Vanishing Point (1971)

Rating: **
Review Date: 5/28/07
Cast: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little

If anything good can be said about Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" (2006), it's that it brought my attention to this nihilistic cult classic of the 70's. Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a Vietnam vet, ex-police officer, and former professional race car driver. Hopped up on speed, he attempts to drive a super-charged 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. Along the way he meets a strange prospector in the Nevada desert, a freaky religious cult, a couple of homosexual bandits, and a nude girl on a motorcycle. He also receives guidance on the radio from a blind DJ (Cleavon Little) who monitors the chase by tapping into the police radio frequency. Kowalski's motivation is never clear, but the film is peppered with brief flashbacks into his former life and lost loves. Despite his rash and self destructive behavior, he's a quiet and polite man who always stops to make sure his defeated pursuers aren't seriously hurt. The chase becomes increasingly desperate, and only at the very end do his eyes light up with satisfaction as he reaches his final destination.

You've got to love those 70's muscle cars - raw, untamed beasts of steel, tearing up the road and anything in their way. The photography is excellent, but often surreal, and the film creates an excellent sensation of speed. The chase sequences aren't overly complicated, but they capture a tangible sense of tension and danger due to the fact that the vehicles are just barely out of control. An excellent slice of 70's life and culture, with real cars, real drivers, real crashes, real danger, and real speed. The desolate expanse of god-forsaken highway between Colorado and California makes an excellent setting and recalls a great sense of nostalgia for those simpler times. The plot is next to nothing and marvelous in its single-minded simplicity. Smarter viewers can probably divine all sorts of symbolism from the film, whereas I was just baffled by hippie logic most of the time. The utterly joyless climax only serves to confirm the pointlessness of the entire film and Kowalski's own sense of hopelessness and loss.