Movie still from 1971's "Vanishing Point."

Vanishing Point        

But being that it’s not much more than a showcasing of one man’s decision to essentially drive himself to death (leading, predictably, to a high speed chase down the barren west coast), there comes a moment during which the film in question becomes tiresome. Not because audacious sequences that see our hero face against determined cops on the road get old. But because the film’s writers, Guillermo Cain and Barry Hall, seem so worried about churning out redundant cinematic product that they needlessly beckon in boring dramatic detours which hardly match the movie’s more action-packed scenes.

 

What they don’t realize is that Vanishing Point could be plenty fun if it were straightforwardly a road movie and maybe even somewhere north of 80 minutes. The film is too fat for a feature that could more successfully ride on its taut, economic origins.

 

It stars Barry Newman as Kowalski, an unstable, pill-popping delivery driver cum former cop disillusioned by the recent death of his longtime love and by the pessimism  of a post-Woodstock United States. He’s been self-destructing for years, actively looking for ways to challenge his own limits and the limits of those closest to him.  He’s so emotionally numb he seems famished for something by way of feeling.

 

In Vanishing Point, it’s as if he’s angling for death. In the film’s first moments, he’s just coming back from a job. It’s Friday night, and he’s been driving incessantly. His eyelids are heavy. But, looking for a thrill, he demands he immediately start his next job, which is the delivering of a pearly white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum to San Francisco.  The vehicle doesn’t have to be in the area until Monday. He’s in Colorado, after all, and none of his cohorts expect him to emulate a NASCAR legend.

 

But Kowalski, so high off pills, bets the dealer who gives him those pills that he can get the car to California by Saturday afternoon.  No one supports his aspirations.  But there’s no stopping our protagonist — his need for an adrenaline fix is too great for him to alienate.

 

And so begins a long journey that’s doubtlessly not going to end so well: haphazard thrill-seeking was never healthy anyway. Sometimes, the journey set in motion is intoxicating, moments primarily focused on Kowalski’s being chased by law enforcement officials heart-stopping.  But other times — and most of the time — is the film strangely ponderous for one that’s so good when it’s scrappy. Cain and Hall put attention onto a few too many unexciting pit stops, from Kowalski’s running into a commune in the middle of a desert to his picking up of a glamorous hitchhiker (Charlotte Rampling).

 

There is some intrigue to be found — Gilda Texter’s appearance as a nude motorcyclist is an appealing eyeful, and the comedic sequence revolving around a pair of thuggish, gay hitchhikers trying to take advantage of our hero work to the film’s more gonzo elements.  But there are too many moments in Vanishing Point in which momentum is lost thanks to laborious interludes.

 

But the movie still does a lot of things well. It is a conclusive example of the wonders of filmmaking done on a wing and a prayer (it was shot in a mere 22 days), and is a testament of just how effective a well-done staging of a car chase can be. It is also a showcase for Barry Newman’s quiet performative aptitude — he’s a nice change from the ultra-masculine charisma of other action heroes of the time. How nice it would be, then, if Vanishing Point were as convincing as its leading performer’s characterization or its general conception. C+

DIRECTED BY

Richard C. Sarafian

 

STARRING

Barry Newman

Dean Jagger

Cleavon Little

Victoria Medlin

Gilda Texter

Charlotte Rampling

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

1971

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 38 Mins.

June 10, 2017

M

uch as I take to the fact that the heroines of Quentin Tarantino’s car movie homage Death Proof (2007) are so obsessed with 1971’s Vanishing Point that they, at one point, steal and then race the car allegedly driven by its protagonist, I can’t as easily get behind the movie serving as the foundation underneath all their desires. It’s cynical and it’s tough and it’s fast and, most importantly, serves a hearty helping of action set pieces.