Vanishing Point caters to car nuts and existentialists alike

Vanishing Point caters to car nuts and existentialists alike

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Fast & Furious 6 inspires us to look back on other vehicular action movies.

Vanishing Point (1971)
Fans of Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point seem to split into two camps: Those who see his movie, about a lone muscle-car driver (Barry Newman) dodging roadblocks on his way into legend, as an existential parable about social rebellion; and those engaged in fierce debate over whether the driver’s 1970 Dodge Challenger has a hemi under the hood. Fortunately, Vanishing Point offers plenty for admirers of both burning rubber and philosophical inquiries. If you love both, well, you’ve found your brand.

Working from a script by the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who also wrote criticism under the name G. Cain—see his essential collection A Twentieth Century Job), Sarafian offers little to explain his protagonist’s flight, though prismatic flashbacks detail a series of disillusionments with authority figures and intimate connections. He is as he does, and what he does is go, fast. His journey becomes an end in itself, ultimately doomed but inspiring others, with a blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) spreading his gospel. In practical terms, Vanishing Point owes its existence to Easy Rider, whose box-office success made vaguely countercultural road movies seem, briefly, like good bets. But even more than the drag-racing heroes of Monte Hellman’s contemporaneous Two-Lane Blacktop, Newman is an island unto himself. He’s not part of a movement; he is movement.

Vanishing Point’s action sequences have aged better than its a-man-against-The-Man theme, which feels more pasted-on than Two-Lane’s bone-deep isolation; not for nothing did Quentin Tarantino build Death Proof around an explicit homage to Newman’s iconic vehicle. In a way, Vanishing Point embodies the code by which its protagonist lives: Never slow down, and never get out of the driver’s seat.

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