For years the Vanishing Point was a film that always appeared on various car chase inspired film lists alongside great films such as Bullitt and The French Connection. However, unlike those two films, Vanishing Point seemed to receive more praise for its stunt driving than its actual plot. It was not until Quentin Tarantino released his faux-exploitation film Death Proof, which pays homage to this film, that the praises for Vanishing Point reignited.
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, Vanishing Point is an action film that revolves around a car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), who is commissioned to deliver a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco over the weekend. Kowalski, who has been working non-stop, decides to bet his pal, and drug dealer, that he can make the drive by 3:00 pm on Saturday. Traveling at top speed across the American Southwest, he starts to catch the attention of the local police as well as a blind radio disc jockey named Super Soul (Cleavon Little). Super Soul believes that Kowalski might be “the last beautiful, free soul on this planet”, though even he can see that Kowalski’s string of luck can only last for so long.
Vanishing Point is a film that is rather misleading at first. This first twenty minutes leads the audience to believe that Vanishing Point is nothing more than a goofy action film. Everything from the cheesy banjo music, which was clearly lifted by the Dukes of Hazzard series years later, to the way a few of the early chase scenes are framed scream farce initially. However, once the film sets into its rhythm it becomes clear that Vanishing Point is far more interesting than its “chase film” packaging would lead you to believe. Once the true nature of the film is revealed, the opening moments that once seemed silly holds far more meaning.
An action film on the surface, the deeper layers reveal a film that is commenting on the end of an era. Taking place at the tail end of the hippie generation, the theme of losing one’s freedom plays heavily in the film. The majority of the police that are chasing Kowalski have no clue why they are even chasing him, they just know that he must be stopped. However, a character like Super Soul, who also does not know what criminal act Kowalski has committed, immediately feels a connection with Kowalski because he is continuing to rebel when others seem to have conformed. Even when Super Soul falls victim to a hate crime by a cop and his gang, the never loses faith in the symbol that Kowalski has become.
In many ways Kowalski assumes a Christ-like role in the film. In flashbacks sequences, the audience gets brief glimpses into the events that have made Kowalski the individual he is now. Despite his drug use and lack of regard for authority, Kowalski is one of the more morally minded characters in the film. It is no coincidence that one of the characters that helps him is named Angel (Timothy Scott). Nor is it coincidence that Angel’s nameless girlfriend (Guilda Texter), who rides around naked on a motorcycle, has a newspaper clipping of Kowalski saved before even meeting him. The mystical aspect of the film is really emphasized when Kowalski meets a hooded hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling). Though the film alludes to Kowalski and the stranger having a romantic encounter, it is clear that Rampling’s character symbolizes the grim reaper. She even remarks that she has been waiting a long time for Kowalski. Her disappearance by dawn eerily reminds the audience that even as Kowalski has his limits.
The performances in the film range drastically from solid (e.g. Newman, Little, and Rampling) to over-the-top (e.g. the couple with the stalled car, the faith healer) depending on the character. Fortunately Barry Newman and Cleavon Little, who is in pre-Blazing Saddles form, carry the bulk of the film. Though they never share any screen time, both actors manage to create a bond between their characters completely based on Kowalski’s reactions to what Super Soul is saying over the radio. The way their bond plays out in the film only enhances the mystical aspects. While Vanishing Point can easily be enjoyed as a straight action film with sensational chase scenes, what really makes the film standout from others in the car genre is that it strives to be something deeper.