Veteran television director Richard T. Sarafian’s 1971 cult favorite Vanishing Point begins with a wonderful image; two huge Caterpillar tractors, one on each side of a two-lane road that cuts through the middle of a dusty California town, converge to form a roadblock. The barrier, as we see in flashbacks, is for Kowalski (Barry Newman) a lone driver working for a car delivery company who has bet the pusher who supplies him with speed that he can deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours. As Kowalski drives on implacably, running all the police and would-be hotshots off the road, we get flashbacks (which are now flashbacks within a flashback) of Kowalski’s life. A former stock car driver, cop and Viet Nam vet whose blonde, pot-smoking girlfriend has perished in a freak surfing accident, Kowalski is on a fatalistic binge, a last hurrah and finger at society before going out in a blaze of glory.
Into Kowalski’s quest comes blind DJ Super Soul (the late Cleavon Little, perhaps best known as the sheriff in Blazing Saddles), who, via the police scanner in his radio station, gives over-the-air advice to Kowalski, alerting him to the location of the police. Thus, word of mouth makes Kowalski an instant hero, or as Super Soul calls him, “the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demigod, the super driver of the golden west, the last beautiful free soul on the planet.”
Short on sense, but long on allegory, this is a wonderfully entertaining, well-made rumination on the nature of freedom and individuality in a society built on authority. Religious symbolism pops up throughout the film, mostly in the scenes where Kowalski drives off the Interstate and into the desert. Here he meets a crusty old man (Dean Jagger) who collects snakes for a local commune of faith healers led by Jesse Hovah. Ole J. Hovah sets the serpents free while his followers are serenaded by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (an atrocious white faux gospel rock act from the ’70s). Kowalski also meets up with an Easy Rider-type hippie biker, whose pretty blonde girlfriend rides a motorcycle naked through the desert, offering her body to the St. Kowalski.
The film has a wonderful momentum, with a swift TV movie pacing and some memorably off-kilter scenes (the most notable involving two gay psychotics to whom Kowalski gives a lift). The scenes of the omniscient Super Soul, the blind DJ who “sees” all the action from his booth are stylishly done and prefigure similar scenes in Walter Hill’s The Warriors and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Vanishing Point‘s enduring cult status is certainly no surprise, and some research on the International Movie Database reveals the existence of a 1997 remake with Viggo Mortensen and Peta Wilson (as the girl on the motorcycle – that I’d like to see).
(Note: For existential car culture cool, one film exists that is even better: Monte Hellman’s 1971 minimalist masterpiece, Two-Lane Blacktop with singer James Taylor and the late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson as a 55 Chevy driving team that challenges weirdo GTO driver Warren Oates. One of the damnedest American films I can think of (it ends with the film catching in the projector sprockets and melting), and one that unfortunately does not yet exist on videotape.)