Although I’ve never really grooved to this particular counterculture artifact, as many friends who dig the same cinematic era have, all it takes to explain the appeal of Vanishing Point is to describe the close parallel between the film’s minimalistic storyline and prevailing early-’70s social concerns. Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a drifter who makes his living delivering cars across long distances. After accepting a job to ferry a hot rod from Denver to San Francisco, Kowalski jacks himself up on speed and blasts down open highways with legions of cops in pursuit. Meanwhile, an enigmatic, blind radio DJ going by the handle “Super Soul” (Cleavon Little) narrates Kowalski’s journey for his listeners, framing the driver’s ride as a principled fight against the Establishment. The sympathetic reading of this material, of course, is that Kowalski just wants to be free, man, so when society tries to trap him with laws and rules and speed limits, he strikes a rebellious blow on behalf of rugged independence. And if you can’t anticipate how a story comprising these elements will end, then you haven’t seen too many counterculture flicks—as the song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Viewed as historically relevant symbolism, Vanishing Point is interesting, because it presents a lone-wolf protagonist whose existence comprises nothing but early-’70s signifiers: He’s an alienated Vietnam vet, he self-medicates with illegal drugs, and he’s determined to force a confrontation with what he perceives to be the oppressive forces of law and order. Heavy shit, no question. It seems safe to say that writers Guillermo Cain, Barry Hall, and Malcolm Hart—as well as director Richard C. Sarafian—deliberately infused their story with of-the-moment dimensions.
But very much like another existentialist road movie of the same vintage, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vanishing Point plays an iffy game by using ciphers instead of fully realized characters. For instance, certain conventional narrative elements, such as backstory and well-articulated motivation, are largely absent from Vanishing Point. So, even though Vanishing Point provides ample fodder for post-movie interpretation games, the actual onscreen events are repetitive and superficial. It doesn’t help that Newman, who enjoyed a very brief run as a leading man in movies and television, is a bland persona. (Conversely, Little exudes casual-cool charisma and delivers his on-air monologues with smooth style.) It also says a lot that many Vanishing Point fans dig the movie because they’re entranced by the Dodge Challenger muscle car that Newman drives in the movie. After all, the Challenger has the film’s most fully rendered characterization—especially compared to the cringe-worthy portrayals of two gay hitchhikers whom the hero encounters.
Vanishing Point: FUNKY