Much has been deservedly written on Richard C. Sarafian’s existential road movie Vanishing Point (1971), a shambling, glorious wreck of a film that nevertheless manages to achieve a certain sort of ragged splendor in its countercultural tale of loner driver Kowalski (Barry Newman), who takes on a nearly impossible drive from Denver to San Francisco to deliver a Dodge Challenger in less than 24 hours.
Based on two true life stories; one of a San Diego police officer who was kicked off the force in disgrace, and a separate story of a man who died after a high speed chase when he crashed into a police roadblock, Vanishing Point is pure twentieth century high octane nihilism – but with a twist, as we shall see.
The archetypal loner, Kowalski (no first name is ever given) has a checkered past; at various times a race car driver, a policeman kicked off the force for stopping his partner from raping a woman during a routine traffic stop, and a Vietnam veteran, Kowalski has clearly given up on life, and seeks only speed and escape. For the lure of the road is strong.
Delivering cars in the 1960s from coast to coast was a racket that many of those of us from that era used as a means of cheap transportation; in the back pages of The Village Voice there were always a plethora of advertisements for drivers to deliver cars from New York to Los Angeles or San Francisco, just as long as the car arrived quickly, in one piece, in return for minimal food and lodging. Though I didn’t drive at that point, I went along on one such venture in 1969 from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, in a car driven by a friend of mine.
We hit Nashville the first night, Albuquerque the next, and Los Angeles the next day. We kept the radio blasting rock and roll, drank tons of coffee, and crashed only for a few hours each night, only to resume our journey in the morning. And, of course, we always drove over the speed limit, especially in the desert, and after a while, the entire trip became a sort of dream, or endless quest. How fast could we get there? How fast could we drive without getting arrested? How little sleep and food could we get away with?
With the AM radio exploding with top 40 pop, and signals fading in and out as we sped from one town to the next, we were urged on by a series of motor-mouth DJs to go faster, further, to push the whole trip to the boundaries of human endurance, until we hit LA in a deep fog at 5AM on the third morning, waking up a sleeping attendant in a gas station to get some fuel, and then actually opening the car door to follow the dotted white line in the road because we couldn’t see where we were going.
Even so, once we arrived in Los Angeles, my friend stayed there, but without sleep, I continued to push on to San Francisco, now hitching my way through the night with a variety of erstwhile companions, still accompanied by the sound of blasting AM pop radio, now on a portable transistor set, until, exhausted, I reached the home of my friend, the filmmaker Jerome Hiler, completely unannounced, and after a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, slept for two days.
So I know something – just a little – of what Kowalski is going through in Vanishing Point, although in his case, while he calls San Francisco “home,” he really has no place to go, no place to rest, and seems to exist on Benzedrine and little else. He never stops for food, he never seems to rest, he even pops his “bennies” without water – he’s a man continually on the move.
Kowalski is trying to escape his past, but he can’t; he’s driving simply to drive, and he’s not going to stop for anything or anyone – it’s speed, speed and more speed, a life of pure adrenalin. On his way out of Denver late Friday night, Kowalski stops by a biker bar to score some speed from his pal Jake (Lee Weaver), and bets him he’ll make it to San Francisco by Saturday at 3PM – way ahead of schedule.
Jake is skeptical, but Kowalski is on a mission – indeed, when he first pulls into the garage on Friday night to pick up the Challenger, we have no idea when he’s last slept at all, if ever. Like a shark, Kowalski has to keep moving or die, constantly in motion, and constantly evading those who would seek to knock him out of the game.
For, not surprisingly, Kowalski’s epic speed trip soon attracts the attention of the police in the various states he crisscrosses on his way to the West Coast, and as he crosses one state line after another, the cops play tag team with him, each group hoping to stop him for good. From Colorado to Utah to Nevada and finally to California, Kowalski has got the cops on the run – but they’re gaining on him, and with each new state line, the obstacles get tougher and tougher to deal with.
But Kowalski has help from the DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little, in an excellent performance), a blind soul R&B record spinner who works at a rundown, yet high wattage AM radio station KOW in the middle of the desert, and has a seemingly telepathic connection with Kowalski, helping him to avoid the police, who are in hot pursuit of what Super Soul terms “the last American hero.” And as Kowalski crashes through roadblock after roadblock, making the police look like chumps, he becomes a symbol of the underdog fighting against the system, though, of course, he’s bound to lose.
Kowalski soon realizes that Super Soul – blasting R&B and keeping up a constant stream of cryptic patter – is keeping him informed of speed traps and police roadblocks, and for much of his run to the Coast, the bond between the two men keeps Kowalski from being arrested. And Super Soul performs another service for Kowalski – he turns him into an instant pop culture hero. Soon, the idea of Kowalski as the “ultimate outlaw,” sticking it to the man, gains pop currency, and people gather at the radio station to cheer Super Soul and Kowalski on.
Along the way, Kowalski, who has rejected conventional society with a vengeance – and after all, what has it done for him? – meets a variety of counter culture types, including a crazed old snake handler (Dean Jagger, in another strong turn) who catches rattlesnakes for Evangelical religious ceremonies. This is one of the more bizarre side trips in the movie, though Jagger does his best with the material, but it’s much too obvious, and seems an interruption in the narrative, which works best when Kowalski is on the move.
But in the meantime, some disgruntled local police and rednecks have decided that they’ve had enough of Super Soul’s idolization of Kowalski and his mythic run for the border, and break into the radio station, smashing it to bits, severely beating up both Super Soul and his engineer. Super Soul’s broadcast is now co-opted by the police, and rather than helping Kowalski, Super Soul is now being forced to lead him into a trap.
Speeding down the highway near the California border, Kowalski meets a biker named Angel (Timothy Scott), who pulls up beside him at 90 MPH and offers his help, if needed. Kowalski waves him off at first, but then decides that some more speed is in order, and Angel takes Kowalski back to his commune for some more uppers to keep him going, while Angel’s unnamed girlfriend (Gilda Texter) rides around nude on a motorcycle in a deliberately provocative manner. When Angel leaves to do some reconnaissance for Kowalski, she almost immediately offers herself to Kowalski for sex.
Nonplussed – he really isn’t interested in sex, just speed – Kowalski turns her down, and when Angel returns they strap a beat up old bike, a siren and a flashing red light on the rooftop of the Challenger, and get through another roadblock, but this trick is the last victory. The police have been tracking Kowalski’s progress electronically with the aid of a battery of roadside monitors, which display his route, speed, and location on an electronic wall map. In the border town of Cisco, California, the local police set up two bulldozers in the middle of the road, guaranteed to stop anything.
Super Soul, returning to the decimated radio station with his engineer in tow, regains control of the console and reaches out to Kowalski one last time, to warn him of his impending doom. But it’s too late; “turn it off,” he tells the engineer. For Kowalski has now turned to another radio station, booming out more up-tempo pop, but without the guiding hand of someone seeking to protect him.
With an enormous smile on his face that seems to grow more pronounced with each cut back, Kowalski plows full speed into the bulldozers, and the Challenger goes up in a fireball, reduced to a flaming wreck in seconds. The film thus ends where it began; in the opening minutes of the film, we see the bulldozers being set up as the locals look on in disinterested stupefaction, and a CBS news truck pulls up to cover the story. The film then cuts back to Kowalski picking up the car in Denver, and then follows him through to the fatal crash.
More than one critic has suggested that like Sisyphus, Kowalski will be condemned to repeat this cycle again and again, dying only to be reborn in another life. But even if this were true, it would seem that Kowalski’s journey has been completed, and that only Super Soul, as some sort of benevolent seer, or guide, has had any impact on Kowalski’s life.
But something’s missing, and it’s only available on the initial US release of the DVD, which presents two versions of the film with almost no fanfare; the 98 minute standard US version, and the 105 minute cut featuring a key, lost sequence with none other than Charlotte Rampling – absolutely assured as usual – as a mysterious hitchhiker in the dead of night, suitcase in hand.
Impulsively, Kowalski offers her a lift. She gets in Kowalski’s car, gets him stoned on marijuana for the first time in the film – up until then it’s only been speed – and then suddenly tells him that “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time. Oh, how I’ve waited for you. Everywhere and since forever. Patiently. Patiently. That’s the only way to wait for somebody.” For the first time in the film, Kowalski seems to really relax, and the tension goes out of his body; he pulls over the car, and when the young woman asks why they’re stopping, he tells her simply “I’m getting stoned.” She smiles, and he pulls her over for a deep kiss, and the film fades to black.
When Kowalski awakens the next morning, she’s gone without a trace. In contrast to the more realistic, if sometimes stereotypical characters Kowalski encounters on his coast to coast trip, Rampling’s spectral appearance is something altogether different, raising the film to a much more thoughtful level of introspection with just one small, seven minute sequence. Barry Newman never broke through as a major star, by any means, but in most of his films and television work, he lacked actors whom he could really engage with.
Rampling offers something altogether different for Newman, and the scene between the two of them puts the film in an entirely different perspective, from first frame to last. This version was released theatrically in the UK, but not in the US, where the film received indifferent and uncomprehending reviews initially, and has only fairly recently been the subject of a serious re-evaluation. Yet amazingly, the UK version isn’t available on DVD in the UK; it’s only the flip side of the initial US release, and that’s it. (A comparison between the two UK and US versions can be found here.)
So, much like Rampling’s appearance in the film itself, it’s a rather phantasmal release, but I would argue that without this segment, the film really isn’t complete. Director Sarafian, who provided commentary for the US and the UK versions of the film on the 2004 US double sided DVD release, agreed, noting that Rampling’s character was a metaphorical vision of the angel of Death.
In an extended interview with Paul Zazarine, Newman seemed particularly displeased with the deletion of the scene, in what his probably his best film; clearly, much of the resonance of the original version was lost with this edit. As he told Zazarine,
“there was a wonderful scene where Kowalski stops the car and picks up a hitchhiker, played by Charlotte Rampling. The girl, dressed in black and shrouded in fog, is carrying a sign that says San Francisco. He picks her up, she gets into the car and she asks him ‘What are you?’ He answers, ‘a car delivery driver.’ She says, ‘No, what sign are you?’ [They’re both Scorpios, it turns out.] They talk and end up spending the night together in the desert. Suddenly she says, ‘Don’t go to San Francisco,’ and vanishes. She was the symbol of death. That was an interesting scene, because it really gave the film an allegorical lift and explains everything.
I was in Austria filming The Salzburg Connection while they were editing Vanishing Point, and I received a call from my agent in New York. He had just seen a screening of Vanishing Point and said they cut it up and made it look like a B movie. They cut out the Rampling scenes because they were afraid the audience wouldn’t understand what happened to the girl in the car; why was she suddenly not there?
At the time it was made, we were still living in the sixties, with the individual against the institutions – the establishment. The individual, the loner, the anti-hero was very, very popular then, and it was a very moving thing when the guy killed himself. When he died, it stayed with people. They came back and saw the film over and over again. I was never aware of the impact of the film while I was making it.
[Kowalski was] a man who has failed before – and that’s the allegorical thing in this film – that Kowalski was going to get through those bulldozers. He smiles as he rushes to his death at the end of Vanishing Point because he believes he will make it through the roadblock. Deep down, Kowalski may have believed he wasn’t going to make it, but that’s the basis of an existentialist film.
The hero is fated to die [from the opening structure of the film, which ends at the beginning, and repeats this at the end] and you know it when he takes off that he’s not going to live. The title Vanishing Point was meant not for his impact into the bulldozers […]. It represents Kowalski’s point of no return – it was his Vanishing Point – it was his last ride.”
I’ve always liked Vanishing Point, which despite some roughness and a few overdetermined sequences is more of an existential road movie than Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop – made the same year – could ever hope to be. It’s Newman’s best film, Sarafian’s best film – sadly, he died in 2013 – and it’s clearly a labor of love on the part of all concerned. Shot in just 38 days, it’s obvious that everyone pushed themselves to the limit to make the film as good as it is; as Sarafian rhetorically noted on the DVD commentary, for a commercial Hollywood director, “how often do you get to make a film that really means something?”
On the DVD commentary for the film, Sarafian noted that he always referred to the film in jest as “Vanishing Points,” because he was forced by Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox to give back some of his back end participation points when he went over budget by $80,000 – think of it, just $80,000 – on a total budget of $1.3 million. But with the Charlotte Rampling sequence, it becomes a whole new movie, and you can really see what the entire project was aiming at from the beginning.
For now, you can only hope to get a Region One DVD of the early 2004 DVD release with the double sided disc to get the UK version of the film. The Blu-ray version offers only the US cut, which is a shame. While it’s not a B movie by any means in the US version, it’s merely a more thoughtful-than-average action film with some metaphysical overtones. With the additional footage added, it crosses over into a different zone altogether. If you like the film now, you really should make an effort to see this version – it really does make all the difference.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Cinema at the Margins (2013), Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world.
Zazarine, Paul (1986), “Kowalski’s Last Ride”, Muscle Car Review, March. Accessed March 1, 2014.