It’s 1971 on the American highway. Duel gives Steven Spielberg his start, and Two-Lane Blacktop may be the purest road movie ever made. However, Duel‘s been made-for-TV, and only gradually will its reputation spread. Blacktop, after its initial run, will be plagued by soundtrack issues not resolved until the twenty-first century. The many years of too-few showings will bolster its cult status but limit its audience. The most successful road movie1 of that year is Vanishing Point, an existential car chase with enough mysticism that it also drifts across the line separating realism and fantasy, making it an unusual but appropriate choice for this Summer Weekend Review.
Title: Vanishing Point
Cast, Crew, and Other Info:
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Barry Hall, from a story outline by Malcolm Hart.
Barry Newman as Kowalski
Cleavon Little as Super Soul
Dean Jagger as Prospector
Victoria Medlin as Vera Thornton
Lee Weaver as Jake the Dealer
Karl Swenson as Clerk
Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott
Robert Donner as Deputy Collins
Timothy Scott as Angel
Gilda Texter as Nude Rider
Anthony James as First Hitchhiker
Arthur Malet as Second Hitchhiker
Severn Darden as J. Hovah
John Amos as Engineer
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends as Revival Singers
Cherie Foster as First Girl
Valerie Kairys as Second Girl
Tom Reese as Sheriff
Rita Coolidge as Singer
Ted Neeley as Singer
Available from Amazon.
This review based upon one I wrote for E2.
Kowalski (Barry Newman), a Vietnam vet and onetime police officer, delivers cars. He lives on the rush and makes a bet with his speed dealer that he can take his current charge, a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum from Denver to San Francisco in record time. The race brings Kowalski into conflict with law enforcement. After some 1970s chases and cop car crashes in the scenic southwest, the police grow determined to stop him. He becomes a cause célèbre thanks to the DJ, “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little), who speaks to him over the radio and, at times, can hear his responses. And it is not just Kowalski’s interplay with Super Soul that skirts the edges of reality. A number of the encounters along the way, and the conclusion, make us realize that our usual rules for reality aren’t quite at work here. Our haunted hero may be on a different quest than we thought.
The road movie always involves eccentric characters met along the way, and these encounters often make or break the film. Here, they are essential.
Some of these characters feel like people from our driver’s past, and the film juxtaposes them against actual flashbacks. The key women seem eerily similar to his deceased girlfriend, Vera (Victoria Medlin), and also to a girl he saved from a sexual assault years earlier. We receive hints that two of them might be that young woman, now older. First Girl seems to recognize and admire Kowlaski, while “Nude Rider” keeps a collection of articles related to the incident.
Other people seem like genuine lost souls, a fact worth considering when we arrive at the conclusion. When Kowalski gets trapped on the highway, he drives out across the desert and encounters a mysterious prospector (Dean Jagger). Both offer assistance to each other, before crossing paths with Christian snake handlers let by one “J. Hovah.”
Of course, the characters also reflect the times. Our antihero served in the Nam, surfed, and was discharged from the police force for taking action against a corrupt partner. The snake-handlers combine old-time rural fundamentalism with hippie-influenced Jesus Freakdom. Kowalski’s popularity reflects an era of antiheroes, distrust of authority, and sympathy with the outsider. Super Soul, African-American and blind, comes under attack by small town rednecks. Kowalski also encounters a pair of gay men; sadly, two years after Stonewall, these characters get played for cheap comic relief. Their “just married” status, nonetheless, may represent a kind of first for American cinema. Angel (Timothy Scott), who acts to help Kowalski, is both hippie and biker, and he and his Old Lady, believers in free love. Billed as “Nude Rider,” Angel’s girlfriend plays her entire part sans clothing.2
The pacing feels a little off in places, one of the ways in which this film has dated.
Originality: 5/6 We’re at the start of the 70s. The Road Movie wasn’t a new genre, but its 1970s incarnation (see note below) developed in its own ways, and this film stands among the first and most original of the lot.
Effects: 4/6 The effects mostly consist of car chase mayhem of the 1970s variety. They’re a lot less over-the-top than what we’d see now. We also see an important disappearance, created with an obvious dissolve.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Vanishing Point begins and ends in enigma. After the prologue and its cryptic low-budget fade, we flash back days earlier, with Kowalski delivering one car and picking up the Challenger. We then make our way across the country to a slightly different take on that opening scene. While we’re directed to certain conclusions, the greater significance of the finale remains up for interpretation, and the way the viewer reacts to the framing device will affect how he or she reacts emotionally to the film.
Overall: 5/6 The years have been kinder to Duel and Two-Lane Blacktop, but these three films form a trilogy of sorts, and Vanishing Point remains a trip worth takng.
In total, Vanishing Point receives 34/42.
1. The 1970s was a kind of Golden Age of Road Movies. In addition to Two-Lane Blacktop, Duel, and Vanishing Point, we have acclaimed films as diverse as Paper Moon (1973), Badlands (1973), and Harry and Tonto (1974).
The real-life Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash inspired Gumball Rally (1976) and Cannonball (1976); Rally‘s better, but either is preferable to the celebrity-infested Cannonball Run franchise of the 1980s. Cannonball shares a director with the SF car flick Death Race 2000 (1975). The original Mad Max, an SF road movie of sorts, came out in 1979. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974), a trashy outing, features the road, Peter Fonda, and hilariously bad dialogue, but it holds up as guilty pleasure and fun time capsule. Fonda starred that same year in Race with the Devil, a road movie with satanic villains. Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke lock horns with more conventional bad guys on the road to Vegas in the family-unfriendly The Gauntlet (1977), and Jack Nicholson heads across Africa in the more cerebral and cinematic thriller, The Passenger (1977). The Driver (1978), with Ryan O’Neal pursued by Bruce Dern, falls somewhere between. When the Muppets finally hit the big screen in 1978, they also hit the road (The Muppet Movie); The Bad News Bears‘ first sequel, Breaking Training (1977) also put the team into a road movie. Carny (1980) came along a little too late, but it still looks and feels like the 1970s, and the artful cult flick, with Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson, and the teenage Jodie Foster, contains a few echoes of Two-Lane Blacktop.
2. When I was a little kid, this film made its way into primary school consciousness via the early adolescents some grades ahead of us, who doubtless heard about it from smirking teens and scandalized adults. The one thing we knew was that there was a movie playing where a barenaked lady rides a motorcycle! The fact rated mention for a week or two and then vanished from the playground and my mind. Decades passed and I finally saw this movie, a certain scene began, and I realized, with a nostalgic chuckle, that I was watching that movie. While not irrelevant, the nudity is obviously exploitative. Still, if seven and eight-year-olds were discussing the scene, it got the overall public reaction the director was seeking. The woman in question, Gilda Texter, has a lengthy and illustrious career as a Hollywood costumer, but she also made a handful of onscreen appearances, most trading on her comfort while uncostumed.