Vanishing Point is about to disappear. Released in 1971, it is 50 years old this year. But it’s not celebrated with special screenings in arthouse theaters or a re-release as the newly remastered “Special Edition” Blu-ray – and that has a Blu-ray player anyway. ray? It’s not on Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Max. And you can’t download it from iTunes. It’s a movie that generations of muscle maniacs, Mopar addicts, and people who have cared for writing careers have grown up loving. And now it’s fading.
If you yourself are under 50, you may never have seen it. Less than 40? You may never have even heard of it. If you’re under 20, it’s probably too much of the 20th century for your 21st century psyche to catch.
This is a loner driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R / T from Denver to San Francisco as fast as possible. Why? No real reason. He’s a former cop. He is a former racing driver and a former motorcycle driver. It was a Vietnam veteran who won the Medal of Honor. He is now all excited on Benzedrine. But despite the high-profile concerts, none of the cops chasing him can find out his first name. We know him as Kowalski.
Vanishing Point was purely counter-cultural. Not just because the screenplay was written by a certain Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a former Cuban revolutionary who, in a single lifetime, was director of the Instituto del Cine under Castro and received the Premio Cervantes from King Juan Carlos from Spain. Not just in the sense that he had hippie sensibilities, but because he mixed pro-drug sensibilities, pro-nudity visuals, half-ass nihilism, and existential nonsense with a muscle car, that would help make iconic. And not just “iconic” in the way automotive writers talk about crappy SUVs and any Porsches, but as a symbol of a moment in time that was already passing. Automobile culture was itself counter-cultural at the time.
It’s midnight in Denver and the hero wants to get to “Frisco” by 3:00 pm the next afternoon. “Yeah, he’s gone over 160,” Kowalski told his friend who gave him a handful of speed on the bona fide credit.
“But even so,” says the supplier of recreational narcotics, “you can’t do it.”
Kowalski is more confident. “Tell you what I’m going to do with you,” he said, before proposing, “I’m going to bet you the bill for the bennies I’m going to be in Frisco and call you at 3pm tomorrow afternoon. I don’t, double the price next time. That’s what amounted to the plot.
I was nine, my brother was still eight, when Vanishing Point created. So the references to drugs went way over our heads. But back then, entertainment meant going to the movies for a double feature, and it seemed like Vanishing Point was always the second characteristic. What stayed with us was the sight and sounds of this tough driven Challenger. And, of course, nudity.
Gilda Texter cruising the desert in a Honda 350 wearing nothing but sandals? Indelible. First naked woman I have ever seen.
Critics weren’t won over by Vanishing Point. “So many silly movies have been saved by an exciting car chase in the last few minutes – why not make a silly movie that is nothing but a car chase? Critic Roger Greenspun wrote in the New York Times. “And that may be a foolproof idea. At least that’s one way of explaining my enjoyment in Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, a movie I can’t think of a few good things to say about.
Vanishing Point that’s not what made me addicted to cars. But it was a powerful reinforcement. It was the end of the muscle car era. Insurance companies were cracking down on high-performance machines, manufacturers giving up claiming their power, and less than a year had passed after a devastating oil spill brought Earth Day one. Fuck it, my prepubescent mind thought in the midst of a whole culture that now hated cars. ” I like cars. And Vanishing Point play Granada with Billy Jack. Let’s go see that again.
Watch my DVD copy of Vanishing Point, the occasional gays disparagement and stereotyping is what makes me cringe. And now that I have the references to drugs, I have seen too many lives destroyed by addiction to take it lightly. Barry Newman looks appropriate as Kowalski, and the great Cleavon Little is awesome as DJ Super Soul, his on-air radio guide. But what’s clearly still impressive is the stunt driven by the truly legendary – because there are real legends about her – Carey Loftin. And there’s an amazing soundtrack that features Jerry Reed’s guitar virtuoso on “Welcome To Nevada” and Jimmy Walker’s killer voice on “Where Do We Go From Here”. The cinematography is pretty good too. But it’s not a great movie by far.
I am a little melancholy for my youth, which has now disappeared. And Vanishing Point was part of that. It’s still available on Amazon Blu-ray and is worth buying if you don’t already have it. But I am a little sad that his golden anniversary goes so unnoticed, so little celebrated. If the film hadn’t caught some of the zeitgeist, it’s hard to believe that Chrysler could have brought the Challenger back to 13 / 10th scale in 2008. Or that muscle cars would have the resonance they still have while the baby boomers are heading towards 70, or 80, and oblivion.
There have been tributes to Vanishing Point over the years. There was a 1997 TV remake that really sucked. Audioslave made an inspired video for their 2004 song “Show Me How To Live” which incorporated music videos. And Quentin Tarantino gushed out of the film in his 2007 Proof of death part of Mill. But even these references age and become less and less relevant.
Vanishing Pointtime is up. It is the nature of things. Still, if I’m following the company’s plot correctly, the rights to the film should be somewhere inside the Disney mausoleum. It might still be too raw for Disney +, but come on. Ditch it to HBO or TCM and have Ben Mankiewicz do one of these tongue-in-cheek wraps to celebrate it for a few minutes. It’s a film that meant a lot to many of us.
Please pass it on to us old folks.
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