Vanishing Point (1971 )

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian

 

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Vanishing Point is a 1971 American action road movie directed by Richard C. Sarafian and starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, and Dean Jagger.

The film is notable for its scenic film locations across the American Southwest and its social commentary on the post-Woodstock mood in the United States.

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A car delivery driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman), arrives in Denver, Colorado late Friday night with a black Chrysler Imperial. The delivery service clerk, Sandy (Karl Swenson), urges him to get some rest, but Kowalski insists on getting started with his next assignment to deliver a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco by Monday. Before leaving Denver, Kowalski pulls into a biker bar parking lot around midnight to buy Benzedrine pills to stay awake for the long drive ahead. He bets his dealer, Jake (Lee Weaver), that he will get to San Francisco by 3:00 pm “tomorrow”, even though the delivery is not due until Monday. (Distance between the towns is approximately 1,200 miles (1,900 km) by road).

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Kowalski is a Medal of Honor Vietnam War veteran and former race car driver and motorcycle racer. He is also a former police officer, who was dishonorably discharged in retaliation for preventing his partner from raping a young woman. Haunted by the surfing death of his girlfriend, Vera, Kowalski now exists on adrenaline.

Driving west across Colorado, Kowalski is pursued by two motorcycle police officers who try to stop him for speeding. Recalling his days as a motorcycle racer, he forces one officer off the road and eludes the other officer by jumping across a dry creek bed. Later, the driver of a Jaguar E-Type convertible  pulls up alongside Kowalski and challenges him to a race. After the Jaguar driver nearly runs him off the road, Kowalski overtakes him and beats the Jaguar to a one-lane bridge, causing the Jaguar to crash into the river. Kowalski checks to see if the driver is okay, then takes off, with police cars in hot pursuit.

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Kowalski drives across Utah and into Nevada, with the police unable to catch him. During the pursuit, Kowalski listens to radio station KOW, which is broadcasting from Goldfield, Nevada. A blind black disc jockey at KOW, Super Soul (Cleavon Little), listens to the police radio frequency and encourages Kowalski to evade the police. Super Soul seems to understand Kowalski and seems to see and hear Kowalski’s reactions. With the help of Super Soul, who calls Kowalski “the last American hero”, Kowalski gains the interest of the news media, and people begin to gather at the KOW radio station to offer their support.

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During the police chase across Nevada, Kowalski finds himself surrounded and heads into the desert. After he blows a left front tire and becomes lost, Kowalski is helped by an old prospector (Dean Jagger) who catches snakes in the desert for a Pentecostal Christian commune. After Kowalski is given fuel, the old man redirects him back to the highway. There, he picks up two homosexual hitchhikers stranded en route to San Francisco with a “Just Married” sign in their rear window. When they attempt to hold him up at gunpoint, Kowalski throws them out of the car and continues on.

Saturday afternoon, a vengeful off-duty highway patrolman and some local racist thugs break into the KOW studio and assault Super Soul and his engineer. Near the California state line, Kowalski is helped by a hippie biker, Angel (Timothy Scott), who gives him pills to help him stay awake. Angel’s girlfriend (Gilda Texter), who rides a motorcycle nude, recognizes Kowalski and shows him a collage she made of newspaper articles about his police career.

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Kowalski suspects that Super Soul’s broadcast is now being directed by the police to entrap him. Confirming that the police are indeed waiting at the border, Angel helps Kowalski get through the roadblock with the help of an old air raid siren and a small motorbike with a red headlight strapped to the top of the Challenger, simulating a police car. Kowalski finally reaches California by Saturday 7:12 pm. He calls Jake the dealer from a payphone to reassure him that he still intends to deliver the car on Monday.

On Sunday morning, California police, who have been tracking Kowalski’s movements on an electronic wall-map, set up a roadblock with two bulldozers in the small town of Cisco, where Kowalski will be passing. A small crowd gathers at the roadblock. As Kowalski approaches at high speed, he smiles as he crashes into the bulldozers in a fiery explosion. As firemen work to put out the flames, the crowd slowly disperses.

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A great ’70s movie

7 March 2006 | by mikey_editor (Paris) – See all my reviews

This is the essential 1970s anti-hero movie. It is not supposed to make sense and I have often wondered if it were not meant to be someone’s psychedelic dream. Nudity when nudity would not seem to fit; bad cops; beaten people out of sync with plot line. Sounds like a trip. The cast is excellent and this is one of Cleavon Little’s last main roles as well as the last main role for the early love interest. John Amos is so underplayed he is almost unrecognizable, I’d love to see his commentary on the movie. And one guy is so ripping off James Dean (though as a racist) that it is unintentionally funny. I’d recommend it as an addition to any American tape library. A true cult classic.

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A Dirge For A Dying America

10/10
Author: AdamKey (teslaman62@yahoo.com) from San Diego, Calif., USA
21 February 2004

Richard Sarafian’s 1971 film “Vanishing Point” is, for starters, a fascinating study of those persons anthropologists sometimes term “marginal men”–individuals caught between two powerful and competing cultures, sharing some important aspects of both but not a true part of either, and, as such, remain tragically confined to an often-painful existential loneliness. Inhabiting a sort of twilight zone between “here” and “there,” a sort of peculiar purgatory, these restless specters cannot find any peace or place, so they instead instinctively press madly on to some obscure and unknown destination, the relentless journey itself being the only reason and justification.

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Disc jockey Super Soul (Cleavon Little) and delivery driver Kowalski (Barry Newman) are two of these specters, marginal but decent, intelligent men who can’t or won’t live in burgeoning competing cultures which in reality have offered them very little of worth or substance, despite their own personal sacrifices. Kowalski himself had tried to “fit in” with the Establishment as a soldier and police officer and later, attempted to do the same with the blossoming 1960s counterculture, but soon disappointingly found that they both were ridden with their own various forms of dishonesty and insincerity. Personal honor, self-reliance and genuine respect–Kowalski’s stock in trade–were tragically valued very little by either, despite each one’s shrill and haughty claims to the contrary.

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Moreover, it’s no accident Newman’s character has a Polish surname; the Poles throughout their history have created a very rich and unique Slavic culture largely based upon just such a “marginality”–being geographically jammed between powerful historic enemies, Germany and Russia, and never being able to fully identify with either one, at often great cost to themselves. It’s also no accident Little’s character is blind and black, the only one of his kind in a small, all-Caucasian western desert town–his sightlessness enhancing his persuasiveness and his ability to read Kowalski’s mind, the radio microphone his voice, his race being the focus of long simmering and later suddenly explosive disdain–all of the characteristics of a far-seeing prophet unjustly (but typically) dishonored in his own land.

The desert environment also plays a key role in cementing the personal relationship between and respective fates of these two men–to paraphrase British novelist J.G. Ballard, prophets throughout our history have emerged from deserts of some sort since deserts have, in a sense, exhausted their own futures (like Kowalski himself had already done) and thus are free of the concepts of time and existence as we have conventionally known them (as Super Soul instinctively knew, thus creating his own psychic link to the doomed driver.) Everything is somehow possible, and yet, somehow nothing is.

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Finally, VP is also a “fin de siecle” story, a unique requiem for a quickly dying age- a now all-but-disappeared one of truly open roads, endless speed for the joy of speed’s sake, of big, solid no-nonsense muscle cars, of taking radical chances, of living on the edge in a colorful world of endless possibility, seasoned with a large number and wide variety of all sorts of unusual characters, all of which had long made the USA a wonderful place–and sadly is no longer, having been supplanted by today’s swarms of sadistic, military-weaponed cop-thugs, obsessive and intrusive safety freaks, soulless toll plazas, smug yuppie SUV drivers, tedious carbon-copy latte towns, and a childish craving for perfect, high-fuel-efficiency safety and security.

The just-issued DVD contains both the US and UK releases of the film; the UK release, I believe, is a much more satisfying film, as it has the original scenes deleted from the US version. As an aside, Super Soul’s radio station call letters, KOW, are in fact the ones for a country & western station in San Diego.

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The road can work on your mind.

Author: L_Miller from United States
8 July 1999

Kowalski transports cars across the western US in 1970. He gets a gig transporting a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from Denver to San Francisco and sets out at maximum warp, stopping only for gas and strategy. He commits no crime outside of speeding, and fleeing the cops who are trying to stop him simply because he will not stop. He finds allies along the way, including an old prospector, a DJ named Super Soul, and a hippie who seems to me to be an alternate ending to the life of Peter Fonda’s character Wyatt in “Easy Rider”. He drives and drives and drives until he meets his destiny in a tiny town on the California-Nevada border at 10:04 AM on some unnamed Sunday.

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Why? Is it because of his past; ex-cop, ex-racer, tragically bereaved? Is it because of the truckload of speed he takes at the beginning of the movie (draw your own metaphors between Kowalski’s internal use of the noun and external use of the verb)?

Or is it the road, the infinite expanses of the Southwest, the silence, the freedom, the sound of the motor surging, the tires spinning, the wheels gobbling up and sitting out the black asphalt? Who knows? Kowalski seems indifferent as to why he drives, only that he must drive, must evade, must get to where he is going and will not – can not – be stopped.

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Do yourself a favor. Rent the original, don’t see the ’97 made for TV movie (it has some high points, but it’s like watching the ’99 “Psycho” before seeing the Alfred Hitchcock original). In fact, rent this and “Two Lane Blacktop” from Monte Hellman, and “Mad Max” and/or “The Road Warrior”. Watch all of them in as close to one sitting as you can get.

If after watching these movies, you don’t understand how they’re expressions of the same call to the open road, return them and give up. Not everyone was meant to hear it, just like not everyone has perfect pitch or the ability to wiggle their ears.

This movie drove me (pun intended) to take the handle kowalski and buy a Challenger of my own (flame red, 1973, you see the 1970 R/Ts are very hard to get).

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It probably won’t do the same for you, but if you’ve ever been driving down the open road and wondered what would happen if you _didn’t_ get off at the next exchange, in fact if you never got off at all, then this film is for you.

And I hope the next ignoramus who compares this masterful film to “The Dukes of Hazzard” loses his brakes and plows into a line of parked Harleys outside some bar with a name like Whiskey Junction or the Dew Drop Inn.

Soul challenger

Author: pullgees
15 October 2003

The best road movie ever made. To appreciate it you have got to try and see it from the culture of that era. It is totally anti establishment as was the mood of half of America. So the police are all idiots, the ‘good ol boys’ are either violent rednecks or passive disapproving onlookers. Kowalski is going to give those mid west conservatives something they won’t forget, he’s going to shake things up for a day or two.

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Kowalski is simply the symbol of the many disenfranchised at the time. The story starts at the end. We hear a boring stifling radio news item on the price of grain. We see dreary looking bystanders who need to be turned on. Then Super Soul takes over the airwaves with his wild DJ antics and hippy music trying to jolt these people out of their fixed ways. The old and the new are clashing. This sets the mood we know from then it is rebellious. Other aspects the stunts the music the characters have been well covered below so there is no need to say more on that. Some have said that there is no point to this story or Kowalski’s motives and have interpreted the title meaning that. But all a vanishing point is an artist name for the phenomena of perspective where two parallel lines seemingly meet and in the long straight roads of the journey we see plenty of vanishing points.

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The car

According to Sarafian, it was Zanuck who came up with the idea of using the new 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. He wanted to do Chrysler a favor for their long-time practice of providing 20th Century Fox with cars on a rental basis for only a dollar a day. Many of the other cars featured in the film are also Chrysler products. Stunt Coordinator Carey Loftin said he requested the Dodge Challenger because of the “quality of the torsion bar suspension and for its horsepower” and felt that it was “a real sturdy, good running car.”

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Five Alpine White Dodge Challenger R/Ts were lent to the production by Chrysler for promotional consideration and were returned upon completion of filming. Four cars had 440 engines equipped with four-speeds; the fifth car was a 383 with automatic. No special equipment was added or modifications made to the cars, except for heavier-duty shock absorbers for the car that jumped over No Name Creek.The Challengers were prepared and maintained for the movie by Max Balchowsky, who also prepared the Mustangs and Chargers for Bullitt (1968). The cars performed to Loftin’s satisfaction, although dust came to be a problem. None of the engines were blown. Loftin remembers that parts were taken out of one car to repair another because they “really ruined a couple of those cars” while jumping ramps between highways and over creeks. Newman remembers that the 440 engines in the cars were so powerful that “it was almost as if there was too much power for the body. You’d put it in first and it would almost rear back!”The Challengers appear in the film with Colorado plates OA-5599.

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Filming

Principal photography began in the summer of 1970 with a planned shooting schedule of 60 days.  Financial troubles plaguing the studio at the time forced Zanuck to shorten Sarafian’s shooting schedule by 22 days. In response, the director decided not to film certain scenes rather than rush through the rest of the shoot. An average day of filming involved the actors and the crew of 19 men spending many hours traveling to the remote locations, shooting for an extended period of time and then looking for a motel to spend the night.  The shoot had a few mishaps, including Newman driving a Challenger equipped with three cameras into the bushes in order to avoid a head-on collision when a “civilian” driver ignored the traffic blocks installed to ensure the safety of the crew.

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The film’s cinematographer John Alonzo used light-weight Arriflex II cameras that offered a great deal of flexibility in terms of free movement. Close-up and medium shots were achieved by mounting cameras directly on the vehicles instead of the common practice of filming the drivers from a tow that drove ahead of the targeted vehicle. To convey the appearance of speed, the filmmakers slowed the film rate of the cameras. For example, in the scenes with the Challenger and the Jaguar, the camera’s film rate was slowed to half speed. The cars were traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) but when projected at normal frame rate, they appeared to be moving much faster.

Vanishing Point was filmed on location in the American Southwest in the states of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.

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