Retro Review: “Vanishing Point”

Original release poster for the 1971 film Vanishing Point

Mention this film to the layperson, and he or she will probably respond with the same question: “That’s the one with the Dodge Challenger, isn’t it?” Ask that same person what the plot is, who directed it, or who’s in it, and their answer will be little more than a blank stare. Yet there’s more to Vanishing Point than its vehicular star.

A man known only as Kowalski (Barry Newman) is given the task of driving a white Challenger R/T 440 from the city of Denver for delivery in California. It’s a job he’s done many times before, but this journey is different – Kowalski has made a bet that he can deliver the car within 40 hours, meaning he’ll need to drive non-stop in order to win said bet.

Our protagonist proves to be an elusive figure in more ways than one throughout the film. Between evading police pursuits and racing against an obnoxious Jaguar driver, it is revealed that Kowalski is a tragic figure with an unfortunate past. A Vietnam War veteran, he lost his girlfriend in a drowning accident, was “dishonourably” discharged as a police officer, and then had a failed career as a racing driver.

Pretty soon, the pressure of reaching California becomes too much, with Kowalski all but giving up on winning his bet. Not even the seemingly-divine guidance of a local radio DJ, Super Soul (Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles) is enough to raise his spirits. Instead, he uses his driving time to reminisce about his past, and interact with the locals encountered upon his journey.

To some, Vanishing Point does for the Dodge Challenger what The Italian Job did for the Mini Cooper – serve as little more than a feature-length advertisement  for a sports car. The truth isn’t all that far from this assertion. The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, was looking for a way to reward the Chrysler corporation for its long-term support, and saw this project as the perfect opportunity to do so.

Still image of Barry Newman in Vanishing Point
Vanishing Point is one of the few highlights in Barry Newman’s (pictured) long career.

While the studio hoped it would be a mainstream success, upon its initial release Vanishing Point was shunned by audiences and left critics bemused. This was probably due to the movie being a product of the counter-culture movement. Kowalski is presented as a figure disaffected by the American mainstream, finding solace and friendship in those not accepted by society, such as hippies and African-Americans. Such material was considered bold for a studio production in the early Seventies.

Nevertheless, from a technical standpoint the film is pretty much faultless. Particularly deserving of recognition is the cinematography, which manages to make the arid, lifeless vistas of Colorado and Nevada look vibrant – an exceptional feat, given the technical limitations of the time. The framing and editing of the chase sequences also impress, putting many contemporary action blockbusters to shame.

Though its cinematic legacy is dubious, Vanishing Point is a film worthy of one’s time, even for those who aren’t car fanatics. With an original script and masterful cinematography, it proves to be more than a gratuitous display of a white muscle car.

3.5 stars

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