This month I watched the 1971 car chase movie Vanishing Point. Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a former race car driver, now working as a car delivery man, who is tasked with delivering a white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco. While scoring Benzedrine pills to stay awake for the trip, Kowalski makes a bet with his drug dealer Jake (Lee Weaver) that he can make the 1,200 mile trip by the next day. However, Kowalski’s high speed driving catches the attention of the authorities and the driver must spend the rest of his journey into California avoiding them, all while receiving sage advise from the blind radio DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little).
I would guess that many people these days are familiar with Vanishing Point from how Quentin Tarantino frequently references the film in 2007’s Death Proof, complete with that film’s climatic chase scene featuring a similar white 1970 Dodge Challenger. In some ways, Tarantino’s love of Vanishing Point sort of built up the film too much for me. Finally watching the film, Vanishing Point has a very basic story, with practically the entire plot being one long car chase. While the film does utilize a number of flashbacks to fill-in Kowalski’s backstory somewhat, the bulk of the film is just him driving down the roads of the American Southwest, meeting a number of interesting individuals along the way.
I watched the UK cut of Vanishing Point, which is about seven minutes long than the cut released in North America. The only real difference between the two cuts of the film is a sequence featuring Charlotte Rampling as a mysterious hitchhiker Kowalski picks up near the end of the film. While the scene’s inclusion ultimately doesn’t add too much to the film, it does give a bit more of a allegorical feeling to the film.
I have to say that I was quite disappointed from the soundtrack for Vanishing Point. While the film does feature a handful of rock numbers, such as Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” many of the musical choices are banjo-heavy bluegrass numbers, which makes it almost seem like I am watching The Dukes of Hazzard, which is ironic since that show didn’t start until 1979.
Throughout the course of Vanishing Point, Kowalski is dubbed “the last American Hero” by the sage radio DJ Super Soul. There is no real explanation given for why Kowalski turned a simple delivery job into a cross-country joyride and that is ultimately not all that important. While Vanishing Point is a quite tame action film by today’s standards, it cannot be denied that the white car on the horizon is an iconic cinematic image.