, but I've gone through various muscle cars from the Detroit Big Three, and the 1970 Plymouth I owned was by far the most satisfying for both speed and as a daily driver. Also like Kowalski, I have been driven slowly nuts by way of too little sleep and too much time isolated, living behind the wheel of a car, rarely having conversations with other human beings longer that 45 seconds... Stop to eat, and you realize your back hurts sitting in a 'normal' chair and your feet are out in front of you, poised above imaginary pedals.

The bet at the beginning of the movie --- what constitutes the basis for the 'plot' --- is absolute insanity: Driving from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. This works out to averaging 100 m.p.h., not including stopping for fuel. (I've taken bets like this on a smaller scale: "I can get from San Jose to downtown SF in a half hour!" It can be done, but only if you're seriously unbalanced.)

I can also identify with what I imagine Kowalski's motivations are, especially his self-destructive streak: The realization that you're well past thirty, whatever past attempts at 'real' careers have been blown to hell (for whatever reasons), and hey... You ain't nothing but a fxxking delivery boy.

So yeah, I have a soft spot in my heart for Vanishing Point, but mostly due to a higher level of personal identification with Kowalski than most. I'm less likely to kill myself though: After years of covering 1,600 miles a week (without leaving California), I caught myself doing the Death-Stare on the road too many times, and it finally scared me.
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simply one of the best car movies of all time.........
il_smith8 February 2005
the plot summary covers the story and yes! there is a story wrapped around one long car chase. the speed is real, the NOISE is real, that Challenger leaves black lines on the road........ I saw it when it was first released (when I was young and silly) and then spent 15 years trying to track down a Video copy of the movie (made more difficult as it had to be a PAL copy). I got the video in the '90s and still watch this amazing film. People rave about the chase sequence in Bullitt or The French Connection. Vanishing Point takes that excitement and extends it. Simply a great car movie for those who like a great car movie.... watch it
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Iconic, classic, and a "gift" for Mopar
A_Different_Drummer22 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
When Chrysler was first approached for this film, the executive who eventually green-lighted their participation could not believe that anyone would ever watch it. "It's basically a 90 minute ad for a car," he is reputed to have said. Understatement! This 90 minute ad became such a cult hit that an attempt was made to redo it (kindly notice my selection of the word "attempt" and we will discuss the remake no more in this life). Barry Newman had proved a reliable TV actor to that point, but no one had guessed that he would infuse the character of Kowolski with such (pardon the pun) drive. Don't want to give too much away on the off chance you have not seen this film yet, but other reviewers who have opined that this film is a metaphor for the demise of America (from the freedom of the open road, to a police state, with rules and penalties for breaking those rules) may not be far off the mark. See the original, not the AHEM-NEVER-TO-DISCUSSED remake, prepare for a look at the US when freedom was more than a 7 letter world, and prepare for what may possibly be Newman's best work in his career.
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